The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish get their 125th season under way on Saturday September 1st in Dublin, Ireland. The Irish will be designated, strangely, as the away team to their longest rival, the Midshipmen of the Naval Academy.
Brian Kelly gets his third season under way as the head of Fighting Irish football with a new QB at the helm in Sophomore Everett Golson. Golson beat out Andrew Hendrix in fall camp after last years starter, Tommy Rees, was suspended for the season opener.
The game also marks the debut of Chuck Martin at offensive coordinator. Kelly has handed over the reigns of the offense to Martin, last seasons defensive coordinator, in camp. Both sides meet last year with the Fighting Irish rumbling to a 56-14 win. Here is a review of that game:
Here is the a squad vs squad breakdown and preview of the game:
Navy running game vs. Notre Dame run Defense:
The Navy rushing attack has finished amongst the top five statistically in the NCAA in 9 of the last 10 seasons. Last season they averaged 312.3 yards per game (3,747 yards total) and 37 touchdowns at a very respectable 5.4 yards per carry. The returning linemen aren't too shabby either. The Navy OL, traditionally regarded as undersized, is anchored by 6'3" 300 lbs senior Josh Cabral. Expect the same Navy spread flexbone type of ground game that we have seen in past seasons lead by QB Trey Miller, Slot Backs Gee Gee Greene & John Howell and FB Noah Copeland.
Taking Navy's FB Copeland out of the game early will be amongst the key goals of the Fighting Irish rush defense. For this to happen, it will be key for Nose Guards Louis Nix III and Kona Schwenke to keep the Navy guards from getting to the second level, thus keeping All-American LB Manti T'eo free and mobile to either plug the middle gaps or engage in lateral pursuit. If T'eo does get tied up inside on a consistant basis, then the Irish might look at releasing Jamoris Slaughter up close to the line to add some extra lateral speed on the edges to stifle the outside option attack.
Navy passing game vs. Notre Dame pass Defense:
Everyone knows Navy is a run first team, so don't expect much in the way of a high octane passing game, it's just not in their footballing DNA. Last seasons starting QB Kris Proctor has departed and handed the reigns of the Navy offense over to 6'0" 200 lbs Trey Miller. Miller started for Navy against Notre Dame last season in South Bend while Proctor was injured with a dislocated elbow, and went 5-13 for only 33 yards and a 9-yard TD toss to Gee Gee Greene. If Miller is forced to take to the skies then expect him to launch toward 6'4" 225 Senior WR Brandon Turner, who lead the team with 300 yards in 2011 at 21.4 yards a snare. Turner will be flanked by 6'0" 200 lbs Junior Matt Aiken.
Probably the greatest concern going into the 2012 season is the defensive backfield of the Fighting Irish as it relates to depth. Running backs Cam McDaniel & KeiVarae Russell have moved to CB to aid the Irish in the depth department, but as Irish luck would have it, the Notre Dame secondary almost get a bye this week. Russell also becomes the first ever Freshman to open the season for the Irish at the CB position. The long and short of this matchup is the Fighting Irish secondary will not really get tested unless Navy fall behind by about 20 points or so. The Irish DL is stacked with talent and depth, expect some heavy heat from Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt if Navy need to take to the air.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame running game vs. Navy run Defense:
Last seasons rushing attack was one of the best group performances by the Kelly's team. The Irish backs averaged a very respectable 158.2 yards per game at a whopping 5.8 yards per gain and also hit paydirt 23 times. The backfield consisting of Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick spell a potential nightmare for the Naval Academy front seven, and indeed the back four, as both are above average ball catchers. Wood however, will not make the trip to Ireland due to a suspension for violating team rules.
Giving the fact that Golson is unsettled at best in his first start, I expect the Irish to run the football close to 50 times against Navy, to take the focus of responsibility away from Golson. If that is going to be the case then you might throw in speedster George Atkinson III and Amir Carlisle to share the burden with Riddick.
The Navy rush defense will be led by 6'2'' MLB Matt Warrick. Warrick was last seasons leading tackler with 103. One of the strong points of the Navy defense is the Linebacker rotation. Expect to see playing time from Brye French, Javaris Cummings, Josh Tate, Jordan Drake and Keegan Wetzel as well as Warrick.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame passing game vs. Navy pass Defense:
Notre Dame will start Everett Golson at QB in Ireland. Golson is probably the most dynamic dual threat QB that ND has had at the position since Tony Rice in 1988. What set's him appart from Rice is his cannon of an arm. My only concern with Golson is that if he has to take off and extend the play then how will the offensive linemen react giving the fact that they have been primarily protecting pocket style passers in the past, the potential to grab the Navy defense and hold might be worth watching out for.
Perhaps the second greatest concern going into fall camp for the Irish was the WR positions. All-American Michael Floyd has departed for greener pastures to the NFL and in doing so has left the Irish WR corps with many question marks. The saving grace is that All-American and team captain TE Tyler Eifert returns from an outstanding campaign in 2011. Apart from Eifert, the rest of the Irish wideouts will need a huge concerted effort from TJ Jones, Robby Toma and John Goodman. It's quite possible that Freshman speedster Devonte' Neal might also see some time in the slot position.
For Navy, gone is the top pass rusher Jabaree Tuani, the anchor of the line and arguably the team’s top defensive player. The pass rush was almost non-existant last year, with only Tuani making 5.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. No one else came up with two sacks and the plays in the backfield were non-existent for long stretches. In 2011 the secondary gave up way too many big plays and struggled against the more efficient passers. The safeties will need to play better in Ireland, especially against the pass, and that should start with veteran Tra’ves Bush, a 5-10, 192-pound senior who finished second on the team last season with 93 tackles with two picks and four tackles for loss.
Edge: Notre Dame
One area that I will be paying particularly close attention to this season is that of the Punt Return game. The Irish were one of the worst teams in the NCAA last season in this area. Brian Kelly has addressed this by unleashing an electric playmaker in Freshman Devonte' Neal. How Neal handles the transition from high-school to the college ranks remain to be seeing, but this is a first positive step in my opinion. On the kickoff return game the Irish are well setup. Sub-11 second 100 meter sprinter, George Atkinson III, returned two kicks the distance last season and is a threat every time he touches the ball.
Navy's kicking game is rebuilding itself by starting freshman Nick Sloan.It will mark the first time that Navy starts a freshman kicker since the 1996 season when Tim Shubza won the job. That was also the last time the Midshipmen played Notre Dame in Dublin. Shawn Lynch and Marcus Thomas will handle the Punt Return and Kickoff Return games, respectively, for the Middies.
Edge: Notre Dame
After a tumultuous off-season, which saw freshman All-American Aaron Lynch depart the team to return home to Florida, the whole Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese suspension, and more recently the the suspension of RB Cierre Wood for violating team rules, Brian Kelly must be as happy as about anyone else to get this season underway.
The Irish are opening the 2012 campaign with a new signal caller under centre in Everett Golson, however, I do not expect to see Golson take to the air in an effort to light up a capacity filled Aviva Stadium. Instead, expect something along the lines of a 70/30 run/pass ratio from the Irish or perhaps an even higher ratio leaning towards the running game where the Irish are more settled and experienced.
If Wood would have started then I'd have expected more than one Irish back to go over 100 yards on the ground. A stifling Irish defense should be more than able to lock down one of the poorest Navy offensive units in 10 years, for at least three of the four quarters of the game. But if Navy do manage to establish their triple option flexbone offense, then the Irish will have to take their chances every time they get the ball on offense.
What I don't expect is a close game. I just cannot see Navy match the talent of the Fighting Irish, regardless of who Brian Kelly would have put under centre.