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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

Sánchez Córdova: Notre Dame needs to make a statement against Navy

Irish WR Jayden Thomas celebrates touchdown during Notre Dame's victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl Friday night. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Irish WR Jayden Thomas celebrates touchdown during Notre Dame’s victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl Friday night. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

College football is back.

And who opens the new season but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, straight from Dublin, Ireland. It’s a huge stage, with everyone watching the first game of the 2023 season. Notre Dame needs to capitalize.

With a tough schedule this year, it is essential that the Irish look the part of a contender right away. It’s probably too early to start thinking about the College Football Playoff, but putting together a dominant display in their season opener is good for the eye test. They can’t afford to struggle through a close Navy game, let alone suffer losses similar to Marshall and Stanford a year ago.

Last season against Navy, Notre Dame went up big in the first half and then fell asleep at the wheel, preventing an onside kick in the final minutes to barely hold on for a 35-32 win over the Midshipmen. This year, head coach Marcus Freeman has talked about being angry about the team’s effort in the near collapse. They need to show up for four quarters this year.

That is obviously easier said than done. Navy is always a tricky squad with their option offense, and new head coach Brian Newberry might even mix a few passes in there. Last year, Navy outgained Notre Dame, racking up 363 yards of total offense, including 255 yards on the ground. Fullback Daba Fofana averaged 8.9 yards per carry in last year’s game and he returns as the Midshipmen’s top rushing threat.

Notre Dame’s new-look defensive line will be counted on to step up to the task. After losing major contributors from last year, the defensive line will need to show us what they’ve got against Navy.

Graduate transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste has a chance to make an early impression after coming from perennial power Ohio State. Senior Rylie Mills is in line to take a step forward and become a big disruptor inside. Navy provides a perfect opportunity for him to start the year on the right foot.

Navy’s focus on the ground game also means that Notre Dame’s strong secondary will have a minimized impact on the game. Even so, the Irish have had several months to prepare a defensive gameplan, and I expect them to rise to the occasion.

On the offensive side, this game is our first chance to see graduate transfer Sam Hartman under center, but it’s also Gerad Parker’s first game as offensive coordinator. Navy is an unorthodox team, but Saturday’s game will still be a glimpse into what we can expect from this offense.

Last year, the running backs led the way for a Notre Dame offense that featured an underwhelming passing attack that mostly boiled down to now-departed Michael Mayer’s brilliance. They will likely bring that run-first identity back, but Hartman’s arrival signals the potential for a more explosive aerial attack.

A year ago, Navy’s defensive line gave Notre Dame fits, keeping the running game well in check. This game will immediately put Hartman in the spotlight. He arrives with a ton of experience and was already voted a team captain, signifying the faith his teammates place in his leadership. The questions come from the players he’s passing the ball to.

Outside of junior Jayden Thomas, there’s nothing but question marks in the receiving corps. Senior Chris Tyree is a converted running back who will be starting in the slot this year. He has shown great speed and good hands out of the backfield, but it will still be an adjustment in a new role. Sophomore Tobias Merriweather was a high-level recruit, but he has exactly one career reception at Notre Dame. In fairness, it was a long touchdown reception against Stanford, so hopefully it’s a sign of good things to come.

At tight end, there is a massive Mayer-sized hole to fill. Senior Kevin Bauman was slated to start, but he tore his ACL for the second season in a row, leaving him out for the season. Junior Mitchell Evans comes into the first team instead, but he is inexperienced. Last season he was used mostly as a surprise rushing weapon and has five career receptions for 60 yards.

The Navy game is a chance for the Irish offense to find themselves. I hate looking past opponents, but opening with matchups against Navy and Tennessee State provides opportunities for Notre Dame to see what works and what doesn’t. It is a chance for Hartman to get situated and find his favorite targets on the outside. The Irish can build an identity before they start taking on ACC teams.

It’s tempting to look past Navy, but rivalry games always serve up something unexpected. Freeman and Notre Dame can’t afford to do that for even a second. They need to go out and put together a complete performance against the Midshipmen. They need a comfortable win from start to finish in a game where they dominate and take care of business to start the season.