Controversial fumble key ingredient in Navy upset


If you were to diagram the anatomy of an upset, Robby Parris’ fumble on the third play from scrimmage could qualify as the first crucial piece needed for a Navy victory. The only way Navy was going to win this football game was for Notre Dame’s offense to give up possessions, and starting in the first hundred seconds of the game, Navy got that wish.

With Jimmy Clausen flushed to his right, he found Parris squatting in the right flat just across Navy’s side of the fifty. Parris caught the low throw, then was quickly wrapped up by cornerback Blake Carter, who pulled Parris awkwardly down, his helmet popping off and the ball coming loose.

The referee’s whistle blew no fewer than ten times before linebacker Ram Vela scurried over, first closing in on the play before hopping onto the ball as Robby Parris hobbled off without his helmet. Yet without a replay board in the stadium, Navy smartly challenged the ruling on the field.

The Big East replay official overturned the ruling on the field, awarding the football to the Midshipmen. Twelve plays, six minutes, and two crucial fourth down conversions later, Navy lead 7-0, bleeding half of the first quarter away in the meantime.

When asked about the overturned fumble during his press conference Tuesday, Charlie Weis was understandably rankled.

“The whistle had blow,” Weis said. “What I was disputing is that they blew the whistle and stopped the play
and then there’s a rule, a seldom called rule about a fumble after
continuous play even though the whistle had blown. So I mean it’s not a
question whether the whistle had blown. The whistle had blown.

“So this isn’t like your normal ball’s on the ground everyone goes and
scrambles and gets it. About five or ten seconds later the guy goes and
recovers it. They had called it down. They were just moving forward.
They got challenged and got overruled by — I know the rule number and
everything about continuous play.

“But I’m saying to myself: You blew the play dead. Five seconds later they go recover the ball and now it’s a fumble? But there is a rule about continuous play. Now, that rule does exist.”

After watching the replay, it’s pretty easy to see Weis’ point. Parris made no effort to fall on the loose ball as the whistle had clearly sounded, and no referee threw a bean bag or signaled anything other than that the play was clearly over.

Taking things a step further, here’s the text straight from the NCAA Football rulebook.

Rule 12-3-3-b states:

A ball carrier judged to have been down by rule when the recovery of a fumble by an opponent or teammate occurs in the immediate action following the fumble and is prior to any official signaling that the ball is dead.

(Note 1: If the ball carrier is judged down by rule and the replay official does not have indisputable video evidence as to which player recovers the fumble, the ruling of down-by-rule stands.)

(Note 2: If the ruling of down-by-rule is reversed, the ball belongs to the recovering player at the spot of the recovery and any advance is nullified.)

After watching the play a dozen times, it’s pretty hard to say with certainty that the fumble was recovered in the immediate action following the fumble. Vela was eight yards away from the play when the tackle was made, and while he was in continuous motion, it’s pretty tough to call Vela hopping on the ball an immediate action, especially since he’s the only player (or referee) on the field to even notice the loose ball.

While it’s certainly not the only reason Notre Dame lost the game on Saturday, it’s another one of those pivotal plays that seemed to have gone against Notre Dame this season (especially on their home field).

To his credit, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo sensed the importance of this opening drive, burning two timeouts, converting two fourth downs (not to mention overcoming a 2nd and 14 and a 3rd and 10), before Dobbs snuck the ball over left guard for a touchdown.

Navy needed a crucial early turnover to spring the upset, and thanks to Parris’ fumble, Vela’s heads-up play, a bold challenge by Niumatalolo, and a interpretive replay official, Navy got what it needed.  

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.”