Bully ball. That was the motto that came out of Saturday’s 35-14 domination that Notre Dame put on fourth ranked Clemson. From start to finish, there wasn’t any doubt, from the players to the fans, to anyone watching the game, who was the better team that night. The Irish were able to impose their will in all three aspects of the game – offense, defense, and special teams. To go along with an incredible on-field performance, the atmosphere inside Notre Dame Stadium was the best that I can remember going back quite some years. A true homefield advantage was created and it was evident that the Notre Dame players were feeding off of it all night. Not only was this the biggest win to date of the Marcus Freeman era, it also marked the 27th straight regular season victory over ACC opponents for the Irish.
This game was not only significant as a potential indicator as to how the rest of Notre Dame’s season could play out, but it was also a massive confidence builder for the players and coaching staff. I have been critical of Tommy Rees’s gameplan and play calling in previous articles, but I thought that just about everything called against Clemson was great. The Irish run game was working all night and it even helped set up some open passes to get Pyne more comfortable looking downfield. The perfect example was Michael Mayer’s touchdown catch; on a run-heavy possession for the Irish, the passing game was able to find success as Clemson had the box loaded, leaving minimal accountability for Mayer sneaking into the open field. As the Tigers (and all defenses for that matter) put so much attention on shutting down Mayer in the pass game, their all-in focus on defending the run set up that beautiful touchdown reception. Further congratulations to Michael Mayer are due for now holding another of Notre Dame’s tight end records – and as Irish fans, we know what an accomplishment that is, given the tight end talent that has come through this program.
Defensively, the Irish seemed to have an answer for anything and everything that the Tigers wanted to throw their way. Clemson was held to 191 passing yards and only 90 rushing yards, none of which came very easily. To go along with that, the Irish came up with two interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and another punt block – again, returned for a touchdown. On the defensive side of the ball, true Freshman corner back Benjamin Morrison played the game of his life. It was evident that the Tigers were looking to attack the lack of experience that Morrison had at the collegiate level and boy, was that a mistake. Looking at the blocked put as well, Notre Dame special teams coordinator, Brian Mason, has this unit absolutely rolling. It has been a long time since I can remember being excited about an Irish special teams unit and after racking up their sixth blocked punt of the season, Mason has proven to be one of my favorite coaching hires from this past off-season. I could go on and on about all the positive takeaways from Notre Dame’s performance against Clemson; it was the most complete football game that I have seen from this team all year and if they are able to not only replicate this, but build on it as well, the Irish could be a dangerous team down the stretch.
As Notre Dame’s play has been “Jekyll-and-Hyde-esque” this season, you could tell that the team was feeding off the coaching staff’s energy and focus for Clemson. A mark of a mature football team though is not playing so up and down based on the opponent in which they are lining up across. The Irish have risen to the task in the larger games this year – North Carolina, Syracuse, Clemson – but have also fallen short against inferior opponents – Marshall and Stanford. Coming off the emotional high of beating a playoff-contending team, how will Notre Dame respond in the upcoming weeks when having to take on a 3-6 Navy and a 2-7 Boston College?
After traveling to Baltimore, Maryland, the Irish will face a three-win Midshipmen team led by longtime head coach, Ken Niumatalolo. A team averaging a touch over 22 points per game, this marks the week in which the Irish defense will have to face the triple option. In this run heavy offense, Navy as a team, is averaging right around four yards per carry on the season and have tallied up 17 touchdowns on the ground through their first nine games. Although this offensive scheme is unique and can give opposing defenses fits, it is actually Navy’s defense that is the strength of their program.
The Midshipmen’s run defense is not something to be taken lightly. It will be a strength-on-strength matchup as Notre Dame’s rush offense goes up against Navy’s rush defense. After the gameplan that was executed against Clemson, I expect the Irish offense to continue to rely on the ground game to supplement the offensive success. I do believe that Drew Pyne can total over 85 passing yards, his through-the-air production last week against the Tigers, as the Midshipmen do not have a dominating pass rush. Their defense is giving up just under 25 points per game and as long as the Irish can establish the ground game early, I think this will be a favorable matchup. With the way that Navy runs the ball and eats the clock, the Irish offense will need to have efficient drives that end with points. Possessions will be at a premium in this matchup and if the Irish look to be victorious, they cannot afford to have multiple drives that stall out or end with nothing put up on the scoreboard. As mentioned, I expect the Notre Dame passing game to be a bit more prevalent than it was last week against Clemson. I don’t think that the Irish have to pass the ball a great deal in order to be successful against Navy, but I do believe that going up against the Midshipmen defense presents a great opportunity to work out some kinks that could be present in the current pass offense.
On the other side of the ball, Navy’s starting quarterback, Tai Lavatai suffered a season ending knee injury, so look for Xavier Arline to captain the Midshipmen’s offense. Arline has gotten playing time in Navy’s last two games, an overtime win against Temple and a loss to Cincinnati. This season, he has attempted five passes, one of which was caught for three yards and one of which was intercepted. Although not very impressive passing stats, Arline has racked up nearly 200 yards on the ground and averages five yards per carry. In the triple option, fullbacks Daba Fofana and Anton Hall Jr., as well as wide receiver Maquel Haywood are the Midshipmen’s most productive ground threats – all of which have eclipsed 200 rushing yards thus far. In a run heavy scheme, Navy’s wide receivers do bring some good talent to the table as well. Jayden Umbarger, Vincent Terrell Jr., and Mark Walker all have at least 175 receiving yards and have combined for four passing touchdowns as a trio. As the Notre Dame defense looks to sink the Midshipmen’s offensive scheme, it is important to keep in mind that All-American safety Brandon Joseph is “doubtful” due to an ankle injury sustained last week against Clemson. This is a game that I feel Notre Dame could and should win without playing time from Joseph and I would rather err on the side of caution, especially when a successful defensive scheme requires the safeties to get down hill and attack the ball carrier.
As big of a win it was for the Irish over Clemson, the performance we see against Navy will tell us a lot about the state of this program. Marcus Freeman has done an incredible job of navigating this team through adversity. If you told me after two rather stunning losses to Marshall and Stanford that this Notre Dame team would turn around and dominate the fourth ranked Clemson Tigers, I would have straight up called you crazy. As the Irish seem to have taken on the identity that is being forged by this coaching staff, the next key will be how they handle success. If Freeman has this team playing with the same focus that we saw against Clemson, the Irish will be dangerous down the stretch. This all starts with Saturday’s game against Navy. Notre Dame has more talent across the board, and I expect them to win, but will it be another dominant, momentum building performance or a shaky, unenthusiastic one from a team nursing a big-game hangover? I expect it to be the former, leading to a 31-13 Notre Dame victory. Go Irish. Beat Midshipmen.
A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:
Ohio State: 9-0 overall, currently ranked #2, beat Northwestern 21-7
Marshall: 5-4 overall, beat Old Dominion 12-0
California: 3-6 overall, lost to USC 41-35
North Carolina: 8-1 overall, currently ranked #15, beat Virginia 31-28
BYU: 5-5 overall, beat Boise State 31-28
Stanford: 3-6 overall, lost to Washington State 52-14
UNLV: 4-5 overall, lost to San Diego State 14-10
Syracuse: 6-3 overall, lost to Pittsburgh 19-9
Clemson: 8-1 overall, currently ranked #12, lost to Notre Dame 35-14
Navy: 3-6 overall, lost to Cincinnati 20-10
Boston College: 2-7 overall, lost to Duke 38-31
USC: 8-1 overall, currently ranked #8, beat California 41-35