`The bye week is behind us and Notre Dame football is back in action this week. Here are the top storylines to watch for against Navy.
That Pittsburgh game feels like it was played a month ago. I’m not going to lie, I think last week was the perfect time for a bye week not only for the team, but for the fans. The first seven weeks of the season have been an absolute roller coaster and it was nice to not have endless nerves and elevated blood pressure for once. It also didn’t hurt to watch a Purdue thumping of Ohio St. that pushed the Irish to the No. 3 ranking in the country.
With the bye week behind the fans and the team, all focus shifts to the last stretch of the season where the Irish are in the driver’s seat of controlling their own destiny and making their first ever College Football Playoff. While nothing is ever guaranteed in college football and anyone can lose on any given day, the Irish have a relatively open path to capping off a perfect regular season. This late season push for the playoff will start this weekend against the Navy Midshipmen in San Diego, California.
Navy always seems to give Notre Dame fits, especially in the Brian Kelly era. In their eight meetings under Kelly, the Irish are 6-2 against Navy and winning by an average score of 38-25. That’s not bad when looking at the big picture, but breaking it down there have only been three wins in those eight meetings that have been by more than 10 points. Outside of the three blowout wins, Notre Dame has lost by 18, won by four, won by 10, lost by 1, and won by 7. So, while this is the most talented team the Irish have fielded in years, recent history shows that the Midshipmen are plenty capable of keeping the game close and possibly spoiling the Irish season with an upset.
Though Navy is 2-5, three of their losses have been by less than a touchdown. They are still averaging just under 30 points per game and rank 3rd in the country in rushing offense (shocker) with 310 yards on the ground per game. On the opposite side of the ball, they are giving up 34 points per game and have one of the worst passing defenses in the country.
Obviously, the Irish are the better team on paper and have had the benefit of preparing for the option offense for an extra week, but with the Academies, you just never know. Just ask Oklahoma, who needed overtime earlier in the season to beat Army at home.
It should be a great game between two opponents who have a great deal of respect for each other. Here are the top storylines heading into the week nine matchup:
Bye Week Bounceback
There are a couple things to note heading into this week’s game against Navy. For starters, a top storyline for the Irish even if there was no bye week would be to have a bounceback performance after a sloppy 19-14 victory over Pittsburgh two weeks ago. It was the first time since Vanderbilt that the offense struggled heavily for the entire game and the 19 points scored was the lowest amount put on a scoreboard for Notre Dame all season.
The setup for the game certainly had all of the red flags for being a trap game and the Irish were in the holiday spirit helping Pitt remain in the game with dumb penalties, mental mistakes, and poor decision making and turnovers. Even with the victory, it doesn’t mean this team is exempt from criticism. A perfect record doesn’t equal a perfect team by any measure. Ian Book looked rattled and just off all game and there was no run game due mostly because of the poor play from the offensive line. Special teams struggled again, allowing another kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening kick of the second half. One of only four schools in the country to give up multiple kickoff return touchdowns, Notre Dame’s kickoff coverage currently ranks 121st in the nation allowing over 25 yards per return.
The good news is Notre Dame had a bye week to rest, recover, and spend a little extra time preparing for Navy. The other good news is the Irish are 7-1 in the Brian Kelly era in games following a bye week, with their last post-bye week loss coming in 2011 to USC. The bad news, which is more hypothetical, is the bye week serves like halftime in the season. Some teams are able to translate their first half success into the second half and finish strong, others are slow out of the gate, and some teams fall apart. This happened in 2014 when the Irish scraped by Navy 49-39 after the bye week, then went on to lose their last four regular season games.
I’m not saying the Irish will have a second half meltdown this year, but it’s worth noting that their week of rest is over and the grind of the season is back. Additionally, the rest of their games are versus teams they should beat handily and so far the Irish are 1-3 in making the easy wins look easy. If you keep playing with fire you will eventually get burned, and Notre Dame knows they will get every team’s best shot week-in and week-out.
Good teams keep plugging along and continue their success after a bye week and bad teams lose that edge and mental toughness needed to grind through the regular season. This Saturday will be the first test of the second half of the season for this football team.
Overcoming the West Coast Woes
I absolutely loathe west coast games and in recent years, the Irish do too. Since 2010, Notre Dame is 2-6 in true west coast games against Stanford and USC, and if you want to include Arizona in this argument as a western region, then that record worsens to 2-8 with their losses to Arizona St. in 2014 and Ohio St. in 2015.
This week’s game against Navy will be played at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, California. It kicks off what will be a unique and pretty brutal travel schedule for the Irish, who will end the season back in the west coast for their finale with USC.
Call this poor performance playing in the west coast what you want, but winning twice in the last ten games when traveling west across the country means there is something that impacts the Irish level of play. You can blame it on fatigue from travel or playing in a different time zone, but regardless recent history shows that this region hasn’t been particularly nice to Notre Dame.
Throw in the fact that this will be the longest road game to date for Notre Dame this season and coming off a bye week, these west coast problems seem only destined to repeat. If they do, it could result in another sluggish game. This comes down to proper preparation and overcoming adversity. So far the Irish have shined in their two road matchups this season, and will need that same road warrior mentality this weekend to hold off and blow past this always pesky Navy team.
Healthy Faces and Depth Chart Changes
The nicest aspect of a bye week is allowing players with minor injuries a chance to heal up and hopefully return the following week. That is the case with both corner back Troy Pride Jr. and running back Jafar Armstrong. Armstrong has been nursing a knee infection ever since the Wake Forest game and has missed the last three games. It was largely understood and expected for him to return to the backfield following the bye week, and that was confirmed by Brian Kelly at his Tuesday press conference.
Reports indicated Troy Pride would play against Pittsburgh after suffering from a sprained ankle versus Virginia Tech, but he was eventually scratched versus the Panthers and didn’t play. After an extra week of rehab, Pride is back with the starting lineup and will be full-go for the Irish this weekend.
The impact of having a healthy Jafar Armstrong and Dexter Williams for the Irish offense can’t be overstated. This will be the first time this season both players are active in the same game and the first time we can watch what this backfield can do fully locked and loaded. Armstrong is averaging over 6 yards per touch this season with five touchdowns. Having his fresh legs and production back will help take the workload off Dexter and gives the offense more options in the passing game.
Staying on the offensive side of the ball, the front five will see a new lineup this weekend. Sophomore Aaron Banks has been listed as the starter at left guard, where he has been rotating with senior Trevor Ruhland. Ruhland has been bumped to the right guard position where both he and previous starter Tommy Kraemer are both listed as the starter.
A switch with the offensive line isn’t very surprising. After the struggles in the trenches against Pittsburgh, a change like this was somewhat expected, especially after the improving play of Banks and Ruhland. The line hasn’t been terrible this season, and I recently gave them a a B grade for the season up to this point, but they have certainly had their struggles.
Losing two All-Americans to the NFL and then another All-American in Alex Bars halfway through the season is not easy to do. Hopefully this switch can help open up running lanes and kickstart this offense’s ground game, who is averaging just under 180 yards per game on the ground. In two of the last three seasons, the Irish averaged over 200 rushing yards per game.