Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Navy


After a week of coasting, the Irish go back to another heart-stopper, this time against Navy, who have now beaten the Irish twice in the last three games. The Irish lost a football game without punting, which has to be a statistical anomaly, and also tells the story of this game that went so very wrong for the Irish. Notre Dame had absolutely no answer for the Navy running attack, giving up 348 rushing yards and only clamping down in the final four minutes of the ballgame when they were absolutely up against it.

It’s an incredibly discouraging loss for the Irish, though Notre Dame needs to put it behind them and get ready for a very game Pittsburgh team, a squad that could be ranked in the top ten come next week. Here’s five things we learned.

1) Red Zone offense killed the Irish. 

Notre Dame absolutely killed themselves in the red zone, using a baffling mix of illogical play-calling, bad execution, crucial turnovers and missed field goals to come up empty when it mattered most. While many suspected that Michael Floyd would help kickstart the offense close to the goal line, Notre Dame still wasn’t able to get seven points when they needed to get them. Notre Dame put up over 500 yards of offense, and only managed 21 points. That’s incredibly inefficient offense and resulted in disaster against a Navy squad that seemed to capitalize on all of Notre Dame’s mistakes.

2) The Irish defense laid a huge egg… again.

The story is beginning to write itself. Notre Dame’s defense once again lets the team down, this time giving up 348 rushing yards to a Navy team that the Irish bottled up last season. After making some positive strides against Washington State last week, the Irish were continually befuddled by the option attack, with both Ricky Dobbs and Vince Murray going for over 100 yards on the ground. Murray, who played fullback in the option attack ran for 11 yards a carry, picking up 158 yards and absolutely killing the Irish defense with huge gainers.

The Irish defensive front continually conceded huge gaps around the center, seemingly giving Navy all it needed to spring the fullback, and never had a good solution for Dobbs when he came around the edge with the ball. Manti Te’o, who Jon Tenuta predicted would have a big day, was committed to tackling the pitch man, but ND never could find a solution to stopping the run.

3) Navy executed their game plan to perfection.

While the time of possession battle wasn’t as lopsided as it felt, Navy perfectly executed their game plan. Capitalizing on a early turnover by Robby Parris, Navy immediately put Notre Dame in a hole, and forced the Irish into throwing the ball almost exclusively in the second half. The Irish walked into halftime without any points, the first time Navy has held ND without first half points since 1973. The Midshipmen continually kept things in third and manageable, and when they did throw the ball, they got the big play they needed, Ricky Dobbs hitting Greg Jones for a long touchdown pass when the Irish secondary got caught with their eyes in the backfield. Navy did everything they could to win the game, and the Irish did everything wrong when it came to preventing it.

4) Irish gain a weapon, lose a weapon.

Just when the Irish attack looked to be back to full bore, Notre Dame has likely lost Kyle Rudolph to the same injury that cost Michael Floyd seven weeks. After rumbling for a nice gain on a swing pass, Rudolph landed awkwardly on his shoulder, and immediately came up hurt. Mike Ragone filled in admirably, but losing Rudolph before this tough stretch is a crushing blow to an offense desperately needing some stability, especially with Armando Allen still sidelined.

5) Notre Dame has Notre Dame to blame for what could have been.

The Irish now have lost three very close games, and have to feel like they should’ve won all three of them. Great teams win close games, and they execute to win. Notre Dame just hasn’t been able to do that. Today’s loss hinged on a few key moments, plays where the Irish came up on the wrong side of the coin, and often because of a self-inflicted wound. It’s clear Notre Dame has some of the more talented skill position players in the country and an offense with three legitimate stars, yet they continue to shoot themselves in the foot. I’m not ready to indict Charlie Weis like others likely will, but it’s tough to watch Notre Dame do everything they can to loss close football games.

Coach Ty Willingham never lived down the infamous comment of being “a few plays away,” and Weis would be smart not to go the same direction, yet the difference between being undefeated and looking at a BCS bowl game, and having three losses and staring at a mid-level bowl game comes down to execution. Right now, the Irish have proved themselves closer to mediocre than elite when it comes to playing with the precision needed to be great.

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”