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2014 Opponent Rating: Navy

Why do we rank Navy No. 8 among Notre Dame’s 12 opponents in 2014?

This tackle by Jaylon Smith against Navy’s Shawn Lynch on fourth down helped save Notre Dame’s 38-34 win last season.

The Midshipmen are comparable to our No. 9 team, Northwestern, one of four teams (from 6 through 9) that we placed in our “upset special” category. Both Northwestern and Navy are consistently among the finest in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) at maximizing the personnel at their disposal.

In the 11 seasons from 2003-13, Navy’s record is 92-49 (.653 winning percentage) and it won a minimum of eight games 10 times. Over that same timespan, Notre Dame is 83-55 (.601). Now, the Fighting Irish schedule is much stronger, but relative to making the most of personnel, Navy doesn’t take a back seat to anyone in college football.

From 2007-10, Navy defeated the Irish three out of four, with quarterback Ricky Dobbs leading the attack the last two of those years. Order was restored in the series in 2011 and 2012 when the Irish dominated in 56-14 and 50-10 victories, respectively.

However, last year the Midshipmen found another Dobbs-like leader at the throttle in sophomore Keenan Reynolds, who actually began taking control of the team as a freshman a year earlier. Last year, the dynamic Reynolds (1,346 rushing yards and 1,057 passing yards) set a single-season FBS record for a quarterback with 31 rushing touchdowns.

He directed the Navy triple-option attack masterfully at Notre Dame with the Midshipmen producing 331 yards rushing and Reynolds scoring three times. He also completed 6 of 9 passes for 88 yards, highlighted by a 34-yard touchdown strike that put Navy ahead 34-31 in the fourth quarter.

The Irish answered with a 76-yard march that was capped by Tarean Folston’s one-yard dive into the end zone with 3:47 remaining.

With Reynolds at the controls and all five starters on the offensive line back, the Midshipmen are capable of taking the Irish to the brink again, or beyond, as they did in last year’s 38-34 loss. It took a fantastic defensive effort to seal the win in the closing minute when safety Eilar Hardy didn’t break containment on a fourth-and-four reverse pitch to Shawn Lynch from the Irish 31. From an aerial vantage point, the play looked like it would go for the winning score, but Hardy was able to string it out long enough to allow outside linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback Bennett Jackson to finish the tackle near the Navy sideline short of the first down.

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Over its last eight games in 2013, Navy averaged 37.8 points per contest while going 6-2, including an upset of Pitt and the near upset of the Irish.

With the return of Reynolds, all five offensive line starters, the fullback tandem of Chris Swain and Noah Copeland (who combined for 759 yards rushing in 2013), and fleet slot back DeBrandon Sanders (340 yards rushing and 8.1 yards per carry, plus a team high 13 catches that averaged 17.2 yards), it’s not a stretch to believe the Midshipmen could average in the 35-point range again.

The defense returns seven starters, led by safety Parrish Gaines, who will co-captain the 2014 Navy team with Copeland.

Notable Fact
No Notre Dame football game ever had more lead changes than the nine in last year’s game against Navy. Neither team led by more than seven points and neither went ahead by more than four points over the final 52:32.

The previous high for lead changes in a Notre Dame game that we’ve researched had been seven on two occasions: a 34-30 loss at Penn State in 1983 and the 24-23 victory over No. 1 Alabama in the 1973 Sugar Bowl to clinch the national title.

The focus on this game usually is on whether the Irish can handle the triple option. What it really comes down to is whether the Navy defense can stop Notre Dame, especially by forcing a couple of turnovers.

Offensively, Navy’s size disadvantage can be mitigated or nullified with the execution of the triple option, which Irish head coach Brian Kelly described as “flawless” last year. Defensively, though, there is not much Navy can do to mask the size and talent disparity. Notre Dame has scored 56, 50 and 38 points the past three seasons against the Midshipmen. As long as it doesn’t commit a rash of turnovers while having the ball only nine or 10 series during the game, it should be in control.

The Irish will have an extra week to prepare for Navy Nov. 1 after the Oct. 18 showdown at defending national champ Florida State. That should provide new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder a little extra time to reacquaint himself with the triple option after having spent most of the last nine years in the NFL.

Tomorrow: The seventh-toughest opponent, on paper — one of our four teams that joins Northwestern with “upset special” potential.

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