Without even lifting a finger last weekend, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish were able to move up one spot in the AP rankings and are now situated in the third spot in the Top 25. The Irish were able to benefit from Ohio State’s shocking upset loss to unranked Purdue, with that loss sending the Buckeyes out of the Top 10.
At 7-0, Notre Dame heads to San Diego to face a longtime rival in the Navy Midshipmen, a first-time locale for this storied rivalry. The Irish have dominated this matchup over the years, but after getting a major scare in their last game against Pittsburgh, they’re hopefully aware that they don’t have the luxury of taking the 2-5 Midshipmen lightly. Navy may have lost four in a row entering this game, but knocking off Notre Dame would almost be as sweet as shutting down their main rival, Army.
Looking at the key matchups in this game, these figure to be the most important to follow:
QB Ian Book vs. Navy Defense
After opening plenty of eyes in his first two starts of the season, Book has cooled off somewhat. In the past two games, he’s thrown three interceptions and has also had some downfield throwing issues, though a heavy Pitt pass rush in the first half of that game offered little opportunity to develop a steady pass attack.
The good news is that Book has a chance to do some serious damage to a Navy pass defense that’s allowing 253 yards of passing yardage every game and has twice given up more than 400 yards in that category. The most recent instance came last week, when the Midshipmen defenders watched Houston torch them for 413 yards while putting 49 points on the scoreboard.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Malcolm Perry
The Irish defenders have been the most consistent aspect of the team this season, allowing just under 19 points per game. That number is skewed somewhat, given that a number of scores came in garbage time with the game already in the win column for Notre Dame. However, they can be vulnerable to the run, which in this game effectively defines their opponent’s offensive gameplan.
Malcolm Perry serves as the main cog in the triple option attack used by Midshipmen, with Garret Lewis used primarily on passing downs. Of course, throwing isn’t what viewers will see much of with any Navy offense, it’s a strong diet of running. Perry leads the team with 729 rushing yards and has crossed the goal line seven times. He’s averaging close to six yards per carry, so keeping him in check will go a long way in getting the win.
T’s Robert Hainsey/Liam Eichenberg vs. OLB Nizaire Cromartie
Both Hainsey and Eichenberg are included here because they’ll be up against a player who will see action on either side. They may get a respite at times, since Cromartie will drop back into coverage. Yet they have to be able to contain his pass rushing capabilities, especially after the struggles in the first half against Pitt.
Cromartie enters this game tied for the team lead in sacks with three and represents the team’s top pass rushing threat. In the Navy defensive scheme, he’ll be blitzing from any number of different angles, which can make life difficult for either Hainsey or Eichenberg if he’s not held in check.
DT Jerry Tillery vs. C Ford Higgins
Even though Tillery’s seven sacks thus far this season won’t really come into play against a run-dominant offense like Navy, the big man has still shown he can be a menace on the field. His production has been even better than last year’s breakout season, especially in the area of forcing turnovers and simply creating havoc.
Higgins only stands 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, but has shown during his first season at center that he has the athleticism to handle himself in the trenches. Last week, he had to deal with last year’s Outland Trophy winner in Houston’s Ed Oliver, which gave him a pretty good indication of what to expect when battling Tillery inside.
WR Miles Boykin vs. CB Jarid Ryan
Boykin has 32 catches on the year, with 23 of those coming in the last three games, four of which were touchdown grabs. He’s a deep threat, though Book’s recent troubles in this area could keep the passing game in the intermediate range to get things back on track. Against Pittsburgh, he only had four grabs, but managed to average 21 yards on those catches.
Ryan is the leader of the Midshipmen secondary and is back at his more comfortable corner slot after spending last season at safety. He has the athleticism to stay with Boykin, but is giving up about five inches in the height department. The problem for Navy is that even if he’s able to shut Boykin down, Book has a number of different options that can exploit the Midshipmen’s weak pass defense.