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Improved Navy defense seeks to slow No. 15 Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Navy hopes it finally has a defense that can slow 15th-ranked Notre Dame.

”We’re playing as good as we’ve played on defense in a long time right now,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. ”But we also know we’re going to play a team quite frankly that we’ve had a hard time making them punt the last couple of years.”

The Midshipmen (4-0) forced the Fighting Irish (4-1) to punt just once last season and Notre Dame hasn’t punted at all in five of the last 10 games. The Irish have averaged 48 points a game the past four seasons.

The Nave defense is playing better this season, giving up 333 yards and 15 points a game. That’s 71 yards and 12 points fewer per game than last year. The defense also has allowed only one rushing touchdown.

Kelly said the defense reminds him of the 2010 squad, when the Mids beat the Irish 35-17, Navy’s last victory in the series. That the fewest points Notre Dame has scored in the series since a 14-0 victory in 1979.

”It’s just a veteran defense. They play smart. They know what their strengths are. They know what their weaknesses are,” Kelly said.

Niumatalolo said the challenge for Navy has been dealing with Notre Dame’s size.

”They mash us with the football so you’ve got to get your safeties involved. Then they throw it over our heads. So it’s a tough combination for us,” he said. ”If we don’t get people involved they just run it down our throats, and when we do get our guys involved, they throw it over our heads. So it’s kind of pick your poison.”

Things to watch for when Navy plays at Notre Dame:

TRIPLE OPTION AGAIN: Kelly said there are advantages and disadvantages to the Irish defense already having success against the triple option vs. Georgia Tech three weeks ago.

”They’re going to look at the plan we had and dissect that and look at things they can do to attack it,” Kelly said.

Niumatalolo agreed.

”It helps them because their kids will be familiar with it. Sometimes we play people and it might be the only option team you see. So you’re going against conventional people for 11 weeks and then you play us,” he said. ”But it also helps us too because we kind of see some of their thoughts and some of the things they tried to do against Georgia Tech.”

RECORD PURSUIT: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds has 73 career rushing touchdowns, four shy of the NCAA record. Kelly wants to make sure he doesn’t set the record Saturday.

”We can’t afford for him to do that,” Kelly said. Reynolds ran for three touchdowns against the Irish in 2013.

LETDOWN CONCERNS: Coming off a tough loss at Clemson and with a game looming next week against rival USC, Kelly said Notre Dame can’t afford a letdown against the Midshipmen. ”Navy presents a very difficult challenge. We cannot let Clemson beat us twice,” he said.

TURNOVERS: Navy has only one turnover in four games. Notre Dame has seven through five games.

FAST STARTS: Notre Dame has scored on their first two possessions against Navy in every game since 2011, including touchdowns on their first four chances last season. The Irish were stopped on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line on their opening possession in 2010 and then scored on their next two possessions.

Online:

AP College Football website: www.collegefootball.ap.org.

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