No. 21 Navy's defense concerns Kelly, No. 16 Irish
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By JOHN FINERAN
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Preparing for Navy’s triple-option offense is an annual headache for Notre Dame, but it’s the Midshipmen’s defense that has coach Brian Kelly reaching for the aspirin.
“I’m really impressed with their defensive structure,” Kelly said. “They’ve been very aggressive. Their defense is so much better at everything they do from coverage to getting after the quarterback (and) tackling.”
It’s the 93rd consecutive meeting between the No. 16 Fighting Irish (7-2, No. 16 College Football Playoff) and the No. 21 Midshipmen (7-1, No. 23 CFP) on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
After a rare 3-10 finish in 2018, veteran Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo revamped his defensive staff, bringing in defensive coordinator Brian Newberry from FCS power Kennesaw State. Newberry’s multiple schemes, using 4-2-5 and 3-4 principles, have produced an about-face for the Midshipmen, who are riding a five-game winning streak.
Led by linebackers Diego Fagot, Paul Carothers and Jacob Springer, safeties Evan Fochtman and Kevin Brennan and linemen Nizaire Cromartie and J’arius Warren, Navy is 15th nationally in scoring defense (15.1 points average), 17th in rushing defense (109.4 yards), 17th in total defense (310.6 yards) and 21st in quarterback sacks (3.0).
Niumatalolo knows playing Notre Dame is never easy, especially with the Irish coming off one of their better offensive performances of the season. In their second straight victory, a 38-7 triumph at Duke, Kelly’s Irish were led by quarterback Ian Book, who threw for four touchdown passes and 181 yards and rushed for a career-high 139 of Notre Dame’s 288 yards.
“We know who they are – it’s going to be really, really hard for us to beat them,” said Niumatalolo, who has been on the winning sideline four times in 22 seasons as an assistant or head coach in the series the Irish dominate 78-13-1 with the help of an NCAA-record 43-game winning streak (1964-2007). “We have to play really well just to have chance.”
Quarterback Malcolm Perry is averaging 130.2 of Navy’s nation-leading 357.9 rushing yards with 16 touchdowns. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound senior has improved his passing (722 yards, 5 TDs) since the Irish last saw him as a slotback (133 rushing yards) during their 44-22 victory in San Diego last season. Fullbacks Nelson Smith (505 yards, 7 TDs) and Jamale Carothers (355, 8) are a handful, too, on an offense that is averaging 40.1 points.
“(Perry) can turn a play of zero yards into a touchdown,” Kelly said. “Your discipline has to be second to none.”
Navy’s five-game winning streak began with a 34-25 victory over Commander-in-Chief Trophy rival Air Force on Oct. 5. Atlantic Athletic Conference victories at Tulsa (45-17), over South Florida (35-3) and Tulane (41-38) and at Connecticut (56-10) followed until last weekend’s bye.
The Midshipmen haven’t won six in a row since 1978 when they started 7-0 and were ranked No. 11 under George Welsh and then lost to Dan Devine’s No. 15 Notre Dame, 27-7, in Cleveland’s old Municipal Stadium. It was the 15th straight victory in the series for the Irish, who would stretch the streak to an NCAA-record 43 games before Navy won 46-44 in triple overtime at South Bend in 2007.
The Irish have won 16 straight at Notre Dame Stadium. However, the 273-game home sellout streak will end, dating back to 1973.
The Midshipmen have been extremely impressive inside their opponents’ 20-yard line, producing 26 touchdowns (25 rushing, 1 passing) and two field goals in 29 visits, a percentage of .966 that is tied for fourth with Iowa behind leaders LSU (.980), Georgia (.974) and Virginia Tech (.974). Navy’s only failure came in the Holy Cross opener when the Midshipmen took a knee to end the game.
The Irish, who started 20 for 20 and led the nation at one point, have slipped into a tie for 16th with their .917 percentage of 29 touchdowns (13 rushing, 16 passing) and four field goals in 36 attempts.
Kelly’s teams have traditionally not ranked among the national leaders in time of possession. The Irish are averaging 27:55 per game, 105th among 130 teams. Navy is 19th at 32:41. When the teams met in South Bend in 2017, Navy led 42:42 to 17:18 and the Irish needed a pair of Brandon Wimbush TD passes to pull out a 24-17 victory.
In 2016 at Jacksonville, Kelly elected to kick a field goal with 7:28 remaining in the fourth quarter to pull within 28-27, figuring a defensive stop would give the Irish a chance to win. Notre Dame never saw the football again as ran out the clock.
Free safety Alohi Gilman will play in his third Notre Dame-Navy game but only the second for Irish. Gilman started at safety for Navy as a true freshman in 2016 and left Kelly impressed with his game-high 12 tackles in Navy’s victory.
“Extremely active, really good tackler – somebody who got our attention immediately,” Kelly said. Gilman then transferred to Notre Dame, sat out 2017 and made seven stops in last season’s 44-22 Irish victory in San Diego.
Irish junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa’s older brother, Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa, graduated from the Naval Academy earlier this year after playing offensive tackle.
AP Sports Writer David Ginsburg contributed to this preview.
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Updated November 15, 2019