The Navy Midshipmen face tough challenges late in a season when they are especially formidable and can realistically pursue great goals. This is one such instance of Navy arriving at a moment of great opportunity for the program.
Now that Navy is part of the American Athletic Conference, the Midshipmen want to be able to play for the AAC title (something they have done once since they joined the league) and also beat Army. Doing both enables Navy to possibly play in a New Year’s Six bowl, the ultimate goal for the program.
Navy wouldn’t be completely eliminated from the New Year’s Six bowl race with a loss to Notre Dame this Saturday. Navy could still win its other remaining games and win the Group of Five championship. This brings up the tension point which regularly greets Navy when the Mids are especially strong: Doing everything to win a non-conference game could leave Navy overextended in late-season AAC games.
Yet, no one needs an explanation about the importance and specialness of the Notre Dame game. Navy snapped a 43-game losing streak in this series in 2007. The Midshipmen have stood up to the Fighting Irish over the past 13 years, and their wins have become treasured parts of this gleamingly successful era under Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo. Beating Notre Dame is a big deal. Navy should always go all-out to beat Notre Dame, even if the toll of a game against the Irish leaves the Mids vulnerable for a huge AAC game such as Nov. 23 against SMU.
The real question is: How can Navy strike a balance between giving a total effort against Notre Dame and having something in the tank left for SMU (and then Houston, a place where Navy has regularly struggled)?
1 – Hit the pass when it’s there (but don’t fall in love with it)
Navy needs to be selective with the passing game. A lot of passes will lead to a longer game in which Notre Dame is more likely to lean on Navy and grind down the Midshipmen one week before the SMU game. A lean and efficient run-first offense is what Navy has to try to establish. Notre Dame’s offense is not one of the better units Brian Kelly has had in South Bend as the head coach of the Irish. This – unlike past Notre Dame games – is not a game in which Navy has to score in the mid-30s or thereabouts to win. Navy might be able to win this game with 24 points. Hitting the 50- or 60-yard touchdown pass isn’t as big a need for Navy as it was in previous meetings with the Irish. This is a ball-control game, which leads to the next point below:
2 – More possession but fewer snaps
The game which Navy wants to copy against Notre Dame is the 2016 game the Mids won 28-27. Navy controlled the ball for nearly 34 minutes, doing just enough on defense to make four touchdown drives stand up. Navy didn’t score every time it got the ball, but when it scored, it always scored touchdowns. Navy’s four touchdown drives took roughly 22 minutes off the clock. Three of those drives averaged eight plays per drive. The fourth drive took 16 plays. Navy can’t expect to use 16 plays per drive. The eight-play number is better. Within that context, Navy needs to run the play clock inside five seconds so that the Midshipmen don’t accumulate more plays than necessary. Shortening the game reduces wear and tear one week before the critical SMU contest. Going all out to beat Notre Dame: yes, Navy should do that. Yet, it can balance its interests with the AAC race, and draining the play clock is part of that.
3 – Find non-Perry plays that work
Malcolm Perry, who has been vulnerable to injury throughout his career, will certainly need to make important plays in this game for Navy to win. However, he can’t be expected to carry most of the rushing workload. He can’t – not one week before an SMU game in which Navy will need to score in the high 30s or low 40s to win. Perry can’t take too many hits. This means Navy’s offensive line has to make the fullback run up the middle gap a successful, bread-and-butter play. This means the rocket toss needs to work for the Mids. This means pitch plays have to work. Navy needs non-Perry plays to work, and stick with them as much as possible.