The Notre Dame defense will again face Navy’s unique triple-option. | Carlos Osorio/AP
“We didn’t see it last week and we won’t see it next week,” Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “So, you have to shift gears; you’re not doing things you normally do.”
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Sometimes you must switch gears to get to the finish line. No. 8 Notre Dame will need to do that Saturday when it renews its rivalry with Navy (2:30 p.m. NBC-5, 780-AM).
A week after holding off North Carolina, the Fighting Irish (8-1, No. 10 CFP) host a Navy team (2-6) that has provided its share of scares.
Just ask No. 2 Cincinnati, which escaped Annapolis with a 27-20 victory over coach Ken Niumatalolo’s crew. Yes, the same Bearcats who three weeks earlier ended Notre Dame’s 26-game home winning streak.
Kelly is 8-2 coaching against Navy, but preparing for its triple-option offense is always a hassle.
“We didn’t see it last week and we won’t see it next week,” Kelly said. “So, you have to shift gears; you’re not doing things you normally do. So, it’s really getting out of a comfort zone more than anything else. And that’s difficult because you’re so used to getting into routines. Navy gets you out of that routine.”
Navy, which is 103-73 with 11 bowl appearances under Niumatalolo, has struggled with injuries on its offensive line and in the secondary. But the Midshipmen have shown up and competed, losing close games against Houston and SMU, which are now both ranked. They rallied last week to win 20-17 at Tulsa.
“I’ve never been around a group like this that, in spite of their record, they come to work every week,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy didn’t complete a pass against Tulsa — sophomore Tai Lavatai only attempted three — but rushed for 302 yards behind Carlinos Acie (3 carries, 80 yards) and Chance Warren (10-70), Lavatai (18-64) and fullback Isaac Ruoss (13-49). The Midshipmen had the ball for 37:18.
Niumatalolo knows his defense, led by linebackers Diego Fagot and Johnny Hodges, will be challenged by the Irish offense led by Kyren Williams, who piled up a career-best 191 rushing yards and 261 overall against the Tar Heels.
“They’re good, a really good football team like they always are,” he said. “In 2019, with one of our better teams (7-1 and ranked No. 23) we went in there and they crushed us (52-20).”
Walk-on Chase Ketterer, a former option quarterback at New Prairie High School 25 miles west of Notre Dame, tried to replicate Lavatai in practices this week. Ketterer came to Kelly’s attention in 2019 when he played against the coach’s son, Kenzel, a defensive end at South Bend St. Joseph. Ketterer rushed for 2,496 yards and accounted for 43 touchdowns that season.
“It’s been a busy week,” Ketterer said Tuesday. “Practice doesn’t start until 4. We were out here at 3 o’clock doing walk-throughs and watching film. It’s definitely been a busy week.”
NAVY ON THEIR MINDS
Preparing for Navy is not a one-week thing. Kelly makes sure practice time is given to Navy during the spring and preseason, and the players also work on things during summer workouts.
“We understand we won’t be able to replicate the speed at which they run the triple (option),” said linebacker JD Bertrand, Notre Dame’s leading tackler with 71.
“Playing Navy, you’ve just got to do your job,” added defensive Jayson Ademilola, who has 32 tackles, 4.5 for losses. “It’s all 11 guys knowing what their assignment is.”
But what about the unexpected?
“There’s going to be a double pass, and there’s going to be something that we haven’t seen before, a formation,” said Kelly, who has kept a book on Navy since 2010. “There’s always something different.”
Notre Dame and Navy had played every season since 1927 until the pandemic disrupted the schedule last year. When Notre Dame chose to play an ACC-laden schedule, one of the stipulations was that the one non-conference game only could be played in the state of an ACC team. Maryland is not one.
That meant the “longest uninterrupted intersectional rivalry in college football” — the Irish lead 79-13-1 — was interrupted for a season. The 2022 game will be played in Baltimore and the series is currently set to run through 2032.
“It’s a rivalry that goes way, way back,” Navy senior cornerback Michael McMorris said. “It’s very exciting because it’s a great atmosphere and it’s fun going up against athletes like that.”
Niumatalolo was an assistant head coach when the Midshipmen ended Notre Dame’s long streak in the series with a 46-44 triple-overtime victory in South Bend in 2007. As head coach, Niumatalolo is 3-9 against the Irish with wins in 2009, 2010, 2016. Notre Dame has won the last three matchups.
“If you don’t have any belief, you have zero chance,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as well as we can play, and they have to help us a little bit.”
Navy free safety Kevin Brennan is listed as questionable because of a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined for the last three games. He has worked closely with freshman starter Rayuan Lane, much like injured Notre Dame free safety Kyle Hamilton has done the last two weeks.
“(Hamilton’s) doing a nice job coaching (but) I’d rather him play,” Kelly said.