Navy Will Sail to Cover Against Heavily Favored Notre Dame in San Diego

Notre Dame vs. Navy 2017

Rainman M.

Monday, October 22, 2018 1:56 PM UTC

Monday, Oct. 22, 2018 1:56 PM UTC

Notre Dame and Navy will play their annual game on Saturday night in San Diego. It’s fair on paper that the Irish are heavily favored, but expecting them to cover doesn’t stand to reason.

No. 3 Notre Dame (7-0) vs Navy (2-5)Saturday, SDCCU Stadium, San Diego, 8 p.m. ET (CBS)Free NCAAF Pick: Navy +22.5Best Line Offered: Bookmaker

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Notre Dame and Navy play each other every year, typically in a different venue. Although both teams will have to travel all the way to San Diego, Navy should have the advantage in crowd support.

If you consider only the disparity in talent on paper, then it seems like Notre Dame will cover easily. But because of the system that Navy’s offense participates in, the Irish face a unique challenge. Navy is one of seven FBS programs that runs the flexbone triple option. Of those seven programs, only Georgia Tech plays in a major conference. This kind of offense gives teams with lesser talent a chance to succeed against teams that land higher-quality recruits. Otherwise, the service academies would be at a perpetual disadvantage because the stronger recruiting prospects want to play in the NFL instead of committing themselves to military service.

It’s difficult to prepare and play against the flexbone and defenses can become extremely frustrated. In this offense, the quarterback lines up next to three backs. He can run with the ball himself, hand it off to his fullback up the middle, or pitch it to one of his other two backs. To keep defenses more off-balanced, throwing is an additional option — Navy, because it rarely throws, ranks 10th in yards per completion. The top five teams in terms of percentage of running plays all employ this kind of offense. Navy ranks third with 83 percent of their plays being a run.

Defenses don’t enjoy playing against option teams. They have to be fundamentally sound. Defenders need to maintain gap integrity, be prepared for mobile but very physical blockers, and be aware of the endless variations that the opposing offense will employ in its play-calling. Even if a defense is succeeding, it’s easy to get bored during the grind. Defenses have to maintain solid discipline in order to prevent big plays. But Navy isn’t so much about big plays as playing keep away. Army, which also runs the flexbone, ranks first in time of possession. Navy ranks fourth in the category. In their last game, for instance, they possessed the ball for 42 minutes. Last year, Navy also possessed the ball for 42 minutes against the Irish.

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The key is that, because Navy will possess the ball a lot, Notre Dame will get limited chances on offense. Last year, for example, the Irish offense only had seven drives. Typically, an offense gets 12 possessions in a game. Out of the limited chances, the Irish offense will have to be extremely efficient in order to cover the 22-point spread. They’ll have to score more than three touchdowns, meaning a touchdown approximately every other possession plus a field goal. Still, they’ll need even more points depending on how much Navy scores.

In recent history, Navy has played Notre Dame tough, covering four of its last five games against the Irish. In 2016, the Midshipmen even beat the Irish 28-27. Last year’s margin of victory — this time for Notre Dame — was likewise within a touchdown. Even though Notre Dame knows approximately what’s coming every year and even though some years — like in the 2014 non-cover — the Irish have gotten an extra week to prepare, Navy’s intricate style of play has allowed it to remain competitive. Notre Dame’s mentality — its tendency to play down to the level of its least-talented foes-- presents an additional factor that will keep this game close. This season, the Irish are 0-3 ATS as double-digit favorites. In their last game as heavy favorites, the Irish barely avoided being upset at home by Pittsburgh. Dating to last season, Notre Dame has failed to cover its last five games as double-digit favorites.

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