Notre Dame Game Preview: Week 0 - Navy

By Stiofán Mac Fhilib

Two hundred and twenty eight long days since we last got to see college football live – and those unforgettable, nail-biting first ten minutes of the Georgia-TCU National Championship Game – America’s greatest sporting spectacle is back, and due to kick off on European shores no less. 

CFB’s most storied programme is making its third visit to the ancestral homeland of so many of its adherents, and the first in 13 years. And in advance of this rivalry matchup, and every week of the coming regular season (and possibly beyond?), I’ll preview each of Notre Dame’s fixtures and reflect on the season to that point. 

Last Week:

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Not so much last week as almost nine months ago. An entertaining 45-38 Gator Bowl victory over #19 South Carolina, that saw Tyler Buchner account for seven TDs. Two with his legs, three passes to his own receivers, and two straight to Gamecock defenders who gratefully took them back in the other direction. Logan Diggs and Braden Lenzy, who accounted for three TDs, have also moved on, while Michael Mayer and Isaiah Foskey, who sat out the bowl game, are now in their NFL pre-seasons. So offensively in particular, this week and this season are something of a fresh slate. 

Up Next

Navy Midshipmen (Aviva Stadium, Dublin, Ireland); 2.30pm EST; 7.30pm IST/BST

The 96th game in this historic rivalry will be the third time that the teams have met on Irish soil. Notre Dame won the previous two and lead the series overall 79-13-1.  The 2020 COVID year aside, the teams have played every year since 1927. 

Most crucially of all during WWII, when the very University itself was in danger due to low enrolment and closure was considered, the US Navy established naval training programmes on the campus, and the income from these kept Notre Dame alive. A few ND fans are not keen on the continued rivalry with a non-P5 school with a penchant for cut blocking. But as former ND president, Fr. Ted Hesburgh, CSC, explained, Notre Dame will always play Navy until Navy decide they no longer want to.

The mutual respect between the two schools and teams is perhaps best summed up by an unusual post-match tradition. The Notre Dame players will stand with their Navy counterparts as the Midshipmen sing their alma mater, before going over to the Irish fans to sing their own, ‘Notre Dame Our Mother’. 

Playing the Midshipmen in the first game of the season always gives Notre Dame a significant advantage in the matchup, certainly compared to last season when they met in ND’s 10th game, a week after the emotional high of trouncing #4 Clemson. The Irish have extra time in Fall Camp to focus on and prepare for Navy’s unique triple option attack, and normally have fared much better when this game has opened their season.

Last year was the ultimate game of two halves. Drew Pyne had a career first half, throwing for four TDs and running in a fifth to give the Irish a 35-13 lead at the break.  Navy sold out to stop the run, holding Audric Estimé and Logan Diggs to just 80 yards – and zero TDs – between them on 21 carries. But for the first 30 minutes they paid the price through the air. 

In the second half they switched to all-out blitzing on virtually every ND offensive snap. This continued to stifle the Irish run game but also rendered Pyne completely ineffective. Five times he was sacked, as repeated three-and-outs and an interception enabled the Middies to mount a comeback that saw then attempt an onside kick in the final 90 seconds trailing by only three points.

An Offseason Of Change

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Four games later and the Irish have a new QB and OC, and high expectations that the offense will deliver more points and big plays. If Navy repeat their 2022 game plan, ND’s OL should be better prepared for blitz pickup and Hartman significantly better at audibling and throwing to his hot reads. And should the Midshipmen prefer to sit back in a zone defense, Audric Estimé and several other talented RBs would like to say ‘hello!’ 

Irish fans will be keen to see how the new starts on the OL at RG and LG get on, both in the run game and pass blocking.  Fortunately, they will both have experience and exceptional talent on either side of them, as they face off against a Navy defense returning nine starters from 2022. 

Keep an eye out for my colleague Rory-Joe Daniels’ weekly player matchup piece coming out on Friday, which is sure to feature a Golden Domer in what is a reduced Week 0 slate. For me, the most fascinating matchup though is surely between Navy’s new OC, Grant Chesnut, a triple-option devotee from Kennesaw State, and Irish DC, Al Golden, who begins his second season in that role. To what extent will Navy expand their use of the passing game? How much will Golden have learned – and be able to successfully implement – from last November? 

Navy’s depth chart indicates that they are planning on sharing the QB position between sophomore Blake Horvath, who has yet to start, and senior Tai Lavatai, who started their first eight games last year before an ACL injury ended his season. How much they try to augment their trademark option running game with downfield passing is going to be interesting to watch. Especially as they take on a Notre Dame secondary with some exceptional talent, especially at Cornerback. 

Lastly, watching special teams was a distinct pleasure for Irish fans a year ago. Seven blocked punts by four different players was coach Brian Mason’s signature. Which in part is why he’s now in the same role in the NFL with the Colts. His successor, Marty Biagi, has a strong ST background, especially around kicking, though ND fans will hope that they won’t have to rely on USF transfer, Spencer Shrader, to kick a game-winning field goal this week at least.

Game Prediction

Notre Dame 45-17 Navy

Hartman settles into an early rhythm and big plays through the air help the Irish jump out to a big lead.  Unlike last season, ND’s talent edge on defense is able to hold the Middies in the second half and prevent another comeback. 

Where To Watch

UK/Ireland: Sky Sports Action (Channel 407 on Sky); coverage starts at 7:30pm IST/BST

USA: NBC; coverage starts at 2:30pm EST

Playoff Picture - Week 0

With apologies to Coach Lea and his Vanderbilt team, the only other realistic playoff contender in action in week 0 is USC, who take on San José State at the Coliseum. As the season progresses, I’ll look at how the playoff picture is shaping up, hopefully with the Irish included, and what ND fans should be looking for.

Feature Image Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports