Running games in spotlight as No. 8 Notre Dame faces Navy

NCAA Football

No. 8 Notre Dame will resume its long-standing football rivalry with Navy on Saturday in South Bend, Ind., after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 edition.

Brian Kelly, the winningest coach in Fighting Irish history, is 8-2 against Navy and is plenty familiar with the Midshipmen’s grind-it-out, triple-option offense.

“You want to make sure that you’re putting yourself in good position, but you don’t want five- or six-minute drives either, because that shortens the game and that kind of plays into their hands as well,” Kelly said. “So that efficiency is on both sides: We have to coach efficiently, and we have to play efficiently.”

While Kelly spoke about Notre Dame (7-1) needing to take its time on offense, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he wants to see more explosive plays and quicker scores.

In the past, the Navy offense pushed the tempo with dynamic quarterbacks such as Keenan Reynolds and Malcolm Perry running the show. But this season, Navy (2-6) ranks fifth in the FBS in time of possession (35:30 per game) and second-to-last in yards per play (4.06).

“People have been OK to give us 3 or 4 yards and just play that way and let us bleed it out and see if we can execute it that long,” Niumatalolo said. “But we have to get more explosive plays.”

The Midshipmen got one in the form of a 64-yard Carlinos Acie run that set up a field goal in last Friday’s 20-17 comeback win over Tulsa. It marked the first game this season that Navy did not complete a pass, but the running game gained 302 yards on 60 carries.

Navy’s defense also is gaining confidence after yielding its lowest scoring output of the year to Tulsa, one week after holding No. 2 Cincinnati to 27 points.

“Facing Notre Dame, I feel like if we limit those mistakes and stop beating ourselves and make it us versus them, not us versus us, we’ll have a great game against them,” senior cornerback Michael McMorris said.

Kelly praised Navy defensive captain Diego Fagot, who leads his team with 71 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss.

“He’s probably top five (in) linebackers that we’ve played against, and that’s the honest truth,” Kelly said. “He could play for anybody in Power Five.”

But Fagot and company will have a big challenge Saturday coping with a suddenly awakened Notre Dame running game.

In Saturday’s 44-34 win over North Carolina, Notre Dame had 293 yards on the ground, with rushing touchdowns from three different players, buoyed by Kyren Williams’ 91-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter.

Williams finished with 199 yards on 22 attempts. Kelly praised the entire unit, from the receivers’ perimeter blocking to Williams himself.

“Kyren’s playing really well,” Kelly said. “Maybe he was trying to do a little bit too much earlier in the year, but he’s really settled in nicely, seeing things really well and then making things happen. The big 90-plus-yard run was indicative of a guy just refusing to go down.”

Notre Dame, which debuted at No. 10 in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season Tuesday, is a 20.5-point favorite to beat Navy. That doesn’t mean the Irish are sleepwalking into the rivalry game. Kelly warned that while it might look the same on TV, it’s never the same old Navy offense from the game before.

“There’s gonna be a double pass and there’s gonna be something that we haven’t seen before, a formation,” he said. “And we keep the book on them. … We try to research all this stuff, and then there’s always something different.”

–Field Level Media

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