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And In That Corner ... Down a QB and with blocking rules hampering it, Navy’s triple-option awaits Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s 95th meeting with Navy may not be filled with as much on-field intrigue as last week’s upset of Clemson was, but the Midshipmen present such a unique foe, there is always a new wrinkle to consider in that program.

These days, that wrinkle is how Navy (3-6) will respond to yet another disappointing season, looking like it will be the third in a row in which the Midshipmen will miss a bowl game, not to mention the third in a row in which they will not win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

What should No. 20 Notre Dame (6-3) fear from Navy? Let’s ask John Schofield of the Sing Second Sports podcast, one of the better-named podcasts in college football.

DF: John, before we delve into this weekend, let’s give my readers a rundown on Sing Second Sports. How long has it been diving deep into Navy football? It is an undercovered team, from a media perspective.

JS: The Sing Second Sports Podcast has been in “deep dive” since the height of the pandemic. Actually, we hatched the idea in January 2020 with a plan to kick off the podcast in March with a focus on the Navy basketball team’s run in the Patriot League schedule and upcoming March Madness. As we all know, that March Madness never happened, but by May, we picked up the pieces, learned Zoom and got the pod off the ground.

And in this answer is the thrust of our mission. We talk football. And football is the center of gravity for USNA sports for many people. But we believe the physical mission of the Academy is our foundation. We cover all the sports — 35 D1 sports in all — and the alumni and the staff and, well, everything. The BYU game in August 2020 in front of no fans was the first football game this pod officially covered, but we had been delivering stories about all the sports at Navy since May 2020.

Through two weeks of this season, I knew what to think of Navy. It was bad, the struggles of the last couple years carrying into 2022. Then the Midshipmen had an earlier idle week than most teams, and they came out swinging afterward, beating East Carolina and Tulsa, playing Air Force and SMU close. Taking this chronologically, what changed during the off week?

It is tough to say what changed and how the team came out more competitive. For us, we have noticed this trendline the last few years. Pandemic or not, this is a slower team out of the gate in the last five years. Everyone knows the demands on a Navy football player are many, but there seemed to be no magic elixir out of the idle week other than rest and more reps. For us, as fans and podcasters, the schizophrenia of the team regardless of idle weeks is a bit head-scratching. Maybe they got Tulsa on a really bad day. Maybe SMU overlooked them. Personally, we don’t think Air Force is very good. But the only constant for Navy has been the defense. The offense showed up for Tulsa. Beyond that, the D has carried them all year.

All told, Navy won three of six games following the idle week, perhaps a humble start but that stretch still featured nearly as many wins as all of last season (4). The last of this year’s wins, at least to date, was nearly lost, though, and it came at quite a cost. Junior quarterback Tai Lavatai, a two-year starter, was knocked out for the season. In his stead came junior Xavier Arline, correct? While Lavatai was no Keenan Reynolds or Malcolm Perry, losing him still seems to have condemned the Midshipmen offense. How much is the dropoff from Lavatai to Arline? What can Arline do that should worry Notre Dame?

Since his plebe year, this pod has been 100 percent “Ride or Die with Tai.” He has a presence and “dog” about him that was obvious early on. He has an ok arm by Navy QB standards, but the comparisons to Keenan and Malcolm stop when it comes to running the triple-option. His command of the offense and his teammates was there, yes.

Speed to the corners, reads on the option, well-timed pitches — those were generally missing. Granted, Tai has not had the benefit of good slot backs and elite full backs like Keenan and Malcolm enjoyed, but he lacked the speed and results Keenan and Malcolm brought.

The NCAA rule crackdown on cut blocking has hurt Navy in this regard in recent seasons. In fact, the art of the cut block has often been discussed in and around Notre Dame games and other high-profile opponents because of the prevalence of injuries and frustration with Navy’s cut block methods.

Either way, Lavatai is gone and Xavier Arline steps into the breach. Xavier is quicker and seemingly favored by the coaches in the running of the triple-option, but he is diminutive and seemingly has no arm and spent the spring scoring goals for lacrosse.

Look for the same thing you saw against Cincinnati: Arline and Massai Maynor will play in a sort of platoon. While this presents a great opportunity for those two young men, it goes without saying that losing Tai definitely HURT more than anything else. Arline can hurt Notre Dame by making smart plays, facilitating time-consuming drives and not turning the ball over. That is the hurt he brings. But he won’t kill the Irish as a playmaker.

You mention the blocking rule changes. How were those received at Navy? What can be done to better adjust moving forward?

The rule change made almost no news. There wasn’t a lot of coverage of it. But yeah, of course it hurts. It is a foundational element of the offensive scheme. The Mids could get away with having offensive tackles who weren’t 350 pounds because they could use speed and the cut to neutralize the larger defensive front. Going forward, I think the offense has to evolve. Away from the option? No. But more of a focus needs to be paid on effective O-line in recruiting and coaching to overcome this.

Editor’s Note: Schofield recommended a recent column from the Capital Gazette — New cut blocking rules have hurt Navy’s ability to execute the triple-option

From afar, my looks at Navy have suggested the greatest Irish worry might be Navy’s rush defense, but given how Notre Dame has been running of late, that seems hard to believe. The Midshipmen give up just 3.18 yards per rush and 88 yards per game. I know it is more than teams enjoying passing so much, given some advanced numbers, but that may be a significant piece of it. How strongly do you think Navy may stand up against the Irish ground game, most notably Bus-sized Audric Estimé?

As previously noted, Navy’s defense is the key and the prime mover of any success we’ll have the rest of the season. They aren’t big. They aren’t fast. But defensive coordinator Brian Newberry has schemed them to success. An occasional blowout has befallen the Mids in recent years, yes, but the defense is generally the best asset. Estimé is big, but the Mids have faced down the likes of Jerome Bettis with similar lack of size, speed and 5-star recruit. The bend-but-don’t-break style of the defense has a tough job Saturday. If the offense can’t string together first downs and give them some respite, the sheer science of it all says the Irish O-line and running backs start running wild. More than the running game, how do the Mids stop tight end Michael Mayer? That will be the question.

I do not mean to be cursory when it comes to the Midshipmen on the field, but this team has been competitive only inconsistently and with Notre Dame seeming to once again find its identity, I struggle to see on-field aspects remaining compelling for too long on Saturday. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but we’ll get to that. Before asking you for a prediction, let me ask the 30,000-foot question: How is Ken Niumatalolo’s job security at this point? He has been an institution, but he has also gone 10-21 across the last three seasons.

Niuamatalolo’s job security is often discussed amongst the alumni (who can be demanding and hard to please) and pundits in these parts, but many of us believe he has done enough for this program — and the young men who are being coached and mentored to be Naval officers as well as athletes — to dictate when he leaves. To many others, that assertion is laughable. He is the highest paid coach at Navy and you mentioned the recent record.

The standard can slide a little bit, particularly given how the pandemic really crushed Navy. There aren’t “Covid years” and grad transfers and other opportunities like that for Navy. So, Niumatalolo gets a pass there. But another losing season this year and another year without the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy are not good resume bullets. And if it’s another year getting blown out by Notre Dame and a loss to Army, whispers for Kenny’s ouster WILL get louder.

For us, it’s tough. This is a business. Niumatalolo knows that. And famous coaches have been shown the door by schools where statues honor them because of the business aspect. What Kenny has done to help shape these men to be difference-makers in the Navy and Marine Corps cannot be calculated. Unfortunately wins and losses can be calculated.

Now let’s jump to your prediction. Notre Dame remains a 15-point favorite. How do you see Saturday afternoon unfolding?

Prediction? Pain....

Sorry, couldn’t resist the “Rocky III” joke, but I think Saturday will be painful for the Mids. It’s possible they benefit from an Irish letdown after the amazing Clemson performance. It’s also possible that Marcus Freeman sees this game as a stepping stone being in contention for a major Bowl. And I’m sure every Irish coach, player and fan sees the opportunity here with Navy, Boston College and USC left on the schedule. Destroying Navy and BC and hoping USC is a top-3 team and undefeated at the time of the ND game presents an amazing opportunity for this season to end up a lot different than many thought after losing to Ohio State and Marshall to kick off the year.

The Mids ALWAYS get up for the Irish. And the game is just up the road in Baltimore. And the Mids looked lively and competitive against a really good Cincy team last week. If Navy avoids turnovers and missed field goals (which have REALLY hurt of late) and strings together long drives, they’ll be in it. They HAVE TO keep Notre Dame to under 21 points because the Navy offense isn’t scoring more than that. Still, the Irish defense is good, and the run game is ELITE GOOD right now. I think Navy tries to take the air out of the game and chew clock. ND will be up to the task and not hungover from Clemson. A close first half gets out of hand in the second half on a gorgeous day in Baltimore. ND wins 38-13.

And how much are you looking forward to a jaunt to Dublin in August?

Can’t wait. I studied abroad in college in Galway. Going back to the home country and watching two great teams will be a great way to start football season.

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