The good, the bad, the ugly: Navy


There are Sundays where it’s hard to think of the negatives and then there are Sundays where it’s hard to think of the positives. This is one of those Sundays, where retrospection doesn’t always help.

Navy’s convincing 35-17 victory over Notre Dame was clinical. The Midshipmen accomplished just about every objective they had laid out in front of them, many made easier by the inconsistent play of the Irish offense and the mediocrity of the Irish defense.

Act Two of the Irish season ends on a considerable down beat, with the Irish loss to Navy bringing out the contrarians who scream from their soap boxes indicting any coach with the gall to lose to the Naval Academy. (Never mind that over the last seven seasons, Navy has won 13 more football games than the Irish while losing 11 less.)

With the loss to Navy, Brian Kelly joins a list that not only includes former head coach Charlie Weis, but also June Jones, Jim Grobe, Al Golden, and Gary Pinkel — whose Missouri Tigers lost by 22 points to Ken Niomatalolo’s Navy squad in the Texas Bowl last year… and also defeated the No. 1 team in the country last night.

Here’s the good, bad, and ugly from yesterday’s 35-17 loss.


It’s telling when the best thing that happened to the Irish is their backup quarterback playing well in garbage time. Tommy Rees’ impressive drive in the fourth quarter was a sign of great progress. After a Notre Dame debut that started with an ugly 0 of 2 with one interception, Rees came in and methodically walked the Irish down the field, with a 10 play, 76-yard drive that took just over four minutes.

After Cierre Wood’s loss of five yards back the Irish into a 2nd and 15, Rees completed three straight throws of over 20 yards, moving the Irish quickly into the Navy red zone. Rees was six of seven on the drive for 79 yards, and showed an ability to hit open receivers on high-percentage reads — a job that seems easy enough, but one that doesn’t always get achieved with Dayne Crist back in the pocket.

I’m not an advocate of opening up the quarterback competition, but Kelly’s decision to pull Crist and let the freshman take the snaps was a great one not only for Rees’ morale, but also for the rest of the team. Competition will be a constant on a Brian Kelly football team, and not even the no-doubt-about-it starting quarterback will be immune.


There’s plenty to choose from here, but I’m going to put the bad on the Irish offense. It’s difficult to quantify just how short-handed the Irish offense was on Saturday afternoon (I’d argue that there hasn’t been a Notre Dame offense this ravaged by injury in the two decades), but regardless, they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain. Thanks to a Navy gameplan that included running the play-clock down from the opening of the game, the Irish only had 10 possessions, with one of those coming with just 14 seconds remaining in the half.

Kelly mentioned on Tuesday that he knew the Irish would get limited possessions, and Notre Dame just didn’t do enough with their opportunities. After an opening drive got the Irish 1st and goal from the 8, they weren’t able to to get into the endzone, getting stuffed inside the one-yard-line on 4th and goal.

From then on, the Irish just weren’t good enough, with Crist throwing two critical interceptions. The first pick came at the end of the first half when the Irish were down four points and looking to score at the end of the half. Instead, Crist’s interception led to Gee Gee Green’s nine-yard touchdown run and a 21-10 halftime lead.The second led to another Navy touchdown, this time putting the game officially out of reach.

The Irish were unable to run the ball effectively, getting a mediocre 3.5 yards per carry out of the 30 times they officially ran it. And while Duval Kamara stepped up and played a nice game in place of Michael Floyd, the offense seemed unable to work at the frenetic pace that helped confuse and tire out defenses that weren’t completely undersized like Navy’s defense was.

You can hardly kill Dayne Crist for struggling with his three best receivers out of the game. But the Irish offensive line did nothing to help an offense that would’ve been buoyed by a competent running game.


It’s hard to call Notre Dame’s defensive performance anything but ugly. A year after getting completely gutted by a Navy offense that moved the ball at will, the Irish seemed to put together a gameplan worse than the one that got defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta savaged. Whether Navy added a veer-option component to their attack or not, the Irish were unable to tackle the fullback or get stops out of the Navy offense, something that not many people saw coming.

To his credit, Brian Kelly knew his defensive game plan wasn’t good enough, and rightfully defended his defensive coaching staff.

“I have great trust in my staff,” Kelly said. “Defensively we didn’t have a great answer today. But you know what, we’ve had answers all year defensively. And so we didn’t have the answers today. We’re going to have to go back and look at the film and find out. I got smart coaches. I got dedicated coaches. They’re not dummies.

“The first thing I’d look at, I’d go, ‘Shoot, basic fundamentals is stop the fullback.’ Well he had 200 yards today and I don’t have a bunch of dummies on my staff. We know that. My guys didn’t have the plan today.

“We got to go back and look at the plan, we got to evaluate the plan, and if we have to change the plan moving forward, we’re going to change the plan. but we’re going to get it right. We’ve got too many guys committed to making sure Notre Dame gets back to where we believe it should be.”

The Irish have a second chance at stopping another triple-option attack when they face off against Army next month. While they don’t run their attack with the precision of Navy, they’ve rattled off four wins, and nearly upset Rutgers last week before falling in overtime. I’d be shocked if the Irish decide to take the conservative, react approach to stopping the option after seeing it fail so miserably yesterday, and instead bring pressure up the middle, taking away the fullback schematically.



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.”