The annual meeting between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Navy Midshipmen is set for a neutral-site showdown at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Both programs lost their first two games of the 2022 college football campaign, but the recovery has not been as strong for the latter as it has been for the former.
Navy (3-6) must win out to have any shot at going to a bowl game while Notre Dame has secured its postseason after winning three in a row and six of seven. The Irish's last two victories have been impressive, first beating then-No. 16 Syracuse 41-24 on the road two weeks ago before stunning No. 4 Clemson 35-14 at home last Saturday. Notre Dame dominated the undefeated Tigers on both sides of the ball, leading 28-0 with less than 13 minutes to go before Clemson finally got on the board. The win also vaulted the Irish to No. 20 in the latest College Football Playoff Rankings, which is quite the turnaround after starting the season 0-2.
Meanwhile, Navy has gone 3-4 since dropping its first two games this season with two of their victories coming in overtime. Last week, the Midshipmen managed just 10 points in a 20-10 loss at Cincinnati
Head-to-head, Notre Dame has won four straight in this historic series and six of the last seven going back to 2014. Navy's only win in that stretch came by a single point in Jacksonville in 2016, which was a rebuilding season for the Irish. These teams have played in Baltimore 22 times previously, with Notre Dame leading 18-4 in those meetings. Midshipmen must go all the way back to 1956 for their last win against the Irish in Charm City.
No. 20 Notre Dame vs. Navy
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
That win over Clemson may not have displayed a very fast start on offense, but it was still as complete a performance as head coach Marcus Freeman could ask for. That came thanks to a blocked punt and interception both returned for touchdowns, while the offense saw two running backs — Logan Diggs (114) and Audric Estime (104) — each eclipse the 100-yard mark on the ground.
Drew Pyne, meanwhile, was kept under 100 passing yards for the first time since he took the reins as Notre Dame's starting quarterback in mid-September, but he still thrived in leading the offense to the win. Pyne rushed for a touchdown to cap off a nearly six-minute drive just before halftime and sealed the Irish scoring with a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Mayer. That touchdown, the 16th of his career, has Mayer atop the single-season and career leaderboards among Notre Dame tight ends in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns.
The offensive line also came up big, opening up the running lanes and giving up just one sack to a Tigers defense stocked with NFL-ready talent. The line has improved as the season has progressed and is yielding 3.87 tackles for a loss per game, good for seventh in the FBS.
Notre Dame's 195-yard rushing output per game in 2022 — let alone last week's 263-yard outburst against Clemson — will be tough to approach against Navy, however. Opponents are averaging 88 yards per game on the ground against the Midshipmen, which ranks seventh nationally. They also have surrendered a total of five touchdowns on the ground and the defense has produced 15 takeaways (nine fumbles, six interceptions) in nine games.
When Navy Has the Ball
The option-driven offense continues to produce even though the defense knows what's coming. The Midshipmen are averaging nearly 237 rushing yards per game this season, which places them ninth overall. There's been some week-to-week volatility, however, as they have churned out as many as 455 yards (Week 6 win over Tulsa) but also as few as 114 (Week 5 loss to Air Force).
Navy is averaging 60 rushing attempts per game, and seven different players have logged 30 or more carries entering this contest. Daba Fofana has emerged as the team's most productive ball carrier with 502 yards and five touchdowns on 140 totes. Even though the Midshipmen are a top-10 rushing offense in terms of total yards, they are averaging 3.93 yards per carry (83rd nationally), which is part of the reason why they are averaging 21.9 points per game (T-108th) and have been held to 13 or fewer in four different contests.
There's also the passing attack, if you want to call it that, which is averaging less than 100 yards per game through the air. To make matters worse, starting quarterback Tai Lavatai suffered a season-ending knee injury in the win over Temple two weeks ago. Maasai Maynor and Xavier Arline have been sharing the duties since then. Arline has been more of a running threat, while Maynor completed three of five passes for 81 yards in last week's loss to Cincinnati. But Lavatai is responsible for five of Navy's six touchdown passes this year. He's also tied with Fofana for the team lead in ground scores.
Notre Dame's defense has done well when it comes to stopping the run (125.2 ypg, 10 TDs), but the Midshipmen's offensive approach always presents a different kind of challenge. But as the blowout of Clemson shows, the Irish can also beat you on special teams. In the first quarter of last week's game, they blocked their FBS-leading sixth punt of the season, which linebacker Prince Kollie picked up and returned for a touchdown for the first score of the game. Then early in the fourth quarter, freshman cornerback Ben Morrison intercepted Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei's pass deep inside the red zone and returned it 96 yards to make it 28-0 and remove any doubt as to the eventual outcome.
This is Navy's first — and, quite possibly, only — matchup against a ranked opponent all season, and the Midshipmen's familiarity with the Fighting Irish could provide a boost for bouncing back from recent struggles. But speaking of bouncing back from recent struggles, the Fighting Irish have done just that in the last two weeks with wins over No. 16 Syracuse and No. 4 Clemson. Notre Dame may not pull away as heavily as it did last week due to the Midshipmen's ground-oriented approach helping them consistently rank among the nation's leaders in time of possession (34:45 this season, fifth in the FBS), but look for the Fighting Irish to maintain that momentum by extending their winning streak to four in a row.
Prediction: Notre Dame 27, Navy 17
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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.
*Price as of publication.