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)

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

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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

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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.”

 

Kelly confident Robinson will rebound

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Corey Robinson‘s season was already off to a slow start. And that was before a difficult night at Clemson. The junior receiver came into last weekend with only four catches, held out against UMass after a pregame tweak of his knee put a scare into the Irish.

Robinson’s knee checked out fine. But mentally, it appears that the sure-handed junior is struggling.

Just before halftime against the Tigers, Robinson failed to reel in a long catch that would’ve given the Irish a much-needed touchdown heading into half. Early in the fourth quarter, a high throw from DeShone Kizer on the Irish’s first failed two-point conversion play slid through Robinson’s hands. Made worse was a mental mistake by Robinson, the Irish needing to use one of their second half timeouts when the junior wasn’t on the field.

Coached hard on the sideline by Brian Kelly and coached up by his position coach Mike Denbrock (as we saw on both Showtime and Fighting Irish Media’s ICON), the staff is doing it’s best to get Robinson’s confidence back.

With some wondering if Robinson’s struggles should open the door for talented freshman Equanimeous St. Brown, Kelly talked about their belief that the junior will return to form.

“Corey Robinson is going to get the job done. I had a very lengthy conversation with him yesterday,” Kelly said Tuesday. “I believe in Corey. Corey’s got to believe in himself, and he will. He’s got to go attack the football. He’s letting the football come to him. He’s letting it eat him up a little bit, but I believe in Corey.”

There’s no better place to showcase that belief than against Navy. The Midshipmen don’t have a defender physically capable of matching up with the 6-foot-5 Robinson, who will likely face his share of single coverage with Will Fuller likely demanding safety help.

Then it’s just a matter of Robinson showing the hands and confidence that made him one of last year’s most consistent performers.

“Once he starts attacking the football, I think we’re going to see somebody that can make the plays that we expect him to make,” Kelly said. “So I’m optimistic that we’re going to see the guy that we need to see on Saturday.”

And in that corner… The Navy Midshipmen

Keenan Reynolds, Jamar Summers
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The theme of this week’s game might very well be mutual respect. But if Notre Dame is going to get their season back on track, they’ll need to very quickly get past any sort of reverence they have for Ken Niumatalolo and the Navy Midshipmen and look for any way to beat them.

Sandwiched between showdowns against Clemson and USC, Navy comes to town, one of the below-the-radar unbeaten teams in the country. With option superstar Keenan Reynolds in the final year of a career that is already one of the most prolific in college football history, the Irish defense goes into triple-option mode for the second time in this young season, asked to once again find an answer for an attack that not many people have solved.

Helping us to prepare for the Midshipmen is the play-by-play voice of Navy athletics, Pete Medhurst. Covering Navy football since 1997, Pete was kind enough to get us ready for the 89th meeting between Notre Dame and the Naval Academy.

Hope you enjoy.

 

Lost in the misery Notre Dame fans feel after the Irish’s undefeated hopes washed away in Clemson last weekend, is that the Navy team coming to South Bend is really, really good. I know it’s early, but you’ve been covering the Midshipmen for a long time. Can you rank where this team stacks up compared to some of the others you’ve seen?

I think its the best overall Navy team, considering the play of both units right now and special teams as well. The defense is giving up  just 15 points a game, and based on the prowess of the offense, that’s going to lead to a lot of victories if you play at that level.

 

Is Keenan Reynolds the best triple-option QB in Navy history? As someone who has watched his career evolve, can you speak to his improvements as a quarterback and a player? How important has he been to the evolution of this program?

I believe production speaks for itself. Good health could make him the leading touchdown scorer of all-time in the sport. He’s a coach on the field. Speaks like a coach, has a want to get better. Each day is a mission for him and the unit to get better and they hold themselves to a high standard to meet each day, he’s the leader of that group.

 

 

Joining the American Conference was a huge decision, but one that looks to be paying dividends. Have you noticed a difference in the program now that they’re chasing a conference title?

Coaches say it is. They have been met with quality response on the road recruiting. We get to states that are important footprints for us and just adds another goal where our players can be rewarded for their hard work. The conference has been very, very, good so far this year.

 

Defensively, this game should stress Navy. Notre Dame’s big-play potential is the best of the Brian Kelly era. (The Irish already have more 50-plus yard touchdowns than they’ve had in any other season under Kelly.)

Takeaways and preventing big plays seem to be a tenet of a Buddy Green defense. Are those the big keys for the Midshipmen defensively?

No question this is by far the fastest team Notre Dame has ever had. I go all the way back to the great Lindsay Nelson days when I used to watch the Notre Dame football report every Sunday morning. They can attack you anywhere at anytime with several people. Double cover one, they have three others in the formation who can beat you any play. Brian has put together a great plan and his coaches have delivered great recruits to the program. Many teams can’t survive an injury to the QB, but they have.

Mids have turned teams over this year and that’s a huge key for any defense. With Dale Pehrson taking over the defense (note: Green is taking a sabbatical to recover from major neck surgery this season) those goals have not changed. Eleven guys getting to the football, ball comes out, you have a great chance to get it!

 

Notre Dame had success earlier this season against Georgia Tech, and Brian Kelly spent a gigantic portion of his offseason preparing for the triple-option, going as far as recruiting a walk-on option quarterback who runs an option-specific scout team.

Do you think the success the Irish defense had against Paul Johnson’s triple-option will help this weekend? Or do you see subtle, but important differences between what Ken Niumatalolo does than his predecessor?

Coach Kelly is a good football coach. After we beat them at the Meadowlands, 35-17, you sensed, he was going to work hard to find a solution because for them to achieve their goals, they have to beat us.

Im not sure how many huge differences their are in our two offenses, one though is the QB. His ability to get Navy into the right play is huge no matter how a team lines up. Defensive personnel has improved in a huge way for Notre Dame too. They have quality people who can run and get to the ball. Last couple have been barn burners. Hopefully Saturday can be the same.

Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

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The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”