SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt put to rest any notion that Notre Dame might be overconfident going into another game against a triple-option team.
While being pressed on last year’s game against Navy — when the Irish fell behind after blowing a 21-point lead, before escaping with a 49-39 victory — Schmidt was asked about the importance of finishing strong after building a lead.
“I’m not going to get into having a lead at any point; they're (4-0) and averaging (38) points a game,” the linebacker said. “I won't even get into that kind of situation, just out of respect for them.”
Yes, this is a different Midshipmen team entering Notre Dame Stadium, the best Brian Kelly’s Irish will have faced in his six years here. Of course, as Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo will tell you, this is also the best Notre Dame team his Navy squad will face in his eight years with the Mids.
Somewhere in between is the fact that Notre Dame had its way with a triple-option team earlier this season, holding Georgia Tech to seven points through 59 minutes last month after an offseason of research and a fall camp filled with more attention to the option than in years past.
The fact these Irish (4-1) are coming off their first loss of the season only adds to the urgency this time around with Navy.
“Obviously we're not happy right now,” Schmidt said. “And we are using that as kind of fuel. We're just going to continue to work hard. We're not going to allow that game to beat us twice. We're living with the bad taste in our mouth. But we're not going to think back and focus on that game. At least for me, personally, that's giving me extra motivation to make sure that I'm working as hard as possible in these games.”
This might be one of the nation’s most unique and respect-filled rivalries, in addition to the longest continuous intersectional one — Saturday will mark their 88th straight meeting — but rarely have both teams entered this game with so much recent success.
Aside from their 2012 season-opener in Dublin, this is the first Navy-Notre Dame game with a combined one or fewer losses since 1957. Navy is receiving votes in both major polls; Notre Dame ranks 15th in both.
Navy is 4-0 for the first time in 11 years, and it has won eight straight games and 10 of 11 dating to last season. That lone loss was to Notre Dame.
The Irish have been down this road before, outlasting an eventual nine-win Navy team in 2013 one week after beating another triple-option team, Air Force. They routed the worst Navy team of the Niumatalolo era in 2011 two weeks after beating Air Force as well.
Those defenses were led by Bob Diaco, now UConn’s head coach. This will be second-year Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder’s first time seeing two triple-option teams in the same season at Notre Dame.
“It’s still assignment football in all cases,” Kelly said. “It's still having players that recognize and understand how important it is to play option football, and it's different than what they practice all the time. The similarities are more than what they're dissimilar, but I'd say Georgia Tech and Navy are probably as similar as any option teams we've played.”
Former defensive assistant Bob Elliott moved this offseason to an off-field role with a title of special assistant to the head coach. His work included traveling to San Diego State to meet with a staff that helped keep Navy’s offense relatively in check during a bowl loss, in addition to devoting the month of May to option studies. After beating Georgia Tech in Week 3, Kelly also credited the Irish’s scout team for helping give the Irish defense the proper option looks in the days before the game.
An entirely other challenge, though, is Navy’s defense, which — through four games, at least — looks like the best of the Niumatalolo era, ranking 13th in scoring defense and tied for 36th in total defense.
“They're very smart. They're very heavy,” Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer said. “They understand their positions; these guys, they don't make a lot of mistakes when they play. They give us specific looks and they have an identity, they have strength that they know they have and that they're not going to come out and give you a crazy different look, or unexpected, at least, or something that is not them.”