The Notre Dame Fighting Irish keep pushing forward in an effort to stay in contention for a college football playoff berth. While that path continues to narrow, Brian Kelly and his squad have no other option than to keep winning, as they did in the wild 44-34 shootout over North Carolina. In this game, they’ll renew their rivalry against the Navy Midshipmen, which was sidelined last season due to the ongoing pandemic.
Navy is Currently struggling with a 2-6 record under longtime head coach Ken Niumatalolo, whose first full year dates back to 2008. While he’s compiled a 103-73 career record, Navy is heading for their third losing season in the past four campaigns. The Midshipmen are coming off a 20-17 comeback win on the road over Tulsa and are seeking to begin a winning streak for the first time in 2021.
Below are some of the key matchups to look for on Saturday afternoon:
QB Jack Coan vs. Navy Defense
In the North Carolina victory, Coan had a relatively quiet night, largely due to Kyren Williams‘ monster effort. He’s been getting better protection and actually displayed enough footwork to run for a 21-yard score against Carolina. It’s become standard that Tyler Buchner makes a few cameos, but as long as Coan continues to move the ball and limit his mistakes, he’ll remain the starter.
Opposing teams have averaged 30 points a game against Navy, with the Midshipmen vulnerable when it comes to both the pass and run. Generally, those opponents have managed to exploit holes in one area during a game. That could mean that the recent resurgence of the Irish running game will help serve as a battering ram. Either that or Coan will take advantage of the talent among his receivers to pick up yardage.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Tai Lavatai
Hoping for better results after struggling to deal with North Carolina’s potent passing game, the Irish also need to contend with breakdowns on the rush defense. That area allowed a pair of lengthy runs for scores. Navy will seek to pound away with their runners, so shutting them down or at least limiting any damage will undoubtedly point to a Notre Dame victory.
As with every recent Navy offense, the team’s quarterback relies heavily on the running game to move the ball. In this case, Tai Lavatai is the signal-caller who’s rushed for 242 yards and five touchdowns. He’s only put the ball in the air 40 times this season, sitting out two games earlier this year because of injury. After returning, he then led them to their only other victory, also by a comeback in the 34-30 win over UCF.
MLB Drew White vs. RB Isaac Ruoss
White’s valuable leadership remains a subtle Notre Dame asset, with his consistent numbers representing a steady hand. Still, while he ended up with a sack against North Carolina, he can’t be too happy about the Irish allowing their second-highest point total of the year.
A total of 15 different Navy runners have carried the ball this season, with fullback Isaac Ruoss gaining the most yardage. He’s collected 437 yards and scored twice on the ground. He didn’t take the field last year but is a smart player who doesn’t put up big numbers, though he figures to be called on frequently on Saturday.
RB Kyren Williams vs. MLB Diego Fagot
Williams keeps getting better as he comes off a 202-yard rushing effort against North Carolina and will look for another big effort against Navy. Additionally, he’s a threat as a receiver and also displayed his return capabilities last Saturday. He’ll have to do battle with the Midshipmen’s top defender to accomplish that task.
Fagot is once again the centerpiece of the Navy defense, leading the team with 71 tackles, including 10 stops from behind the line of scrimmage. His numbers are similar to his output in 2019 when he first made his presence felt as a MIdshipmen defender. Keeping him out of the backfield and away from Williams would help open plenty of doors.
OT Josh Lugg/Joe Alt vs. OLB Johnny Hodges
Lugg has been the most consistent offensive lineman on a unit that continues to improve as they establish the necessary chemistry. On the other side, Alt’s rapid emergence as a true freshman could help solidify the important left tackle slot for the next few years. That means he needs to continue delivering as a massive presence upfront.
Hodges serves as Navy’s weakside linebacker and will spend the afternoon either trying to bring Coan down or dropping back into pass coverage. His one sack on the year came from the blindside, while he also leads the Midshipmen during the 2021 campaign with four pass breakups.