Lawler: Keenan Reynolds is an option quarterback with a live arm who can throw the ball. He is very similar to former Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs who threw touchdown passes in beating Notre Dame during both the 2009 and 2010 games. Reynolds has thrown 13 touchdown passes against four interceptions in his 15 career starts. His ceiling is his offensive line. Navy ranks dead last in the nation in sack percentage allowed. The Midshipmen had to replace the entire right side of their offensive line due to injuries. Sophomore right tackle sophomore Brandon Greene has really struggled in pass protection. This is not a good match up for the Mids against Notre Dame talented defensive front line.
The real strength that Reynolds brings to this game is his toughness and his ability to make plays. Last week Navy guard E.K. Binns stepped on his leg and Reynolds was hobbling around for a few series. He kept battling and led the Mids to three consecutive fourth quarter scores for the comeback victory over Pitt. We hope he's healthy enough to play at a high level against Notre Dame. It seems like we are often forced to play our backup quarterbacks when we play the Fighting Irish. To have a chance to beat Notre Dame the ground game will have to click and Reynolds will need to make a few plays down the field throwing the ball. If forced the throw the ball a lot we have no chance to pull an upset. Navy can't pass block against Notre Dame's front line if we have to consistently rely on the pass to move the ball.
2. When Navy has had success vs. Notre Dame's defense, the Mid's fullback is usually a key component. I assume Noah Copeland is no Alexander Teich, but how does he rank among solid fullbacks from the recent past?
Lawler: I know it's probably a sore spot but anyone could have been Alexander Teich in 2010 the way Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco blindly had his inside linebacker run blitz the "A"-gap that game. When Navy ran their plays in the "B" and "C" gaps there were no Notre Dame linebackers there once Teich cleared the line. You could have run for a solid 150. Speaking of Alexander Teich, I ask the Irish fans to remember him in their prayers. He took a serious fall recently in a training exercise and is currently hospitalized. It's just a reminder of the sacrifices Navy players make after graduation to keep this nation free.
This season the Mids have mostly rotated two fullbacks. Noah Copeland (226 yards, 4.3 YPC, TD) left the Pitt game early with an injury but is expected to start. He has the best run vision of the B-backs or fullbacks. Sophomore Chris Swain (284 yards, 3.7 avg. 3 TDs) is a big physical 232 pound fullback with surprising speed if he can get in the open field. Quentin Singleton (6-0, 204) showed a nice burst and scored a touchdown off the bench as he replaced the injured Copeland last week against Pitt.
The fullback production has been limited a bit by the offensive line injuries I previously discussed. The fullback dive is the first option in the offense so obviously if Navy can get that to work it opens up the perimeter. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco learned his lessons from the 2010 game and the Fighting Irish have been very sound the past two years against the option. In addition the Fighting Irish talented front manhandled the Mids up front last year. If that happens again this year it doesn't matter who is playing fullback.
3. Does the Midshipmen offense have a perimeter threat similar to recent star Gee Gee Greene? What kind of production has the offense enjoyed on the perimeter against quality defenses this fall?
Lawler: In the past the Midshipmen had a player like Reggie Campbell, Shun White or Gee Gee Greene as the principal slotback. This year it's been more of a slotback by committee approach. None of the players are going to scare anyone getting off the bus since they are short and small. Some are so short you can eat soup off their heads. Still they all have good speed and can get to the edge. All of the top four slotbacks in the rotation Darius Staten (175 yards, 9.7, 2 TDs), Geoffrey Whiteside (183 yards, 8.7 YPC, 3 TDs), DeBrandon Sanders (208 yards, 8.0 YPC), Marcus Thomas (208 yards, 11.6 YPC are averaging over eight yards a carry. They do an excellent job of blocking on the perimeter for each other despite the fact none of them weighs more than 190 pounds
DeBrandon Sanders has replaced Greene as the best receiver at slotback with a team leading nine reception for 176 yards, a 19.6 average and a touchdown. Marcus Thomas caught a 58-yard touchdown pass against Pitt last week. Navy has run the ball well except against Western Kentucky and Duke. In the WKU game Reynolds was knocked out of the game with a concussion and the ground game fell apart without him at quarterback. Against Duke the Mids broke in two new starters on the offensive line and they struggled with their assignments. The run blocking has improved in recent weeks but Navy is ranked just 10th in the nation with over 282 rushing yards per game. This is not the same experienced offensive line that ranked second in the nation in rushing when they last defeated the Fighting Irish in 2010.
4. Navy's defensive rankings aren't pretty: 89th vs. the rush, 90th in terms of pass efficiency defense, and most troubling, 118th in terms of stopping opponents on third down. Is any of this misleading? How might the Mid's keep the points down in South Bend? Is there a player reminiscent of past Irish killers Jabaree Tuani, Kwesi Mitchell, or Ram Vela that could give the Irish issues?
Lawler: Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green's defense is the classic bend but don't break style. It's frustrating to watch at times but in Green's 3-4 defense his cornerbacks play with a big cushion and try to eliminate big plays over their heads. It plays to his talent on hand. Navy's defense does allow a large percentage of passes to be completed against it. They have trouble with spread passing attacks. The positive is that the Mids haven't allowed a lot of passing yards. They are ranked 25th in the nation in passing yards with over 208 yard a game despite the poor rankings you mentioned.
Green did revamp his secondary against Pitt after the safeties had a horrible game in run support during the loss to Toledo. Chris Ferguson returned last week after missing a game moving from free safety to Rover replacing Wave Ryder who had struggled. Parrish Gaines (34 tackles, INT) moved from cornerback to free safety. Freshman cornerback Brandon Clements, who started earlier in the year for an injured Kwazel Bertrand, returned to the starting lineup and joined Bertrand.
The run defense isn't great but if the linebackers play with the gap discipline they played against Pitt they may have a chance to at least force some field goals. The last two years against Notre Dame the Mids were dominated at the point of attack and failed to maintain their gaps against the Irish's zone running plays. The Irish were running downhill all day and have blown out the Mids the last two years. The Irish haven't run the ball as well so far this year. If the Midshipmen can avoid the big plays, limit the run and force a few punts and field goal attempts they have a chance if their offense is clicking. There are a lot of "ifs" in that statement because Navy will need their "A"-game and a few turnovers to hang with the Fighting Irish.
You are right Jabaree Tuani was a star. I would mention Wyatt Middleton, who was a terrific player, over Kewsi Mitchell. The Irish fans probably think Ram Vela was Superman for the way he flew through the air in 2007 but he's wasn't.
If you look at the Mids today the strength of the Navy defense is their linebackers. Navy defensive captain Cody Peterson (72 tackles) is a tackling machine at inside linebacker. Fellow inside linebacker D.J. Sargenti is a converted quarterback. He is second on the team with 55 tackles, has made an interception, a sack, forced a fumble and knocked down three passes.
Junior striker linebacker Chris Johnson is a very athletic defender with range who can drop in coverage. Johnson has made 48 tackles with three interceptions and two passes defensed.
5. Navy's offense features a preponderance of underclassmen. Is 2014 a year the Midshipmen could return to the 9-10-win level of the recent past?
Lawler: Hopefully. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and his staff have out recruited the other service academies the past few years. Irish fans will laugh since they live in the world of four and five star recruits but we've recently landed more three star recruits with multiple offers than ever before. I follow the Navy Prep team for GoMids.com and the talent has improved over the last three year even with the usual attrition we suffer. Since 2003 Navy has won at least eight games nine of the past ten years. During those ten plus years Navy has won 21 games against schools from a BCS conference. The 21 wins against BCS schools have come against 10 different teams. That is the most in the country by a non-BCS school. Notre Dame is always the Everest on our schedule and one game most Navy fans mark as the one to watch no matter how outmanned we are physically.
With quarterback Keenan Reynolds only a sophomore and so many key starters due back the next two seasons they have a chance to potentially put together a special season. However to paraphrase Dirty Harry, we know our limitations. For Navy football the goals are always the same; Beat Army, win the Commanders-in-Chief's Trophy, win at least eight games and make a bowl game. Anything above that is gravy.