Far from the Golden Dome, the 2023 edition of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish get their season underway in Dublin, Ireland on Saturday. Their opponent will be the Navy Midshipmen in a matchup that’s taken place virtually every year since 1927. The Irish hold a commanding lead in the series and hope to match their last trip to Ireland in 2012: a 50-10 rout of the Midshipmen.
Navy will have a different look on the sidelines in the form of new head coach Brian Newberry. He was elevated to the top job after the departure of Ken Niumatalolo, but will keep the school’s bread-and-butter offense of running the ball. The Irish’s chief goal in this contest is to avoid a repeat of last year’s dismal start to their 9-4 season.
Below are some looks at some of Saturday’s key matchups:
QB Sam Hartman vs. Navy Defense
Hartman’s performance in his Irish debut will no doubt be closely watched and then dissected afterward. The Wake Forest transfer arrives after throwing for nearly 8,000 yards and 77 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’s got a strong arm and is mobile enough to keep defenses on their toes.
Navy’s opponents largely went to the air last year, due to the Midshipmen’s allowing just 3.0 yards per carry on the ground. On four occasions, those foes scored 35 points or more, including Notre Dame. In the last four meetings between the two rivals, the Irish have averaged just over 41 points per game, a number that could be topped on Saturday.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Blake Horvath/Tai Lavatai
The Irish, like all schools, had holes to replace key personnel like Isaiah Foskey. There’s an infusion of transfers to help in that cause, though whoever is on the field needs to stop last year’s late bleeding that saw Notre Dame allow 108 points in the final three games away from home. In their near-collapse against Navy, it was ironically the Midshipmen’s passing numbers that nearly sank the Irish.
The most recent intel from Navy is that Notre Dame should prepare for two different quarterbacks on Saturday, with Blake Horvath and Tai Lavatai handling those duties. Horvath is more of a passing threat between the duo, though he’s yet to take a snap at the collegiate level. Lavatai’s season came to an end last season after a knee injury but it appears that he’s recovered, giving the Midshipmen another running threat.
MLB J.D. Bertrand vs. FB Doba Fofana
Bertrand was the leading tackler in 2022 for the Irish and will again be heard of frequently when a stop is made. The team leader on the defensive side of the ball, he knows how to get into opposing backfields, finishing runnerup to Foskey last year in tackles-for-loss. He can also make an impact when dropping into pass coverage, though that won’t really be required in this clash.
Fofana led the Midshipmen in rushing last season with 769 yards and scored six touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry. That performance came after not playing at all in 2021 and beginning the season off the bench. He’ll continue to get the ball in Navy’s run-happy offense. Standing just 5-feet-8, Fofana brings speed and power to the Midshipmen lineup and needs to be held in check.
OT Joe Alt vs. DE Jacob Busic
Alt is the next Notre Dame lineman up to become a top first-round NFL draft pick by putting together another strong season. He’s got the size to dominate and his strong skills in the pass-blocking department will help protect Hartman’s blindside. Opening up holes for the Irish running game will make Hartman’s debut an easier one, but it will be a challenge in this contest.
Busic plays the Edge position and is Navy’s top returning sack man and stopper behind the line. He enters the 2023 campaign as one of the school’s captains, a nod to his stature on the defensive side. One indication of whether Notre Dame has held him in check will be how many times his name is heard on Saturday.
NT Howard Cross vs. C Lirion Murtezi
Cross will have his hands full as he begins a season he hopes won’t involve dealing with nagging injuries. Last season, he started seven of 12 contests but was trying to manage a high ankle sprain that forced him to play in pain. He still managed to pick up 33 tackles, including two sacks and also forced a fumble.
From his center position, Murtezi is the anchor of the Navy offensive line and begins his fourth year with the Midshipmen as a co-captain. He’s developed into an effective blocker who sat out all of the 2020 season and only started in three games prior to last year. If necessary, he can be shifted to guard, but regardless, has the strength to battle in the trenches.