For their final road game of the 2022 regular season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish heads to Baltimore to face the Navy Midshipmen. Prior to the cancelation of the 2020 game, the two programs had met every year since 1927, with the Irish holding a commanding 80-13-1 lead in the series.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo is ready for his 15th season with the Midshipmen. He’s hoping to end the recent struggles that have seen three of his last four teams end the year with losing records. The disappointing 4-8 season last year ended on a positive note with a 17-13 win over archrival Army.
Navy Offense: Running as Always
Despite the struggles, shifting away from the traditional run-dominated offense isn’t in the plans. Back at quarterback for the Midshipmen will be Tai Lavatai, who took hold of the job early last season and led Navy to three wins over the final five contests.
Lavatai ended 2021 with 371 yards rushing and seven touchdowns, numbers that will likely take a jump this year. A key reason for that projection is because of the departures that now have a number of Navy players with either limited or no game experience now in the lineup. Kai Puailoa-Rojas toted the ball just 77 times last year, with Vincent Terrell or Maquel Haywood also seen as being potential contributors in the triple-option attack.
It won’t happen often, but if Lavatai does have to go to the air, he’s likely to throw in the general direction of either Mark Walker or Jayden Umbarger. The two wideouts won’t offer much in the way of deep threats after combining for just 13 catches last year. Umbarger could be a threat on reverses if he’s fully recovered from his spring injury.
On the offensive line, right tackle Kip Frankland and left guard Joshua Pena have the most experience of the four likely starters. Guard Lirion Murtezi will be joining Frankland on the right side, with Jamie Romo set to join Pena on the other side. Center David Hixon is currently penciled in at center after not seeing any action last year.
Navy Defense: Trying to Stay on a Healthy Path
Injuries dealt a severe blow to Navy’s hopes of bouncing back last year, though the problem did bring something of a silver lining. That’s because a number of younger players or newcomers were able to get their feet wet and will look to build on that experience this season.
On the line, end Jacob Busic and tackle Clay Cromwell know how to get into enemy backfields, as does Nicholas Straw from the Raider position. At nose tackle, Donald Berniard finished with 23 tackles last season. One cause for concern in this department, especially after last season’s problems with staying healthy, is that the depth simply is lacking entering camp.
The linebacking corps has to fill the gaping hole left by the departure of Diego Fagot, a frequent visitor to enemy backfields during his final three seasons. However, the cupboard in this area isn’t empty as Will Harbour is back in the middle after dealing with the aforementioned injuries. On the weak side, Colin Ramos enters the year as the starter, with the Striker spot handled by John Marshall, an excellent athlete who was a wide receiver in high school.
Mbiti Williams and Matthew Peters are raw talents who will start at cornerback, which could make them prime targets for the Midshipmen’s more pass-oriented opponents. The safety spots have a higher comfort level because of the presence of Rayuan Lane and Eavan Gibbons, who established some chemistry during the latter half of the 2021 season.
Navy Special Teams: Removing the Glitches
No changes are in store when it comes to placekicking or punting for Navy. Kicker Bijan Nicols was virtually automatic within the 40-yard line, though last year’s coverage did give up a touchdown return. Punter Riley Riethman has a booming leg, but he also fell victim to a return touchdown as well as a block and a bad snap. Among the Midshipmen’s return men, Haywood will again handle kickoffs and hopes to take another one to the house, with Amon Hassan handling punts.
The Last Time Notre Dame Faced Navy
Last November, a slow start that kept the Irish scoreless for the first 20 minutes eventually resulted in a 34-6 Notre Dame win. A key play came on a Jack Coan to Kevin Austin scoring toss in the final minute before halftime, with the Notre Dame defense limiting their foes to two field goals while picking up their fourth straight win.