For Mids, ending streak starts with improved `D'

Stopping Notre Dame's last-ranked offense is key to win

November 03, 2007|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun reporter

The losing streak is longer than any other, but Navy will use the same approach today against Notre Dame as it has for every opponent this season. The offense has to score as much as it can and hope the defense improves.

Because the host Fighting Irish are 1-7, today's game is judged by some to be one of the Midshipmen's best chances to end the longest losing streak to one opponent in NCAA history: 43 games.

But it is a lot to ask of this 4-4 Navy team. While the offense is strong, averaging 35.8 points a game, the defense has struggled.

Last Saturday, when Navy lost, 59-52, to Delaware, it marked the first time since 1919 and only the third time that Navy and an opponent combined to score more than 100 points in a game.

"Every one of our games [this season] is close," Navy fullback Eric Kettani said. "They've all been battles decided by who scores the most."

Notre Dame ranks last in the nation in total offense (188 yards a game), but that isn't boosting the confidence of the Mids' defense.

"We feel the same pressure every week," Navy freshman free safety Wyatt Middleton said.

"We want to make big plays. We want to make the plays that stop the other team and help our offense."

The only problem is Navy's defense hasn't been very good at it. It ranks 114th among 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense, allowing an average of 38.1 points a game. It is last in pass efficiency, allowing opponents a 171.5 rating. And it is 118th in third-down efficiency, permitting teams to convert 52.9 percent of the time.

That last statistic is something Navy coach Paul Johnson said must improve.

"We are making critical mistakes, and we have to do a better job on third down," he said. "We have gotten people in third-and-long, and when we do that, we have to get them off the field."

Notre Dame is down, but it still is playing with big, strong athletes determined to get their first home win of the season.

"If their defense has struggled, so has our offense," Notre Dame tight end John Carlson said. "We know they're going to come and play hard. You can count on that. And we understand we have to be more efficient. Something's going to give this weekend, and, hopefully, it will be in our favor."

Johnson noted the tough schedule that has been a big factor in Notre Dame's record and said: "They have really good players now, and they are getting better and better. The time to play Notre Dame was early on in the season. Physically, it's going to be a challenge for us. We haven't made them punt in two years."

And that was with a better defense.

But Navy is relentless in its efforts to improve. To do that, Johnson and defensive coordinator Buddy Green have tried to further simplify the playbook.

"It's clear to me that guys aren't playing fast and they don't know what they are doing," Johnson said. "It's our job as coaches to find something they can do."

Sound fundamentals are what Johnson and Green hope for as they ask players to concentrate on assignments, read plays, keep their pads low and finish tackles.

"The coaches have been breaking it down, making it more simple for us," Middleton said. "They're saying: `All you have to do is this. You have one responsibility.'"

Johnson believes part of the defensive problem stems from the loss of the team's few defensive veterans. Every week, it seems another experienced player gets hurt. Last week, it was junior left cornerback Rashawn King, who is questionable today with an injured right shoulder.

"The worst thing you can do is put a guy out there that isn't sure what he's doing [because] all of a sudden, a guy with average speed becomes really slow," Johnson said. "We have to get to a point where our guys just line up and play, but they have to understand what they're doing to play fast."

Perhaps this is the week that happens. Practices have gone well, and Middleton, one of the younger players, said he is feeling more comfortable.

"This week, it has been all about reading our keys and taking care of our one, individual responsibility," he said. "I think it's helping. I feel a little better every day. I think we all do. We know the ultimate goal is to stop them, play by play. Do your job. Simple."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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