And In That Corner ... The Navy Midshipmen and new head coach Brian Newberry meet No. 13 Notre Dame in Dublin
Notre Dame has never been the home team in Dublin. When the annual series with Navy tours through neutral locations every other year — be it San Diego, Baltimore, New Jersey, Jacksonville or Dublin — it is always the years the Midshipmen “host” the Irish.
Not this time around. Notre Dame is the “home” team in Aviva Stadium this weekend, with kickoff at 2:30 ET on NBC. That is not only the kickoff for this game but for the entire college football season.
Navy will have a different look, on a few levels beyond the color of its jersey. To get a better idea of what to expect from the Midshipmen, let’s turn to Chris Servello, one of the voices behind the Sing Second Sports podcast, a look at Navy’s sports for the last three years before unofficially handing the reins off to some others in the podcasting realm.
DF: Let’s start at the top. Based on your co-host’s answers last fall, I am guessing you were surprised to see Ken Niumatalolo fired after his 16th season as Midshipmen head coach. More shocking, his firing came in the postgame locker room after a double-overtime loss to Army. Your co-host, John Schofield, had said another loss to Army could throw his future into doubt, but a loss like that? One effectively decided by a fumble at the goal line in a second overtime? So grant me that you were surprised. … What was the broader reaction when athletic director Chet Gladchuk pulled that plug? Any idea how the locker room responded?
CS: Folks close to the program weren’t surprised.
The Navy Football Brotherhood and Navy fans owe coach Ken a ton of gratitude. He is an amazing coach and leader, and an even better human being, but it was time for a change.
Enter former defensive coordinator Brian Newberry. Navy’s defense was decent the last few years. To take an easy route and pull from the SP+ rankings following each season’s bowl games, the Midshipmen defense ranked No. 42 after last season and No. 75 after the 2021 season. (To the reader, if the latter number sounds middling, you are not wrong, but realize Navy’s offense was ranked No. 107 and No. 115, respectively, following those years.)
Set aside how Newberry got the job. How do you feel about his chances at success?
This program needed a shot in the arm…something to get it to the next level. Hopefully, coach Newberry is the jolt this program needs to build on its recent success but also find a new intensity. I think players and fans have been pleasantly surprised thus far. The game against a nationally-ranked Notre Dame is gonna be a huge test.
Now let’s delve into a topic that still does not get enough coverage, though Navy’s greatest rival could change that. Army is leaving behind the triple-option offense to try something akin to a shotgun option. It is hard to fault that decision, given how the NCAA has curtailed anyone’s ability to cut block. There has been some vague talk the Midshipmen may throw a bit more often, but other than that, it is my understanding Newberry and new offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut (formerly the offensive coordinator at option-heavy Kennesaw State for nearly a decade) will stick with the triple-option. What are you expecting their offense to look like?
There will be parts of the offense that fans recognize from the Paul Johnson and Niumatalolo eras, but I also expect new wrinkles that take advantage of offensive talent and that account for some of the rule changes. Think occasional RPO or other versions of the option that keep defenses honest.
And, as someone who follows service academy football closer than anyone else I converse with, what are your thoughts about Army’s new approach? Do you find any intrigue in the thought that all three service academies are going to run different offenses?
It is only recently (when considering the history of the three programs) that we all went to similar offensive schemes. I think the reality is academies have to find approaches that fit the talent and recruiting philosophy. I wish them both lots of luck, except when they play Navy!
To remind folks of the new cut-block rules, implemented before last season, an excerpt from my Q&A a year ago with your co-host, John Schofield …
JS: The rule change made almost no news. There wasn’t a lot of coverage of it. But yeah, of course it hurts. It is a foundational element of the offensive scheme. The Mids could get away with having offensive tackles who weren’t 350 pounds because they could use speed and the cut to neutralize the larger defensive front. Going forward, I think the offense has to evolve. Away from the option? No. But more of a focus needs to be paid on effective O-line in recruiting and coaching to overcome this.
Editor’s Note: Sing Second Sports recommended a column from the Capital Gazette — New cut blocking rules have hurt Navy’s ability to execute the triple-option
Back to now, though still focused on that offense. I do not believe we’ve heard a starter named at quarterback. Blake Horvath “or” Tai Lavatai will start, per the Navy depth chart. Lavatai led the way last season until he was injured about halfway through the season. I don’t think I know anything about the sophomore Horvath. Criticize me for that as you will, and then hopefully educate me on him and let us know the differences between the two.
CS: I expect to see several quarterbacks against Notre Dame and perhaps even throughout the first two games. We will see Lavatai, Horvath and maybe even (Tedros) Gleaton. No one really won the job out of camp so we will have to see who grabs the gig. There is a bunch of talent in the quarterback room and I think it will take a little time for the lead dog to emerge. Besides, being an option quarterback is a tough gig, easy to be beaten and bruised, so it’s good to have options. (No pun intended.)
As for their individual talents, Lavatai brings the confidence and expertise of a senior who has lots of game snaps. Horvath distinguished himself as a proficient passer who can change the tempo and move the ball when the ground game slows or a wrinkle is needed. The guy I am keeping a close eye on is Gleaton. If he gets a chance his athleticism could be a real assest for the Mids.
My curiosity focuses on that offense. There are elements of the unknown in scheme and certainly at quarterback. I simply assume the defense will be out-physicaled and/or outrun. I mean, the Midshipmen have not held the Irish to fewer than 24 points since Brian Kelly’s first year and in nine of those 11 games, Notre Dame scored 34 or more points, even reaching 49 or more on four different occasions. Any reason to doubt an offensive onslaught from Sam Hartman and Audric Estimé?
The size and athleticism of the Irish will undoubtedly give the Navy defense headaches. That said—Navy’s had all spring and summer to come up with something special for the Notre Dame offense. I expect lots of stunts and blitzes, different looks to try and force Notre Dame to make mistakes.
Therein may be my ask for a prediction. All summer, the Irish have been about 20-point favorites. Aside from threatening to drink literally all the beer in Aviva Stadium, what do you expect from Saturday night in Dublin?
I’ll happily take Navy with the points. Could Navy shock the world? I am not sure. But will it be closer than Vegas expects? I think so.