The Navy Midshipmen (6-3, 4-3 in American Athletic Conference) have a big fight on their hands on Saturday, where they will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Irish are currently sitting at 8-2 (ranked No. 8 in the College Football Playoff). Though they will most likely be from the outside looking in the CFP, this season has been a successful one.
To get a better insight on the season that Notre Dame has had, Pat Sullivan from One Foot Down was able to have a Q&A:
Kyle J. Andrews: The Fighting Irish have had a huge resurgence this year. How much has that energized the faithful in South Bend?
Pat Sullivan: The short answer is a lot, considering the Irish's 8-2 record and current #8 ranking. After you go 4-8, the off-season is a bleak, scary time when everyone is sad and it's much harder to get excited for the future of the program.
The long answer, though, definitely changes a bit considering what happened against Miami last weekend. We all thought Brian Kelly's team had taken a turn for the better, away from the team that lost most of its big games, considering the back-to-back blowouts of ranked opponents (USC, NC State) in October and the road blowout of Michigan State back in September.
This team was destroying everyone except Georgia, who only beat the Irish by a point. Additionally, the way in which this ND team was beating opponents was different than any other Brian Kelly. The rushing attack was devastating and physical and nasty, and the defense was suffocating and opportunistic. Together, it made for an unbelievable team and one that Irish fans bought into as a team that could definitely make the College Football Playoff, if not contend for a championship.
After losing 41-8 to Miami and doing the exact opposite of everything that had been working all year, it's once again very hard to be energized. Sure, the Irish are still ranked 8th in the CFP rankings and thus TECHNICALLY could still make it in if a ton of wild stuff happens over the next few weeks, but transforming from #3 and being a lock to make it to being on the outside looking in, all while being embarrassed on a national stage, is devastating and doesn't exactly inspire hope that Brian Kelly's teams are done disappointing fans in the biggest of moments.
So, I think being 8-2 and #8 in the country is nothing to sneeze at, and Notre Dame fans can and should be energized by that. But if Irish fans don't feel energized or feel sad/angry/emotionally indifferent again because the program is still at a point where they come into big games so unprepared for the big moment, I think that's also incredibly justifiable. So it's a bit of a mixed bag at the moment.
KJA: As a follow-up, how fun has this season been for you in particular, being a Notre Dame grad?
PS: It's been a ton of fun (excluding last Saturday night).
Seeing Notre Dame Stadium full of Georgia red wasn't great, but getting to tailgate with a bunch of Georgia fans and see my Irish play a big-time SEC opponent was incredible. Going to MSU to watch ND dominate the Spartans while I screamed "IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE CLOSE!" over and over was very satisfying, and watching ND annihilate hated rival USC under the lights and then follow that up a week later by running all over one of the supposed best run defenses in the country, NC State, was absolutely beautiful.
Furthermore, I love this team. There are so many likable players and a great deal of them are young and still have plenty of time and room to grow into superstars at Notre Dame.
The loss on Saturday was terrible and made me and many others feel like fools for buying into the hype once again, but overall it's been a really, really enjoyable season, and I hope these last two weeks are just as much fun.
KJA: Despite losing against Miami 41-8 last week, is there still a feasible hope that the Fighting Irish (8-2, ranked 9th in the country) can make it to the FBS Playoffs?
PS: It's technically feasible, but I honestly am not even wasting time or energy hoping for that. Making the CFP with 2 losses is hard enough while being in a conference and having a conference championship game to use as last-second leverage to get selected in the top 4, so I'm skeptical that this Notre Dame team can climb back in with 2 losses. If Miami ends up #1 and a bunch of other teams lose quite a few games they aren't expected to lose, then maybe ND could blow out Navy and Stanford and show enough to grab the #4 seed. But I highly doubt that will happen and would rather just focus my time on enjoying these last two games and trying to figure out what New Year's 6 bowl the team could make if they win out.
KJA: Is there a quarterback controversy brewing between Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book?
PS: I don't think so. Wimbush has certainly struggled passing-wise, and Book has shown brief flashes of being a more consistent passer than him, but this offense is still heavily built upon the run, and Wimbush is second to none in terms of running quarterbacks.
Also, Book was brought in in relief against Miami last week (even I began to call for this, as Wimbush looked completely rattled after a couple turnovers), and proceeded to throw a pick-six to the Hurricanes as they piled it on. I don't think Ian Book is the answer yet, or even at all while Brandon Wimbush is still on the team. He has plenty of promise, but Wimbush still gives this team the best chance to win right now. I don't think there will be any controversy.
KJA: Notre Dame owns the sixth-best rushing attack in the FBS (averaging 303.2 rushing yards per game). Who is one player in particular that Navy (6-3) should key in on, or are there more?
PS: Josh Adams is the number one guy, as he's a strong running back who will take it to the house if he's given a chance to get to the second level. He's got 7 runs of 60+ yards this season, and has run for 1,231 yards and 9 TD this season while averaging 8 yards per carry.
However, unfortunately for Navy, there are plenty more talented options for the Irish to have carry the ball. Wimbush himself is extremely shifty and fast when he decides to run with the ball, and he has picked up 663 yards and 13 rushing touchdowns (ND QB all-time record) this year. Furthermore, backup running backs Deon McIntosh, Tony Jones Jr., and Dexter Williams all average over 5 yards per carry and have combined for another 881 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year.
What I'm getting at, here, is that whoever is carrying the ball for the Irish is someone for Navy to key on, because the Notre Dame offensive line, aside from poor showings against elite defenses Georgia and Miami, has been absolutely dominant in opening up running lanes for all those names above. LG Quenton Nelson is far and away the best player on the offense, and you'll notice him pancaking various people on Saturday. He has formed an excellent tandem with LT Mike McGlinchey especially this season, and overall that entire unit is going to give a smaller Navy defensive front plenty of problems.
KJA: Notre Dame's rushing defense ranks 39th in the country (allowing 140.9 rushing yards per game), while Navy's rushing offense ranks 1st (averaging 369.8 rushing yards per game). Something has to give, right?
PS: Definitely, but I think it will give a little on both sides. I don't think Navy will gash the Irish like they have in years past, but I also don't think ND defensive coordinator Mike Elko's group is playing very well right now, having given up 37 and 41 points in their last two games after never having given up more than 20 in the first 8 games of the season.
So, I think Navy will get theirs on the ground in general, but ND will have enough talent and make enough stops to win the game fairly comfortably.
KJA: How perfect of a game does Navy have to play against Notre Dame to come away victorious?
PS: It will need to be pretty perfect, just because of the size and talent disparity between the two teams. Navy will need to perfectly execute on the triple option while also doing enough to disrupt the ND offensive line on the other side of the ball, shutting down the Irish running game and forcing the Irish to pass way more than they want to.
I don't think that will happen, but for Navy to win this game, they will need to play extremely well against a Notre Dame team that has to be out to prove itself after the humiliating defeat it was just handed in South Beach.