Keith Arnold

Effort must match scheme to beat Navy

13 Comments

With the triple option on tap, and an almost entirely rebuilt defense tasked with stopping it, Notre Dame’s game plan may be similar to last year, but the guys asked to defend it won’t be. So as the Irish spend one of their most time-intensive weeks of the season learning and prepping, former Irish captain Joe Schmidt opened up about what Navy week is like.

“Whenever you play an option team, there are really two games to be played. The first game is really Sunday to Friday and into Saturday morning, that’s the one in your head, kind of conquering whatever demons you have or the fear you have living inside of you when you’re playing against someone who is going to go after your knees,” Schmidt said.

“And then the second one is that you have to have the understanding that it’s a four quarter game of toughness, equal parts toughness and equal parts 100-percent mental sharpness.”

Those battles are fights that Schmidt knows well. During his team MVP 2014 campaign, his season ended against the Midshipmen, an ankle and leg injury that derailed an Irish unit that had relied on him to be the nerve center of the Irish defense.

But Schmidt rebounded for his senior season, a year where the Irish refined their option scheme and won both games against Georgia Tech and Navy. And with Schmidt off to the real world and Nyles Morgan playing his best football of the season, the onus is now on the new center of the Irish defense to carry the torch as Notre Dame looks to get a critical victory against a Midshipmen offense that’s still remarkably dangerous.

“I know our scheme is as good as any against the option,” Schmidt said. “The middle linebacker position played against Navy or Georgia Tech or any triple option teams is really fun, but it’s only really fun if you can get yourself in the right position before the play and make the right read.”

With Greg Hudson coordinating the group and Mike Elston overseeing from above, there’s a new wrinkle thrown into the teaching this week. And as the Irish defense has rebounded the past few weeks, Schmidt believes the key to Saturday will be as much about effort and unity as it is about scheme.

“To me, what’s most important with any defensive unit is that you need to start with passion and love for what you’re doing. And I think they have that, and I think they’re starting to build a great foundation around that,” Schmidt said. “Going into a game like Navy, when you play for each other and are willing to give everything that you have for the guy next to you and sacrifice, that’s when you’re really able to become a great defense.”

We’ve seen that effort grow by the week. We saw new leaders emerge, with Jarron Jones a key piece in the trenches this week—a gut check if there ever was one for the hulking tackle who has faced multiple lower body injuries throughout his career and now goes up against a Midshipmen offensive line that’ll take dead aim at his legs.

But that’s what it takes to beat Navy. A commitment not just to the scheme and discipline, but to the effort it takes to complete the job.

“It’s just an entirely different type of football game and Navy is the best in the world at it,” Schmidt said. “There’s nobody better than Navy at running the triple option.”

 

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

29 Comments

For the 90th straight season, Notre Dame and Navy unite on the football field, the longest-running intersectional rivalry in the country. And for what feels like almost as long, a white-knuckle football weekend is upon Irish fans.

Because with Ken Niumatalolo in charge of the Midshipmen, the Naval Academy has taken their football program to uncharted waters. And as a part of the American Athletic Conference, Navy has only enhanced their reputation—division co-champions last season, splitting their division with Houston and this year sitting atop the West Division even with an entirely rebuilt offense.

Gone is the service academy that the college football world viewed as a cupcake. This is a team you’d much rather avoid.

But the Irish won’t do that. Not with the historical significance of the rivalry, the mutual respect between the programs and the standing annual date on the calendar.

So to get us ready for this weekend’s action, the Washington Post’s Gene Wang joins me. Gene took some time out of his insanely busy schedule to get us ready for the Midshipmen.

 

Navy’s succession plans at quarterback after Keenan Reynolds lasted exactly one week, when Tago Smith went down with an ACL injury. But in short order, Will Worth has picked things up and kept the train rolling. What has Worth brought to the offense? Is there anything you’re seeing more of with Worth at the position than in year’s past?

After a slow start, Worth has really come into his own over the last three games. He set a school record with 428 total yards of offense in Saturday’s 52-45 loss to South Florida one week after rushing for 201 yards.

At 215 pounds, Worth is bigger than Reynolds, and he make the same deep throws in the passing games. Coaches love his toughness, which makes up for a lack of foot speed, at least comparatively to Reynolds.

 

Staying on the offense, is the job that Ivin Jasper is doing as impressive up close as it is from afar. The offensive line is rebuilt, so is essentially the two-deep at quarterback, fullback and slot back, yet scoring is down less than a field goal from last year. How are they doing it?

Jasper is doing another masterful job, as he has done year after year with new quarterbacks. He knows how to get the most out whoever is playing quarterback, regardless of how much in-game experience that player does or doesn’t have.

The fact that Navy basically hasn’t missed a beat with a new quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line is truly a testament to Jasper getting his players familiar and confident running the triple option.

 

Defensively, the Midshipmen struggled early against USF and seem to have some problems that come along with the territory. But Amos Mason has been difficult to contain up front and D.J. Palmore and Micah Thomas have filled the stat sheet. This defense doesn’t make a ton of negative plays, so what’s the key to slowing down the Irish offense?

The defense needs to apply pressure on DeShone Kizer. Navy generally has had issues getting to the quarterback, and the back end just doesn’t have the athletes to cover one-on-one for long stretches. If the Midshipmen can’t make Kizer at least somewhat uncomfortable, it’ll be a long day for the defense.

 

Notre Dame spent a ton of time last offseason working on slowing down the option, with both Georgia Tech and Navy on the schedule. That move paid off with two key wins. This year the Irish will play Navy and Army, though will do so with a ton of new personnel. What’s more important to slowing this offense down? Proper coaching scheme or experience playing against it?

Gap integrity is the most important component in slowing the triple option. And even then, Navy runs it so well that it may not even matter. Also, defenses that have been able to limit the triple option by in large make it a top priority to take away the fullback dive.

 

Ken Niumatalolo was candid about the BYU job last offseason and how it was different than the other openings that sometimes checked on his availability. Back for his ninth season at the Naval Academy, what makes him such a good fit in Annapolis?

He is a leader of men, and that is a quality, at least to me, you can’t teach. He has a way to get players to believe in his system 100 percent. Plus he recruits athletes who have a chip on their shoulder, often because Power 5 programs have overlooked them.

 

This game always seems to come down to a few key stats: Mostly turnovers and red zone success. Anything you see from your vantage point that’ll likely determine the winner or loser?

For Navy, it’s preventing the big play on defense and hitting some long pass plays on offense to keep the Notre Dame front seven honest. The Midshipmen gave up far too many explosive plays against South Florida and paid dearly for it. The offense, meantime, didn’t get cranked up until the second half, and by then Navy was trailing, 42-14.

No solution for Navy’s triple option

Getty
30 Comments

You can’t solve the triple option. That’s Brian Kelly’s conclusion. And Notre Dame’s head coach should know.

After enlisting trusted assistant Bob Elliott to go on a deep dive, after playing Navy, Georgia Tech, and Army over his six-plus seasons, and as the Irish embark on their annual battle with the Midshipmen, Brian Kelly reached the conclusion that there’s no stopping the triple option, only the hope of containing it.

“You can’t have all the answers,” Kelly said Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean the Irish staff hasn’t tried. Elliott went hat in hand around college football, breaking bread with staffs that had success slowing down Ken Niumatalolo and Paul Johnson’s offense. He came back with some answers that certainly helped—the Irish won both their matchups against triple option opponents, key objectives to the 2015 season as Georgia Tech was coming off of an Orange Bowl win and Navy was expecting—and had—one of the school’s best teams.

So Kelly changed his approach after the offseason, restructuring his team’s practice schedule last season, incorporating option work each week with his “swag team.” That gave his defense a look at the option every week by a unit run by walk-on Rob Regan, a standout high school option quarterback recruited for this single purpose.

So with Notre Dame’s defense settled in after their midseason ejection of Brian VanGorder, the Irish now face their first changeup. After rebooting their scheme, simplifying their structure and juggling their depth chart, the young Irish defense now goes to work against a Navy offense that’s rebuilt at nearly every position, but hasn’t seemed to miss a beat.

So that means work. An extra grind. Because there’s no Sheldon Day to win up front. No Jaylon Smith to erase mistakes. No Joe Schmidt to coordinate the attack or Elijah Shumate to play every snap.

“There’s late nights, and they are watching extra film. There is extra preparation for a team like this. This is a difficult week in preparation,” Kelly explained. “But having said that, we have a system that is now in place that I think will help them as we teach it to them.”

That system will be put to the test. Especially with so many pieces of personnel seeing Navy for the first time. The young secondary will be tested every snap. Nyles Morgan will get his first look since he replaced Joe Schmidt when the team’s then MVP went down with a season-ending injury. Even veteran Jarron Jones, coming off his best game in an Irish uniform, will be seeing things for the first time in two season—a 2014 game where Jones struggled mightily in the trenches.

But many of the changes this defense incorporated will be carried forward to Saturday. And after a very shallow rotation last season, Kelly expects to keep bodies moving in and out—preparing his troops for two straight weeks of option offense with Army on deck in the Shamrock Series.

“From our standpoint, we’re just playing a lot of players,” Kelly said, when comparing this year’s approach to last season. “I think we were at a point there where we weren’t in a deep rotation of players. We were grinding out some of the front line guys, and they were getting all the reps.

“We’re going to go deep with a lot of players. I think that that will probably be the biggest thing that we do is play a lot of players up front.”

With Greer Martini in the concussion protocol and questionable to be back on Saturday, the Irish might be short one of their key option specialists. But Drue Traquill is playing excellent football and Kelly mentioned unsung defenders like Nicco Fertitta as having a big responsibility this weekend.

But after getting away from VanGorder’s philosophy of looking for a perfect counter to every scheme, Kelly sounds like a coach comfortable with the fact that sometimes—especially if the option is being executed properly—there is no answer, other than to win your battle and make a play.

“More than anything else, when it comes to defending Navy, they strike on such a broad front,” Kelly said. “In other words, you can’t take away a particular play. I think there was some thought, take away the fullback. Well, they don’t care if you take away the fullback. That’s okay. They’ll run, toss, sweep 47 times.

“So I think it was more about there’s not a specific thing that you take away as much as, at times, you’re going to have to fight through a block-on-block situation to make a play. It never becomes a math equation, where in a lot of the football that’s played, you can get an extra hat to a particular run play and outnumber them, you can’t do it against this offense. So don’t try.”

 

Jarron Jones named Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week

Nagurski Trophy via Twitter
5 Comments

That big weekend Jarron Jones had? It was noticed. Because after racking up six tackles-for-loss among his seven solo stops, Jones was named the Football Writers Association of American’s Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week.

Here’s the wording from the official release:

Jones, a 6-5½, 315-pound senior from Rochester, N.Y., had six tackles for 24 yards in losses against Miami, one of which was a sack. The six tackles are the most tackles for loss by any player in the FBS this season. Jones is only the 23rd FBS player since 2000 to have at least six tackles for a loss in a game. Notre Dame held Miami to 18 yards rushing.

Jones, a graduate student, will be added to the Bronko Nagurski Watch List. The FWAA and the Charlotte Touchdown Club will announce five finalists for the 2016 Bronko Nagurski Trophy on Thurs., Nov. 17.. The FWAA and the Charlotte Touchdown Club will announce five finalists for the 2016 Bronko Nagurski Trophy on Thurs., Nov. 17. The winner will be chosen from those five finalists who are part of the 2016 FWAA All-America Team.

Jones’ six TFLs are the most from any college player in a single game this season.

The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Miami

Getty
40 Comments

The celebration was likely cathartic. The night of, less a time to dwell on the negative, but rather let loose after finally—finally—winning a tight game.

Of course, that doesn’t make Sunday morning’s tape session any easier. It doesn’t erase some of the frustrating mistakes that kept Miami in the game early as they were wobbling on the ropes, propped the Canes up with special teams blunders, and very nearly handed them the win until snapping back to reality.

In other words, the win was good. But there was plenty of bad and ugly mixed in there as well.

Let’s get to it.

 

THE GOOD

Jarron Jones. The afternoon Jones put together was nothing short of extraordinary. The fifth-year senior earned his first game ball, and had the most tackles-for-loss of any FBS player in a single game this season. And it wasn’t against a directional school, it was Miami.

Jones was too good to take off the field, playing a season-high 54 snaps, far and away the most he’s played this season. But he was asked to hold the point of attack and do so in a game where Daniel Cage left the field after just 22 plays and went into the team’s concussion protocol.

Jones gave the game ball to his mom. Which is always the right decision.

 

The Defense. Give it up to the rebuilt Irish defense, essentially winning the game for Notre Dame by playing an absolutely dominant first 20-plus minutes and closing the game off with a big-time sack of Brad Kaaya. The Irish dominated at the point of attack with 12 TFLs, the most the Irish have made since 2005. The secondary held up, playing plenty of man coverage and not giving up a single catch of 25 yards or more.

In short, if this is what an on-the-fly staff can do with this crew, there might be some hope that this could be a job that’ll attract a high-level national candidate. Because there’s young talent on this defense. And we’re watching it come together quite nicely.

Kelly applauded the defensive game plan postgame. And no play epitomized the job the rebuilt staff did more than the game’s final snap—when the Irish caught the Miami offensive line with a delayed Nyles Morgan blitz, a sack that ended the game.

 

The Resolve. Could you have blamed the Irish for giving up? Because looking at my Twitter mentions and the general well-being of fans watching this game go backwards in real-time, it was ugly out there. Very ugly, with most of you having given up.

So while we can nitpick about the way the Irish won (I’m not sure this resolve could’ve handled a Miami recovery on Durham Smythe‘s goal line fumble), the Irish were technically due a break, and credit should go to this young team for not packing it in after another week where crisis hit.

Quick Hits: 

Tackling. How much better did this team tackle? Watching Drue Tranquill come up and hit, Nyles Morgan make eight solo stops and the young secondary do their job limiting yards after catches, it was a nice piece of in-season progress for a group that looked woeful early in the season.

DeShone Kizer. He missed some throws—something Kelly almost made light of Saturday night. But he also kept the Irish on schedule, out of long down-and-distances, and did a much better job of converting on third down, 8 of 16 on the day.

After feeling like he was the lone contributor on the offense the past few weeks, the Irish seemed to almost purposely spread it around—10 different players making catches and Josh Adams supplying the game’s defining offensive play. More importantly, Kizer didn’t turn the ball over, a mistake that would’ve been too much to overcome the way the Irish were already giving it away on special teams.

Devin Studstill might not have had his name called once on the NBC broadcast. And you know what? That’s a good thing. The Irish safety play in the run game was critically important, and Studstill was a big part of that.

Julian Love & Donte Vaughn. Just a reminder, those are freshman cornerbacks—and a duo that really didn’t play much until a quarter of the way into the season. But Love and Vaughn held their own out there against a talented Miami receiving corps, with both Love and Vaughn making very nice plays on the football.

Kevin Stepherson & Equanimeous St. BrownTwo young receivers making big plays. St. Brown’s touchdown catch was critical and Stepherson showed why Brian Kelly likes him outside at the X receiver spot.

 

THE BAD

The 27-point run.  When this team goes cold, it goes ice cold. And while they managed to get out of the tailspin before they crashed and burned, these type of swings are just so, so damaging.

Want to know how you let a team back in the game? You take a hot start and you go like this after thre-straight scoring drives:

Punt, FG, Fumble, Punt, Halftime, Punt, Turnover on Downs, Punt, Fumble.

Thirteen possessions. Three to start the game with scores. Two to end the game with scores. And then the nine in the middle. Yuck.

 

Seniors Coming up Short. With the game at pivotal places, three veterans had a chance to do big things. Instead, they did the opposite.

With two receivers for one defensive back, captain Torii Hunter Jr. had to make a block to spring C.J. Sanders on 4th-and-1. Instead, he swung and missed and Sanders was drilled for a loss, a huge momentum swing that had Miami tie the game with a field goal heading into the 4th quarter.

Senior tight end Durham Smythe made the bone-headed decision to extend the ball for the goal line as he leapt for the end zone. Instead, he fumbled away what could’ve been the game until DeShone Kizer bailed him out.

(Smythe took to Twitter in appreciation, a move I respect immensely.)

Lastly, captain Mike McGlinchey made a head-scratching mistake, jumping offsides when the Irish had the ball at the Miami one-yard line with a chance to give the Irish some serious breathing room by punching in a touchdown. Instead, the veteran inexplicably jumped, pushing the Irish back outside the 5-yard line, forcing the Irish to make a special teams play—something they struggled to do most of the day.

All three of these mistakes are things that happen in football games. But they’re mistakes from a young team you expect out of your young players, not three veteran leaders.

Quick Hits: 

The offensive line is still really inconsistent. And a look at the postgame grades from PFF tell you why. McGlinchey had his worst game of the season. On the other side, Bars played his best game since Duke, a big afternoon for the first-year starter in a tough matchup. After Colin McGovern only lasted five plays before going into the concussion protocol, Hunter Bivin struggled badly at right guard—the second really tough game in a row he’s played.

Next to him, Sam Mustipher got his bad snaps out of his system. But he got dominated, according to PFF’s grading. Put it into context: Jarron Jones made Miami center Nick Linder look like a high schooler out there, grading out as a team-worst -4.7. On the other side of the ball, Mustipher had a -4.6.

Troy Pride, there will be days like this. The freshman struggled in coverage and got picked on by Miami’s receiving corps, targeted five times and giving up four catches. Throw in a pass interference call and the muffed punt that hit him and it was a tough day at the office from the freshman.

 

THE UGLY

The special teams. At this point, it’s difficult to ignore. Scott Booker’s special teams are horrendous, and it’s a really horrible mix of bad execution, shoddy fundamentals and back-breaking mistakes.

The Irish have plenty of young players on the field and it’s easy to say mistakes by underclassmen like Pride, Jalen Elliott and C.J. Sanders are part of the maturation process. But after losing the NC State game on a rugby punt call, the Irish almost lost this one because of four crucial mistakes—the muff, getting caught on an onside kick (something Mark Richt acknowledged that they saw on film from previous weeks), another blocked punt and Sanders’ inexplicable gift to the Canes for a go-ahead score.

Booker is a young coach. He’s a good recruiter. He’s got a harder job than usual with the tight end missing Alizé Jones and no other coach able to take over the special teams. Both Mike Elston and Mike Denbrock have experience coaching the unit, but Elston runs the Irish recruiting efforts and Denbrock is the team’s play caller and associate head coach.

Kelly has defended Booker publicly. Then again, he did the same thing before relieving Brian VanGorder of his duties.