“It’s a tremendous advantage to play Navy the first game of the year because the preparation that entails getting ready for them is obviously lengthy,” Freeman said.
Freeman begins his second full year as a head coach intent on a fast start. Notre Dame opened with a loss to Ohio State last year and followed it up by losing to Marshall at home. The Irish were also upset by Stanford in South Bend last season.
They might not get another mulligan — even in Ireland.
Stability at the quarterback position should help. Hartman threw for 38 touchdowns and 12 interceptions last year at Wake Forest. The graduate transfer was a three-year starter and holds the ACC career record for touchdown passes (110). He replaces Drew Pyne and Tyler Buchner.
“There’s no substitution for experience — none. I don't care if you’re the head coach or the quarterback,” Freeman said. “That’s what gives me confidence in Sam Hartman. This ain’t his first rodeo."
Navy coach Brian Newberry — making his head coaching debut — said disrupting Hartman is a top priority.
“If he knows what we’re doing, it’s going to be a long day," said Newberry, who was promoted from defensive coordinator when Navy fired Ken Niumatalolo after back-to-back 4-8 finishes.
Hartman will have an experienced partner at center. Freeman confirmed on Thursday that starter Zeke Correll (ankle) will play.
Notre Dame leads Navy 81-13-1 in a series that was uninterrupted from 1927-2019 before the pandemic and has won the last five. Notre Dame held on for a 35-32 victory last November.
This will be their third meeting in Dublin. The Irish won 50-10 in 2012 at Aviva Stadium and prevailed 54-27 in 1996 before a disappointing crowd of 38,651 at Croke Park; the locals during the first game were reportedly perplexed by Midshipmen doing pushups every time Navy scored.
Saturday's game was originally scheduled for Dublin in 2020 but it was canceled because of the pandemic.
AT THE HELM
Newberry hasn't named a starting quarterback but on Tuesday said senior Tai Lavatai “has separated himself as of late.” Lavatai and sophomore Blake Horvath are both listed atop the QB depth chart. Behind them is 5-foot-9 senior Xavier Arline.
“We've got three players that we can roll out at quarterback,” Newberry said. “In this system, you've got to have depth at quarterback.”
Lavatai was last year’s starter through eight games before a knee injury. Arline started the final four games, including against Notre Dame. Arline will "certainly have a role on Saturday, whether it’s at quarterback or at slot,” Newberry said.
Like Notre Dame, Navy is looking for a fast start. The Midshipmen have lost three consecutive season openers, including to FCS opponent Delaware 14-7 at home a year ago, when opponents outscored Navy 81-43 in the first quarter.
Navy's offense hopes to be less predictable. Fullback Daba Fofana, who led the team with 769 rushing yards in 2022, said the backs have been working on pass-catching.
“Controlling the ball at the same time while getting some explosive plays to build some momentum is a key part of winning this game," said Fofana, a physics major who played the cello in the Naval Academy orchestra during his first year in Annapolis.
Who knew Freeman likes horror films?
On the overnight flight to Dublin, the Notre Dame coach watched the second half of last year's game against Navy, when the Midshipmen outscored the Irish 19-0.
“You get angry sometimes when you watch it,” Freeman said at Aviva Stadium a few hours after the team's flight landed. "We let our foot off the pedal. We were making mistakes that (were) effort-based. That's the one thing that can't happen in our program.
“Both sides of the ball in the second half didn't play up to our standard,” he continued. “It was a great reminder that if you give them a chance, they're going to take advantage of it. They will not quit.”
Navy also arrived Thursday morning. The game begins at 7:30 p.m. local time (2:30 p.m. Eastern), so both teams will fly back on Sunday.
The Irish host Tennessee State the following Saturday. Navy is off next Saturday.
POT OF COAL
The head coaches from last year’s Dublin game — Northwestern beat Nebraska 31-28 — are gone. Scott Frost was fired after the Huskers started the season 1-2. Northwestern fired Pat Fitzgerald last month amid a hazing scandal.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll