Notre Dame’s Opponents: Navy’s rebound dependent on QB progress and OL health
Few programs ebb and flow as much as the service academies do. Whether “ebb” or “flow” is considered the negative half of that phrasing, that is where the Navy Midshipmen have found themselves the last two seasons.
Flipping that trend may take more than one year, leaving Navy exposed to a third losing season in a row. At least, that would make the most sense, but head coach Ken Niumatalolo has made a habit of yo-yoing the Midshipmen back to success every other year. It just may be the pandemic season of 2020, and Navy’s openly-regretted non-contact practice habits leading into the year, should be disregarded.
Because otherwise, the Midshipmen have followed up a disappointing season (namely, 2018’s 3-10) with a successful one (2019’s 11-2). Such a jump may be too much of an ask this year, but progress could still be the baseline expectation.
The review should focus on the 4-8 record, capped by an upset of Army. (Editor’s note: I, Douglas, made it to the Army-Navy game last December. If you ever have a chance where that opportunity is borderline convenient, take it. It was a particularly unique environment in which I enjoyed some option football.) It should point out Navy played two teams ranked in the top-five entering bowl season, Notre Dame and Cincinnati. And then this review should once again mention the Midshipmen beat Army.
But instead, time must be spent on the off-field chaos orchestrated by Navy’s athletic director. After the Midshipmen were blown out by Air Force, he insisted Niumatalolo fire offensive coordinator Ivin Jaspar. Niumatalolo managed to push back and instead only demoted Jaspar to quarterbacks coach.
That was during Jaspar’s 20th season in Annapolis. He long ago proved himself, no matter how the first two games of 2021 went.
He is now again Navy’s offensive coordinator. Gladchuk seems to have simply reaped discord with no long-term influence.
WHAT NAVY LOST
The Midshipmen struggle to retain as much production as most teams because it does not have any fifth-year players. Compounding that, the Academy does not welcome transfers; in these regards, Navy is somewhat similar to Stanford as it struggles to adjust to modern eligibility rules.
Returning only 11 starters, the Midshipmen most notably lost three-time All-AAC linebacker Diego Fagot, also the team’s leading tackler each of the last three seasons.
Including him, Navy is now without four of its top-five tacklers from 2021, not to mention its top-four running backs.
Navy ranks No. 108 below at 53 percent returning production.
Junior quarterback Tai Lavatai was a bit inexperienced to handle the pivotal role in Navy’s triple-option by usual Midshipmen standards. Thus, he alone should spur offensive improvement.
Helping him, it is hard to imagine Navy will have worse offensive line health this season. The Midshipmen started four sophomores last year, notable for any team but doubly so for a service academy. They started four different left tackles, three different right guards and three different centers among nine different starting line combinations.
For context, Notre Dame used six different starting line combinations in 2021 as it experienced a historic run of injuries at left tackle, and that tally includes swapping in Blake Fisher for Josh Lugg at right tackle in the Fiesta Bowl when the latter suffered a December knee injury.
That combination — a more experienced quarterback behind a healthy offensive line in a triple-option attack — should raise Navy’s floor compared to the last few seasons, in which it averaged 16.6 points per game and then 20.1 points per game in 2021.
While Gladchuk may have scapegoated offensive coordinator Jaspar, the Midshipmen defense was not excelling the last two years, either. It gave up 30.3 points per game in 2020, and then improved to only 28.3 points in 2021.
Life will get harder without stalwart Fagot.
An argument can be made that Navy was better than recognized at the end of 2021. It went 3-2 straight-up to end the season, and it went 4-1-1 against the spread in the second half of the year, the only gambling loss coming at Notre Dame. Those are broad signs of improvement.
Yet, PointsBet sets the Midshipmen wins total Over/Under at 4.5, with the odds expecting the Under to cash. Navy has the luxury of facing Delaware and Temple this season, but those are two of its five home games, a number reduced by moving its meeting with the Irish away from campus every two years, while also always facing Army at a neutral site (Philadelphia this year).
SP+, FPI, and TeamRankings agree on:— Jason Kirk 🦉 (@thejasonkirk) August 23, 2022
A&M under 8.5 wins
Cincy over 9
EMU over 5.5
GA State under 7.5
Navy under 4.5
Notre Dame over 8.5
Pitt over 8
SMU over 7
USC under 9.5
WMU under 6.5
NOTRE DAME’S OPPONENTS
— Ohio State’s offense projects to match the best of the century
— Marshall set for fun in the Sun Belt with advantageous debut schedule
— Cal’s offensive struggles continue to undermine quality defense
— New QB Drake Maye not the only change for disappointing North Carolina, Mack Brown
— Veteran BYU will be anything but a trap game in Las Vegas for the Irish
— Stanford’s woes may cut deeper than the current roster
— UNLV set to improve in 2022, not that that’s saying much
— Syracuse star RB Sean Tucker keys Orange run to a bowl
— No. 4 Clemson needs more of everything from QB DJ Uiagalelei, except weight