Stacking Up: Notre Dame Offense vs. Navy Defense
Notre Dame faces its toughest remaining challenge of the season on Saturday when the No. 21 ranked Navy Midshipmen bring their triple option offense into South Bend.
While the unique option offense will get much of the attention, the reason for Navy's 7-1 start has been a dramatically improved defense.
That makes the matchup of the scuffling Irish offense against the disruptive Navy defense arguably the biggest key to victory for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame Scoring Offense vs. Navy Scoring Defense
Advantage: Notre Dame
Evaluating the Navy defense requires looking past its superficial statistics, which are impressive. The Midshipmen are certainly a vastly improved defensive football team, but it has benefitted from a relatively soft schedule, especially when it comes to opposing offenses.
Navy has faced just two non-option offenses that rank in the Top 70 in scoring offense and offensive efficiency. In those two contests - against Memphis and Tulane - the Midshipmen gave up 36.5 points per game and 6.8 yards per play.
Against its other six games the Midshipmen have been dominant, with only one opponent - Air Force - topping 350 yards of offense. Of course, having a ball control offense helps limit plays, but Memphis and Tulane are also the only Navy opponents to average more than 5.0 yards per play.
Notre Dame is somewhere in the middle of what Navy has faced, at least from a statistical standpoint. There is no doubt that Notre Dame has the most talented roster that Navy will face this season, but the Irish have not played to the level they are capable of.
The Irish rank behind both Memphis and Tulane in scoring offense, total offense and efficiency. Notre Dame has been an erratic offense for much of the season. It has shown flashes of strong play, but against the better defenses on the schedule, Notre Dame has been inefficient.
How it performs against Navy should tell Irish fans if the strong performance against Duke was a one off or a sign of the offense finally hitting its stride.
Notre Dame Rush Offense vs. Navy Rush Defense
The biggest turnaround for Navy on defense has been its ability to shut down the opposition ground attack. Last season, Navy allowed six of its 13 opponents to rush for at least 222 yards. Through its first eight games of 2019, no Navy opponent has reached 200 yards and only one opponent - Tulane - has topped 175 yards.
Memphis and Tulane are also the only non-option opponents on Navy’s schedule to rank in the Top 50 in rushing offense. Navy held Memphis to just 105 yards on the ground and Tulane was limited to 187 yards and 4.5 yards per play. Tulane is averaging 261.2 rushing yards per game.
What makes Navy’s run defense performance even more impressive is that it has accomplished it with an incredibly undersized defense. Navy has just one starter that weighs over 260 pounds and just three starters that weigh more than 240 pounds. Navy plays fast, it has an aggressive scheme and it has done a great job of creating negatives. Navy has had at least seven tackles for loss in six of its eight games.
The on paper matchup doesn’t look very good for the Notre Dame offense. Notre Dame ranks 50th in rushing offense and just 41st in yards per attempt.
There have been some outstanding performances, but overall the run game has been wildly inconsistent. Notre Dame rushed for 308 yards against USC and is coming off a 288-yard performance against Duke, but in between those two victories, Notre Dame rushed for just 153 combined yards against Michigan and Virginia Tech.
Notre Dame will need its ground game to flourish against Navy, but whether or not that can happen remains to be seen.
Notre Dame Pass Offense vs. Navy Pass Defense
Navy’s pass defense is the most interesting part this unit to break down. On the surface it looks good, ranking No. 19 in pass efficiency defense, No. 35 in passing yards allowed and No. 38 in yards allowed per attempt. Navy has allowed just eight passing touchdowns all season and have registered 24 sacks while picking off seven passes.
Looking at Navy’s schedule, there are three opponents that rank in the Top 40 in passing yards, but only two non-option offenses - Memphis and Tulane - rank in the Top 50 in efficiency. Memphis and Tulane’s quarterbacks completed 72.3-percent of their passes, averaged 14.3 yards per completion, 10.3 yards per attempt and threw six touchdown passes.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book will need to be on top of his game. Part of the success for the Memphis and Tulane offenses was their ability to be efficient and explosive with the pass game. Book played that kind of game early last season, and the result was Notre Dame jumping out to a 27-0 halftime lead.
The Irish have a significant skill player advantage over Navy, so if the line can protect Book, and if the Irish quarterback can be aggressive, decisive and accurate the offense should be able to move the ball quite well through the air.
While that sounds great, and while that is certainly possible if Book is on top of his game, the reality is that Notre Dame has not been that kind of pass offense for much of the season, especially against quality opponents.
Against the five opponents on the schedule with a winning record, Book has completed just 55.6-percent of his passes, averaged just 5.9 yards per attempt, 10.6 yards per completion and had a passer rating of just 112.43.