Navy vs. Notre Dame: Few rivalries in all of sports are as storied and long-running. For the 95th edition of this great game, the two programs travel across the pond to Dublin, Ireland — their third time going into battle on foreign soil.
Much has changed for both programs since they last met at Aviva Stadium over 10 years ago, but will that alter the tide of a rivalry that has predominantly flowed in favor of the Fighting Irish?
Navy vs. Notre Dame Preview: The Origins of a Rivalry
Many consider Navy and Army to be one of the greatest rivalries in the history of college football. The annual clash between the two service academies serves as a stand-alone game to end the regular season, with the addition of pomp and ceremony making for an unparalleled experience in the sporting arena.
It’s a must-watch for any college football fan.
Yet, the Midshipmen’s rivalry with Notre Dame is considered a sacred tradition between fans of both teams. Prior to the global pandemic of 2020, the clash was the second-longest uninterrupted annual rivalry game in the entire FBS, having been held continuously between 1927 and 2019.
The two programs are also uniquely tied by their experience of service, with Notre Dame acting as a training center for the US Navy during World War II. The financial gratitude from the Navy kept Notre Dame from fiscal ruin. As a form of repayment, the Fighting Irish extended a life-long football fixture to the Naval Academy.
Navy vs. Notre Dame has, however, been a one-sided affair from a head-to-head perspective. There have been close individual games, of course, but the Fighting Irish hold a 79-13-1 overall record, have won the last five encounters, and, between 1964 and 2007, established a record 43-game streak.
Can Navy overturn recent and historic fortunes in Dublin on Saturday?
Navy vs. Notre Dame: The Quarterbacks
Sam Hartman’s arrival in South Bend has established a sense of excitement around the Fighting Irish ahead of the 2023 college football season. Navy vs. Notre Dame will be our first opportunity to see him removed from a system at Wake Forest that wasn’t a typical pro-style offense.
Was it Hartman or the system that ripped up the ACC record book? We’re about to find out in 2023.
Hartman’s 12,967 career passing yards and 110 passing touchdowns — he can conceivably set the all-time college record for the latter this season — are impressive, as is his ability to throw with velocity on short area throws. He’s an incredibly accurate short-to-medium area QB who can challenge the field vertically when he needs to without having the strongest arm.
Although he isn’t a dual-threat QB by any stretch of the imagination, Hartman can also grind out yardage on the ground and strap the team on his back in tight situations. While he hasn’t faced Navy during his storied career, he showcased the ability to dissect a difficult service academy defense in throwing for over 400 yards and five scores against Army in 2021.
There’s a slightly different quarterback situation on the other side of Navy vs. Notre Dame. Firstly, the nature of the position for the service academy triple-option offense is substantially different, relying on the ability to run and pitch with the occasional downfield pass thrown in to mix things up.
While there is an expectation of not-seen-before offensive wrinkles for the Midshipmen, we’re not suddenly going to see a QB dropping back to pass 30 times a game. Additionally, we’re not going to see just one QB lining up under center. Throughout the offseason, it has become apparent that Brian Newberry’s team will roll with a two-QB scheme in Week 0.
Tai Lavatai is a known quantity for Navy fans, and he’ll bring his dual-threat experience to Ireland for the Midshipmen. However, there’s excitement from within the program about Blake Horvath, a second-year QB who didn’t play in 2022 but is one year removed from rewriting the record books as a triple-option QB at Hilliard Darby HS. He’s listed as the co-starter for Saturday.
Navy vs. Notre Dame: The Ground Game
Although a change in coordinator and philosophy is set to bring some offensive changes—or wrinkles—to the Midshipmen, the nature of their roster build means they can never truly dispense with the brand of option football that makes facing a service academy such a unique and often difficult pursuit.
As such, the ground game will shape the course of Navy vs. Notre Dame. We saw that much when these two teams met last fall.
After opening up a convincing halftime advantage, Notre Dame was trampled in the second half by the ground game led by then-sophomore fullback Daba Fofana. While there are several dangerous fullbacks and slotbacks — Alec Tecza and Amin Hassan are names to know — Fofana is the danger man.
The junior fullback has the power and contact absorption that you’d expect from a fullback, giving him the ability to wear down a defense. However, he also has the speed, explosion, and elusiveness to rip off chunk plays—as Notre Dame found out to their cost last year. If Navy is to have a chance of victory in Ireland, unleashing Fofana with regularity is key.
During his media availability this week, Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman talked about keeping the Navy offense off the field, limiting their time of possession, and allowing their defense to recover in between drives. While there is an understandable focus on what QB Hartman adds to the offense, the Fighting Irish will also need to mobilize their ground game.
That might be easier said than done. Last year, the Midshipmen ranked third in the nation for rushing defense. Under Newberry as defensive coordinator, they were a juggernaut against the ground game, keeping opponents under 90 yards per game, giving up just seven touchdowns all season, and holding running backs to 3.01 yards per game.
They held the Irish to just 66 rushing yards in the 2022 edition of Navy vs. Notre Dame.
However, Audric Estime averaged 6.1 yards per carry for the Fighting Irish in that game, and the bowling-ball back blessed with physicality and athleticism should see a more substantial workload as the lead back of an inexperienced room that lost Logan Diggs to the transfer portal.
Navy vs. Notre Dame: The Trenches
It might sound like an old cliché, but football games are won and lost in the trenches, and this Navy vs. Notre Dame battle on foreign soil will be no different. Both teams have some outstanding talent on either side of the line, so who comes out on top?
Defending the triple option is a difficult business, and the Fighting Irish had their struggles last fall. The Navy offensive line, which returns several starters including the highly experienced Joshua Pena, were able to do their usual damage on the move while opening some decent lanes that Fofana and co. were able to take advantage of.
The defensive line was an area of concern for Notre Dame coming into the offseason, but head coach Freeman has spoken of his encouragement over the depth they’ve displayed through spring, summer, and into fall camp. Jordan Botelho is expected to step up off the edge across from transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste.
Meanwhile, Howard Cross II will form an unholy alliance in the center of the defensive front with former defensive end-turned-defensive tackle Rylie Mills, creating a defensive line that could prove to be too much of a match for the Navy O-line. Mills is a 6’5″, 306-pound powerhouse with the speed and explosion of an edge player combined with the strength of an interior mauler.
You can expect the Navy defense to be equally ferocious under new coordinator P.J. Volker. They have the pieces to cause confusion for the Notre Dame offensive line, with hybrid Raider (Jordan Sanders) and Striker (Xavier McDonald) able to comfortably morph from attacking the line to coverage defenders.
They have a true pass-rushing talent at defensive end too with Jacob Busic, while linebacker Colin Ramos can be a force behind the line of scrimmage. However, Notre Dame boasts one of the best offensive linemen in the nation in Joe Alt at left tackle, and right tackle Blake Fisher is highly talented too. Hat-on-hat, the Fighting Irish probably have the trench warfare advantage.
Navy vs. Notre Dame: The Secondaries
The Fighting Irish have two of the best cornerbacks in the nation, for my money, but Navy vs. Notre Dame won’t likely test them in the traditional manner. Even with some expected wrinkles from the Midshipmen offense, Benjamin Morrison and Cam Hart aren’t going to be defending too many downfield passes into coverage.
What all members of the Notre Dame defense will be tasked with doing is getting off blocks and attacking downhill. Thankfully for the Fighting Irish, Hart is an extremely proficient downhill destroyer who uses his length and impressive athletic ability to be a force attacking the backfield.
The Fighting Irish were left wanting at the safety position at times during the 2022 season and grabbed highly-rated Rhode Island transfer Antonio Carter II to bolster the depth in a room that is led by D.J. Brown and Xavier Watts. Brown brings experience to the table, while Navy is familiar with Watts’ impact—he logged a then-career-high eight tackles last year.
While Notre Dame’s secondary faces a stiff test defending the run, Navy will have to deal with an expected aerial assault from new quarterback Sam Hartman and a plethora of talented pass catchers. The Fighting Irish have a deep wide receiver room that features Jayden Thomas and highly-ranked true freshman Jaden Greathouse.
There’s talent in the defensive backfield for the Midshipmen. Free safety Rayuan Lane has been an impact maker since arriving in Annapolis in 2021, boasting an impressive athletic profile, situational awareness, and a nose for the ball. Meanwhile, Mbiti Williams is a speed demon at cornerback who leads all returning Navy defensive backs with five pass breakups last fall.
While there’s talent in the unit, they will need to show significant improvement from a 2022 pass defense that ranked 98th in the nation for yards per game allowed. The Midshipmen also allowed 8.6 yards per pass attempt, 25 passing touchdowns, while snagging just eight interceptions. If Hartman plays to even his career average passing numbers, the Midshipmen could be sunk.
Navy vs. Notre Dame: Which Team Comes out on top?
The last two editions of Navy vs. Notre Dame in Ireland have ended in catastrophically one-sided defeats for the Midshipmen. In 1996, they were on the wrong side of a 54-27 shellacking, and in 2012—a game Notre Dame vacated, incidentally—the Fighting Irish beat the fight right out of their long-standing rival with a 50-10 victory in the same stadium they’ll play Saturday.
Oddsmakers currently have the Midshipmen as an almost three-score underdog, which would fit with three of the past five editions of Navy vs. Notre Dame. While there is the potential for Navy to keep it closer than expected if they can heap pressure on Hartman early and often, we’re more likely to see Irish eyes smiling on Notre Dame by the end of the game in Aviva Stadium.