A buddy of mine sent me an email the other day, asking how worried I was for this weekends matchup. To answer that, I consulted my Navy handbook of worriedness.
Is Navy competent? This season, the answer is yes. It doesn’t much matter if they are ranked or not, that’s just the nature of their record, and this season their record is very good. There is some argument to be made whether the record in inflated based on their competition, but 7-1 means they are a good and competent team. And those two factors mean the offense is clicking, which lends itself to a pretty high level of concern.
The second relevant question is how powerful is the Notre Dame offense? If they are high powered and explosive, the concern is alleviated some. Figure Navy is always good for at least 21 points, so if they can be outscored then their quirkiness on offense is mitigated. But, Notre Dame doesn’t really have a high powered offense this season, and they’ve had a penchant for throwing possessions in the garbage with three and outs–they had multiple against Virginia Tech and opened the game against Duke with one.
So, a competent Navy team combined with an offense that hasn’t been a staple of efficiency means there is good reason to be concerned. Odds are, it’ll be a close game. One way to take away the advantage of Navy bleeding the clock is to keep them from having the ball, and that means changing the way Notre Dame approaches the game offensively and defensively.
Go For It On 4th Down Most Of The Time
Something we’ve all certainly noticed when we play the Middies is they are constantly going for it on 4th down. Since 2010, Navy has gone for it on 4th down 29 times, converting 18 of those. In the same time frame, Notre Dame has gone for 10 times, successful on eight. Since 2015, the numbers are 14-18 Navy, 6-6 Notre Dame. That is eight more times over the last four seasons that Navy has kept the ball instead of giving it back to the Irish or attempting a field goal. Navy knows the best way to keep Notre Dame from killing them offensively is to not allow them to have the ball, and Notre Dame needs to think the same way.
Is it 4th and 10 from the 50? Go for it. Is it 4th and 4 from your own 40? Go for it. Stop giving them the ball back, especially with longer fields. This is a good Navy offense, it’s unlikely Notre Dame is going to shut them down completely, which means the longer they have to move the ball, the longer they’ll possess the ball which means you aren’t playing offense.
Notre Dame possessed the ball more than Navy did last season, a 44-22 victory, and it may not be a coincidence that they matched them in 4th down attempts at three. In 2017? Navy possessed the ball for 41 minutes to Notre Dame’s 18. 4th down conversion attempts in that one were six for Navy, none for Notre Dame. And that wasn’t even a good Navy team. Notre Dame eked out a victory, but they didn’t need to given their 6.4 yards per play to Navy’s 4.0.
Stop. Punting. To. Navy.
That’s what they want. They want you voluntarily give it to them so they can burn eight minutes off the clock on a touchdown drive. So don’t do it. Value the ball and possession just as much as they do. Go for it when you are in doubt. Treat every drive like you have four downs to get 10, not just three. Do the thing they don’t want, which is keep the ball away from them.
Don’t Be Afraid Of Big Plays On Defense
Normally, this is the opposite of what you’d think as a defense. Big plays are a big no-no defensively. You want to make the offense work for everything. But, that’s when you’re not playing a team like Navy, when you could conceivably get 7-8 possessions in a game. Four yards at a time is just fine for them.
Above I talked about possessing the ball. To possess it, you have to get it and to get it you need to get Navy off the field on offense. Novel concept, I know. But, for a team where four yards on first down means it’s basically 1st and six, you need to get them for no gains or going backward. To do that, the defense has to be aggressive, which naturally leads to some vulnerabilities in the back. But, that’s ok because a 20 yard gash followed by a loss of 4 is the way to get the ball away from Navy. Bend but don’t break is how Navy wants to play the game. Take the fight to them, let them have to adjust to our pressure, instead of us reacting to their option. Put it on your players to make the plays.
Stops and possessions, that’s the way to beat Navy consistently. And to do it, Notre Dame has to be aggressive on both offense and defense. If they are reacting to Navy, that’s how they get beaten. Make Navy react to you and you’re taking the fight to them, just what an underdog doesn’t want. Navy doesn’t treat this like a conventional game, so neither should we.