Over time, the appearance of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Navy Midshipmen on each other's schedule every season became as common as post-Labor Day cold weather inside The House That Rockne Built. But the historic programs' yearly meeting on the gridiron came to a halt when the COVID-shortened 2020 season was the first without the Fighting Irish and Midshipmen squaring off since the series first began in October 1927 in Baltimore.
Speaking of a halt, Navy (2-6, 2-4 AAC) did just that to its three-game skid when the Midshipmen headed to Tulsa and squeaked past the Golden Hurricane 20-17 in conference action last Friday. Both of Navy's two wins this season — at Tulsa and at home against UCF on Oct. 2 — have come by just seven total points, with the Midshipmen scoring 17 straight in the fourth quarter to storm back against the Knights and then scoring 17 in the second half to outlast the Hurricane in their most recent outing.
Notre Dame (7-1) has had a more successful — though hardly stress-free — first two months to the season, with its first two wins coming by just three points each and its last three by an average of just over nine points. The Irish's 15-point home win over USC two weeks ago was certainly a positive step, though the defense lost star safety Kyle Hamilton to a leg injury that forced him to miss last week's 44-34 victory over North Carolina (also at home) and will keep him off the field this week as well.
The Irish have historically dominated this series, winning nearly six games for every win that the Midshipmen have tallied. But recent years have been a bit more balanced, with Navy victorious four times in the 10-year stretch from 2007 to 2016 to break a 43-year Notre Dame winning streak from 1964 to 2006. But the Midshipmen have come up short in each of the last three meetings: in 2017 (24-17) and 2019 (52-20) at Notre Dame, as well as in 2018 (44-22) out in San Diego.
Navy at No. 10 Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -21
When Navy Has the Ball
Even more intriguing about the win over Tulsa? Tai Lavatai and the Midshipmen failed to complete a single pass … on just three attempts. Only 12 times since 2000 has a team won without a completed pass, the last such team being Army in September while the Midshipmen last did so twice in 2017 against Virginia and SMU.
So the Midshipmen ran the ball 57 times for 302 yards, further advancing their American Athletic Conference-leading rushing total that now stands at 222.5 yards per game. Just as it has been all season, the rushing attack against Tulsa was very well balanced with 10 different Middies notching at least one carry. Carlinos Acie ran just three times but collected a team-high 80 yards, 64 of which came on a run to the Tulsa 12-yard line to set up a field goal just before halftime. Lavatai totaled 64 yards — and the deciding touchdown — on 18 carries, while Chance Warren (10 att., 70 yds.) and Isaac Ruoss (13, 49) were next in line and James Harris notched Navy's first score on the team's opening drive in the third quarter.
The concerning part, aside from Navy posting the fourth-lowest total yards per game in the FBS, is that the Midshipmen are averaging just 18.1 points per game, the worst mark in the AAC and the 10th-lowest in the FBS. That'll be a welcomed matchup for a Notre Dame defense that got gashed by North Carolina without Hamilton. Quarterback Sam Howell did all he could last week by totaling 432 yards — 341 passing, 91 rushing — along with two touchdowns while Ty Chandler rushed for 83 yards and two scores. So while one of the nation's top defensive backs will be watching from the sideline, the unit will rely on its strength in stopping the run as Notre Dame has kept five of its last six opponents under 100 rushing yards.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Notre Dame did its best Navy impression last week when the Fighting Irish ran for a season-high 293 yards in the win over North Carolina, well past its previous high-water mark of 180 against Virginia Tech. Kyren Williams fell just short of the double-century mark with 199 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries, which included a 91-yard fourth-quarter score that will become one of his signature moments in blue and gold. Logan Diggs also got in on the fun, scoring his first career touchdown on a goal-line leap.
Jack Coan also notched his first rushing score of the year and added another through the air, completing 16 of his 24 passes for 213 yards and the touchdown to Kevin Austin Jr. just 83 seconds before halftime. Tyler Buchner also found the end zone for the second time in three games with his first-quarter connection with Avery Davis to open the scoring against the Tar Heels.
Thanks to its overwhelming time of possession — fifth in the FBS — Navy boasts the third-best total defense (347 ypg). In fact, the Midshipmen have kept each of their last two opponents — three in total — under 300 yards, which helped lead to the win over Tulsa and a narrow loss to Cincinnati. A key underappreciated factor, however, is Navy's success in stopping opposing offenses in the red zone. The Mids have yielded 31 trips into the red zone but have only allowed 23 scores — 19 touchdowns, four field goals — to post a top-20 scoring rate of 74.2 percent.
While Navy's defense has performed quite well at times throughout the 2021 season, its offense simply doesn't have the firepower to keep up with a Notre Dame team that is finding its way heading into the final stretch. The Fighting Irish may not have had the prettiest of wins this season, but their experience and veteran leadership on both sides of the ball have helped to bridge the gap and land the Irish in the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff Rankings. Saturday gives Notre Dame an opportunity to validate that placement.
Prediction: Notre Dame 30, Navy 13
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— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.