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Pregame Six Pack: Momentum before the Midshipmen

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Coming off an overdue win, Notre Dame looks to ride their momentum into Jacksonville. That’s where the Navy Midshipmen await. For the 90 straight years that the Mids have been on the schedule, they’ve never been a tougher out than they are now, with Ken Niumatalolo taking his program to new heights.

Most expected a rebuilding year for Navy. But with an upset win over Houston and the Mids sitting atop their division in the American, it’s a new challenge for an Irish team that’s not looking forward to 2017, but rather hoping to see real improvements in the season’s final month.

“We’re measuring progress by how we play in the month of November,” Brian Kelly said Thursday, before the team took off for Florida. “We were 1-3 in September, we were 2-2 in the month of October, we need to see a really good November.

“If there’s any looking ahead, which I’m not really doing that, but when you look at the big picture this is an important month for us to show some progress with a young football team.”

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. Here are six storylines I’ll be watching during the early kickoff from Everbank Field.

 

With Daniel Cage out from a concussion, Jarron Jones faces his next big challenge. 

We watched Jarron Jones have the most impactful game behind the line of scrimmage of any Notre Dame defender since 1997. And after obliterating Miami center Nick Linder, he’s got a new task ahead—blowing up the interior of the Midshipmen’s offensive line.

Jones will have many challenges on hand. And as Joe Schmidt mentioned in my column yesterday, a big one might be the mental battle that comes with facing an offensive line that’ll (legally) be cut-blocking.

Unlike usual seasons where Navy’s offensive line gives up a major size differential to the Irish, Midshipman center Maurice Morris will actually go pound-for-pound, the senior listed at 327 pounds. But Morris is also the lowest-graded player on the Navy offensive line (as measured by PFF) giving Jones a huge advantage in the trenches if he can effectively blow up the point of attack and disrupt the fullback dive.

“If he’s explosive and he gets off the ball, there’s really no worries about how to play this game up front,” Kelly said. “You just need to be explosive. We’re not going to get into a read-react thing with him. He’s a big fella, and he makes all his plays being explosive. So the best way not to get cut is to blow your guy up. That’s kind of what we’re talking to Jarron about, and he kind of likes that right now.”

 

Keep your eye on third downs, with conversions likely being the story of the game. 

As you crunch numbers and look at the statistical breakdown of this matchup, one stat sticks out more than others—third down conversion rate. Navy is one of the country’s very best. Notre Dame is on the other side of that equation.

The Irish sit at 98th in the country, converting at only 36 percent. Navy is fifth in the nation, converting 51 percent of the time. So while we’ve already put the focus on the turnover margin and red zone conversions, Navy play-by-play announcer Pete Medhurst pointed to this matchup—on both sides of the ball—as the one to watch.

“Navy must convert on third down,” Medhurst told me this week. “They absolutely have to win third down on both sides of the ball. If you convert third downs you keep Notre Dame off the field offensively.”

With the option allowing a full menu of play calling even if the Mids get behind the chains, keep your eye on this battle—it’ll likely be key in determining the game.

 

Accidental starting quarterback Will Worth adds a new dimension to Navy offense with a strong passing game. 

Replacing perhaps the best Navy quarterback since Roger Staubach is no simple challenge. Especially if you weren’t expected to contribute this season. But Will Worth has been up to the challenge. And after filling in for starter Tago Smith after a torn ACL in the season opener, Worth has actually expanded the Midshipmen’s offensive playbook with his throwing ability.

“They keep rolling offensively. They lose their starting quarterback. Will Worth comes in and picks up where they left off,” Kelly said. “You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there’s going to be a dropoff, but the production has been unbelievable.”

Worth leads the Mids with 13 rushing touchdowns on 161 attempts, nearly 100 more than the fullback Chris High, who has 65 carries. He’s completing 60 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and just three interceptions. And as opponents sell out to stop the option, Navy’s countered by throwing against man-to-man coverage, something they’ll see plenty of this weekend, a match-up to watch with senior receiver Jamir Tillman a physically imposing, 6-foot-4 target.

 

Getting Greer Martini back is a huge win for the Irish defense. 

While Daniel Cage didn’t travel this weekend, the Irish will get Greer Martini back for the weekend. And he’s a huge piece of the puzzle for Notre Dame’s defense, an option specialist last season who racked up some very nice numbers the past few years against this offense.

Martini started against Navy and Georgia Tech last season, two of his four starts. He had eight tackles against the Yellow Jackets, while matching his career-high of nine against Navy a few weeks later—the same number he put up in 2014. That two-game output nearly matched his stat line for the rest of the season.

Racking up tackles wasn’t the only thing Martini did last season. His PFF grade confirms the statistical output he had, one of the team’s best mistake-free option defenders last season. Martini played a team-high 76 snaps against Georgia Tech, graded only below Jaylon Smith last year, while grading out as the team’s best linebacker against Navy.

So while there’s no Smith to chase down runners and no Schmidt to see things from the middle, Martini will be back and playing a very big role.

 

Even if all the focus is on stopping the option, Notre Dame’s offense has plenty of pressure on it. 

The focus will always be on stopping the triple-option. But if the Irish are going to win, they’ll need to be effective offensively. So the fits and starts we’ve seen from DeShone Kizer and the inconsistent Irish offense need to be ironed out this weekend. Because Navy’s offense and their ability to possess the ball will mean limited opportunities for the Irish offense.

“You understand that you have to be patient in what you’re doing, understand that your possessions are going to be limited. If they are, you can’t go out there expecting to score a thousand touchdowns,” Kizer said. “But with that you also have to understand when you do touch the ball, your ultimate goal needs to be a touchdown no matter how it comes.”

It’ll likely come by running the football. Kelly has done a nice job running to win, carrying the ball 40, 39, 36, and 46 times in the last four matchups against the Midshipmen. And even if the Irish ground game has failed to hit its stride this year with the offensive line still trying to find its footing, expect the Irish to marry the ground game with tempo, something we saw (too briefly) against Miami.

“As a high-tempo offense that we are, we find our success when we’re up and rolling. So we got to make sure when we’re back out there, we’re doing the exact same things we have been doing to be successful,” Kizer said. “Our offense is spread, it is fast. It may not seem like that when I’m up there checking a play a thousand times. The emphasis is to be fast. So if we have the opportunity to just call and haul, we’re going to do so.”

 

More than ever, a special teams mistake would be catastrophic. 

Let’s be very clear. This is not the week for special teams to determine the football game. Because if we’ve seen anything this season, it’s that the Irish special teams have found terrible times to impact a ballgame.

So Scott Booker’s unit better bring their A-game. There’s no room for a muffed punt. There’s no room for getting caught on a surprise onside kick. And with possessions limited and holding serve essential, keeping things vanilla in the game’s third segment might just be the best way to guarantee success.

Chris Finke is now competing with C.J. Sanders as the team’s primary punt returner. Finke delivered a nice return when the game was on the line against Miami, but if he’s back there, it won’t necessarily be to make plays, but rather to not make bad ones. So if that’s fair catching punts—or making sure they’re simply caught in the air and not bounced off a teammate’s unsuspecting leg—that’s a move that’s a necessity.

Because you have to expect Navy to try and make a big special teams play. The Irish have seen breakdowns with punt blocks, kickoff returns and everything in between, so  the Midshipmen will try and steal a possession if the game offers that opportunity.

 

Effort must match scheme to beat Navy

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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

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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

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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
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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.