Tag: Ken Niumatalolo

Keenan Reynolds, Joe Nauert, James Kelly

Offseason Q&A: Navy


As it does annually, Notre Dame’s game with Navy is a terrifying proposition. While the Irish haven’t lost to Ken Niumatalolo’s team since 2010, the Midshipmen have pushed the Irish to the max—and the Navy hangover is beginning to be a thing.

Last year, the Irish beat Navy by 10, but lost the following week. The year before Notre Dame beat the Midshipmen by a touchdown, but lost the next Saturday to Pitt. “The body blow theory,” coined by Bruce Feldman, is picking up steam, and it’s not just a Notre Dame thing, but rather the collateral damage of playing Navy, a very difficult game that garners little national respect.

Gene Wang of the Washington Post gets us up to speed on the Midshipmen and what Notre Dame fans can expect from their annual battle.


Let’s start here: Even though Notre Dame has won four-straight against Navy, it’s still a game that terrifies Irish fans, and likely the coaching staff as well.

Do most Navy opponents feel this way? Or is this some kind of Notre Dame thing?

Navy scares the heck out of most opponents because the triple option is nearly impossible to prepare for during the course of a season. With the athletes Navy has executing the offense flawlessly, the triple option is almost impossible to stop too. Just ask Urban Meyer, who said as much following a game in which the Midshipmen played Ohio State toe-to-toe in the first half last season.


To stop Navy you need to stop Keenan Reynolds, now a senior and a long, long, long way from the kid who looked a little lost in Ireland to kick off the 2012 season.

We’ve seen some very good Navy option quarterbacks. But is it hyperbole to put Reynolds at the top of this group? What’s the ceiling on his 2015 senior season? Dark-horse Heisman contender?

Keenan Reynolds is without question the best triple option quarterback in Navy history. He holds every meaningful scoring record and could have been a dark-horse Heisman contender last year had he not suffered a series of ailments that were nagging all season. Still, he posted record-setting numbers and is poised to be even better this season assuming he stays healthy, so a dark-horse Heisman run isn’t out of the question.


This seems like an evergreen question. But for as good as the Navy offense should be, what’s the state of Buddy Green’s defense? If Navy’s blueprint for victory needs to include a few stops and a forced turnover, does this group look like one that can make that happen?

With Notre Dame likely bringing a heavy dose of ground game and a veteran offensive line, will Navy’s rebuilt from seven be able to hold up?

There’s frequently turnover along Navy’s front seven, but this year it’s especially pronounced at linebacker with three starters gone, including both outside positions. Buddy Green always seems to find a way to patch together a defense that most often bends but doesn’t break. This year will be another test for certain, and at this point, it doesn’t seem as if Notre Dame would encounter much resistance running the ball.


Notre Dame’s defense imploded after the Navy game, with Joe Schmidt lost for the year with a serious ankle injury and the blocking scheme of the Midshipmen taking a toll on an already beaten up defensive line.

Ask an Irish fan about Navy football and it takes about 10 seconds to hear about the cut blocks. As we watch the sport try everything to make it a safer game, do you see this fundamental component of the triple-option offense ever being eliminated?

Cut blocking is a vital part of triple option because Navy isn’t going to beat teams with size and strength, and it’s not going away anytime soon. The Midshipmen win at the line of scrimmage using leverage, not brute force. I found it interesting last season when Brian Kelly was asked about cut blocking, and his response was basically to stop crying and deal with it. Very well put.


Ken Niumatalolo feels like he’s been at Navy forever. He’s shown some great coaching chops, and has built on the impressive foundation Paul Johnson laid. Is he a lifer at Navy? Do you think there’s a job that could entice him to leave?

Niumatalolo is a Navy lifer simply because there are very few other places where he’d be able to implement the triple option as well as it runs at the academy. He has said repeatedly how much he enjoys living in Annapolis and that once he leaves Navy, he’ll retire to Hawaii. He already is the school’s all-time victories leader and has a blueprint for winning that would be difficult if not impossible to replicate elsewhere. It would be shocking if he accepted a position at another school.


It’s still too soon to know how a team will be next year. But for Irish fans used to seeing Navy each season, can you ballpark the expectations for the 2015 Midshipmen?

The offense has potential to be even more explosive than usual given a healthy Reynolds and what could be a more wide-open passing game. As difficult as it may be to envision, it shouldn’t come as a surprise if Navy tries to stretch the field with more throws to WR Jamir Tillman, who is 6-feet-4, 206 pounds and can separate downfield. The defense remains a question, but the Midshipmen can win shootouts if necessary. Nine wins is a realistic expectation.

Pregame Six Pack: Another scare from Navy

USA Today Sports

As Notre Dame and Navy meet for the 88th straight time, we reach a familiar time of year and a particularly scary Saturday for the Irish. As ghosts and goblins prepare to roam the streets in search of trick or treat, the Irish coaching staff receives its annual scare in the form of a triple-option offense and a football team with nothing to lose.

That Notre Dame still plays Navy on an annual basis is a story in its own right. While most college football fans see it as an easy win for a team using tradition as an excuse for a mark in the win column, the truth is a far more noble endeavor.

While the story is well-told within Notre Dame circles, Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister did a great job retelling it, reminding Irish fans that during World War II, the Naval Academy kept the university’s doors open.

From Prister:

Notre Dame was in desperate need of students as the war and its repercussions cut significantly into its enrollment. The Midshipmen School and the V-12 Program began at Notre Dame in 1943, and by mid-war, civilian undergrads totaled only about 250. The rest of the enrollment was dedicated to the training of naval officers.

So closely tied was the University to the Naval Academy that Notre Dame’s football roster in 1943 included the “military status” of each player. Approximately 12,000 officers completed their training at Notre Dame from 1942-46. In 1947, an Air Force detachment was established on campus.

In 1946, Admiral Chester Nimitz – who had accepted O’Donnell’s plea in 1941 – was presented with an honorary degree from Notre Dame. In 1947, Rear Admiral Cary Jones presented Notre Dame President Rev. John J. Cavanaugh with a commemorative plaque honoring Notre Dame’s “efficiency, patriotism and cooperative spirit.”

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh – Notre Dame’s president from 1952-87, and a former Navy chaplain, by the way – was a strong proponent of the Notre Dame-Navy football series.

“The Notre Dame-Navy connection is very close,” said Hesburgh, now 97, in 2013. “We’re like a big family…They’re always going to be on our schedule.”

For over 40 years, Navy remaining on Notre Dame’s football schedule meant a victory, with the Irish setting an NCAA record with 43-straight victories over the Midshipmen. But since Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo took the Navy football program to new heights, the matchup has turned into a battle far more befitting of college football’s longest running intersectional rivalry.

As we get to this week’s Pregame Six Pack, here’s a tip of the cap to a tradition worth honoring, even if it comes with pitfalls and challenges that make the Midshipmen one of the most grueling games on the schedule.


On a Saturday where one key battle should tell the story, Navy’s propensity to turn the football over is a very big problem for the Midshipmen. 

So much attention has been paid to Everett Golson’s turnover issues these past four games. Brian Kelly has made it clear that this weekend, those poor decisions and mistakes need to be eradicated, especially if Notre Dame wants to win in a convincing fashion.

“Everett knows what the charge is there running the offense,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s got to be accurate. He’s got to be clean in terms of taking care of the football, and we’ve got to be on top of things offensively. If we’re not, it’s going to be a dogfight.”

But entering Saturday’s matchup with Navy, the Midshipmen’s struggles holding onto the football loom even larger. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo knows that the margin for error on Saturday is razor thin. And he knows for his team to be able to stay close, they’ve got to win the turnover battle.

That’s been the key stat when Navy has hung with Notre Dame. And that’s been the key problem for a 4-4 Midshipmen team that can’t afford to give the football away.

Navy ranks 106th in the nation in turnover margin. At a woeful -5 in the give-and-takeaway battle, the Midshipmen have no chance to beat Notre Dame if they end up giving the Irish offense more opportunities than they already get, and short-circuit offensive drives that serve two strategic keys (running the clock and scoring points).

Brian VanGorder’s defense has forced 15 turnovers this season, already surpassing their regular season total from last year. And if the Irish defense manages to make Keenan Reynolds play a poor game from a ball security perspective, the Irish should win running away tomorrow.


Passing the football won’t be a big part of Navy’s game plan. But the ability to protect the quarterback will be crucial for both teams. 

In the past, we’ve seen the Irish attack Navy’s defense in multiple ways. In last year’s 38-34 victory, Tommy Rees only threw the ball 20 times (two of those passes were intercepted). In the Irish’s 2012 blowout victory, Golson only attempted 18 passes (and Andrew Hendrix threw five times in mop-up duty), with the Irish running the ball 46 times for 293 yards.

Charlie Weis sometimes chose to attack Navy’s defense differently. While he stuck with running the football in 2008, down 21-7 in 2009, Weis had Jimmy Clausen throw almost exclusively against Buddy Green’s defense, completing 37 of 51 throws for 451 yards against the Midshipmen, with the Irish losing because they only managed to score only twice on their six red zone attempts.

That background is the long way to get to the pass rushing disparity in this football game. In years past, Navy has done an excellent job of scheming their way into being disruptive in the Irish pass game. But while the ghost of Ram Vela might still haunt Irish fans, the Navy pass rush has really struggled this season, managing only three sacks on the season. That’s good for a tie for dead last in all of college football.

On the flip side of the ball, while the numbers haven’t necessarily shown it, the Irish have been much better this season manufacturing pressure on quarterbacks. While they’ve only netted 13 sacks, that’s a big problem for the Midshipmen, because their offensive line is giving up sacks at an astonishing rate.

The Midshipmen have given up 15 sacks this season, good for a respectable 57th in the country. But Navy’s only attempted 86 passes this season. While Navy’s game plan might only include a half-dozen passing attempts on Saturday, getting Reynolds enough time to get the throw off is critical.

Consider this another place where the Irish could turn this game ugly quickly, especially if they get out to a big lead.


Let’s take a long trip down Memory Lane to see how Brian VanGorder plans on defending the option. 

We’ve already talked about the decade that’s come and gone since Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator has taken on the option.  But Saturday presents an interesting matchup when VanGorder will take on Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper as the Irish defense goes up against Navy’s triple option.

Jarron Jones already let slip the plan for Isaac Rochell to slide inside. That should be no surprise considering the Irish haven’t attempted to defend the option with a three-man front since the debacle in the Meadowlands in Navy’s lopsided 35-17 victory. Brian Kelly also pointed out that fifth-year senior Justin Utupo will see plenty of action, showcasing a great (albeit undersized) motor when pressed into duty last season.

In addition to a wonderful breakdown that looked at the changes the Irish made in their defensive schemes against Navy after the humiliating 2010 loss, our friends at OneFootDown went into the Way Back machine and dug out some footage of VanGorder’s Georgia defense taking on the option game of Georgia Southern.

VanGorder ran a base defense that looked an awful lot like a 5-2, rolling up two outside linebackers with a three-man front. And while the decade — not to mention Kelly’s four seasons of experience facing Navy — and the Irish personnel will likely mean a four-man front for the Irish, VanGorder’s scheme looks fairly similar to the one the Irish played out over the past few seasons.

Here’s the conclusion OFD reached after breaking down a lot of really old television footage.

To be honest, this video looked a lot like Notre Dame’s game against the Midshipmen. The three plays I covered in this post are almost exactly the same as three of the plays I covered in my Navy Review post.

This style of defense is “bend but don’t break” taken to an extreme. The offense can get 4-6 yards whenever it wants, and the defense has to count on a missed block or a penalty to stall the drive. One or two stops is all the defense really needs, since the offense can score at will. If the offense can’t get into the endzone or turns the ball over, then the defense has go back on the field and hope for another mistake.

What does this mean for Notre Dame’s game against Navy this season? Who knows. VanGorder didn’t exactly shut down Georgia Southern’s option attack, but Georgia blew them out thanks to some turnovers and big special teams plays.

Niumatalolo said his staff spent some time digging up film to see how VanGorder has defended the option in the past. I highly doubt they got much benefit out of a YouTube video that opens with score to a Michael Bay movie then switches to some awful alt-rock.

But if we’re looking for clues, this might be the best one available.


Let’s see if the Notre Dame ground game continues its ascent. 

It feels longer than two weeks ago, but last we saw Notre Dame’s offensive line, it was moving the line of scrimmage against Florida State’s defensive front. With Tarean Folston taking control of the running back battle with the Irish’s first 100-yard game of the season, keep an eye on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line on Saturday night.

Notre Dame’s starting five face a unique challenge against Navy’s defensive front, tasked with blocking faster and smaller defenders. That means the Irish offensive line is able to bully the Midshipmen, but only if they’re able to get their hands on them, forcing the Irish linemen to play with excellent technique first and foremost before moving the point of attack, something that’s been a challenge this season.

But after a breakthrough performance last year against the Midshipmen, let’s keep an eye on the distribution among the running backs Saturday night, especially if Kelly chooses to ride the running game. Kelly talked about Folston’s game against Florida State and how it’s earned him a move up, but not necessarily away from a committee-based approach.

“Standing here right now based upon his performance the last few weeks, he’s probably moved himself at the top of the depth chart, but that doesn’t mean that all the carries would necessarily slant his way,” Kelly explained.  “We’re still going to play all three backs…  I’ve said this a lot of times, we’re evolving.  As a carrier of the football, [Folston’s] earned more carries, but I think we clearly know the importance of all three backs and how they all meet the fit in terms of what we’re doing.”

In 2012, Cam McDaniel put himself on the radar with big games running the football as the Irish needed to burn clock with a lead, with his performance in the garbage time of a 40-point win over Navy getting things started. If the Irish get out front, riding McDaniel, or perhaps Greg Bryant, could be the springboard that either back could use to get momentum heading into the home stretch.


After facing some very good Navy quarterbacks, Keenan Reynolds presents a challenge unlike the others. 

There’s a very good reason Keenan Reynolds has already moved his way into the Navy football record books. The option quarterback might be the best to face the Irish in a very long time, even as injuries have wreaked havoc on his junior season.

Coming off a breakout game against San Jose State, Niumatalolo’s gamble to give Reynolds a few weeks off to get healthy comes at a perfect time for the Midshipmen, and not so much for the Irish.

After successfully moving Navy’s offense last season in a really impressive performance against Notre Dame, Reynolds will be asked to put on his superman cape once more, doing so behind an offensive line that’s struggled and after battling back from knee and throwing shoulder woes.

Asked what makes Reynolds so difficult to defend, Kelly praised Navy’s quarterback for his ability to be a creator as a ball carrier as well as being a deadly option triggerman.

“He’s not somebody that is interested in his own stats,” Kelly explained. “When you look at an option quarterback, if you give him the fullback, the fullback is going to get the football.  I think it starts with an unselfish quarterback, whose understanding of the system is superseding any of his individual stats and accolades.  That is number one.

“Number two, he is an outstanding depth athlete, and his ability to throw the football.  He’s not one-dimensional where you’d say, we’re just going to line up extra guys on the line of scrimmage because we know we can’t throw the football.  He’s an accomplished thrower of the football.  He can spin it on you and he can hurt you.  So I think that’s the second piece of that.

“And then the third is that he’s extremely elusive.  He’s put together pretty well.  He’s bigger than [former Navy quarterback Ricky] Dobbs, and because of that he seems to always fall forward for four or five yards.  When you look up there, it’s 2nd and 4, and he does a great job of obviously managing the down and distance.  I think those three things really stand out to me.”

While injuries and struggles up front derailed Reynolds from a dark horse Heisman candidacy before it could start, just one game after playing against Jameis Winston, the Irish have their hands full with another dynamic quarterback.


Start fast and Notre Dame could end this game early. Start slow? Buckle up for a long, grueling night. 

If setting the tone against Florida State was important, it may be even more important on Saturday night. Because a quick start could determine whether or not the Irish play a game like the ones in 2011 and 2012 or the slugfest that went down last season.

If you’re looking for a down-and-dirty way to tell how this football game goes, just look at the first two possessions for both teams. In 2011 and 2012, the Irish started quick and Navy didn’t. The result? Blowout victories.

In 2013, the Irish offense was just okay to start, scoring a touchdown on their first drive, but settling for a field goal on their second. That kept Navy in the game, especially after they matched touchdowns to open the game, and then played a far more efficient second quarter, with the Irish turning the ball over twice.

A look back to 2009 gives you almost the perfect look inside a Navy upset. The Irish’s first drive ended after three plays, with Robby Paris fumbling after a short completion. Navy converted two fourth downs on a touchdown drive. Notre Dame’s second drive ended on a Nick Tausch missed field goal. Navy went 74 yards in seven plays to go up 14-0. Adding insult to injury, the Irish got nothing when they went for it on 4th-and-Goal from the 3, with Clausen missed Duval Kamara in the end zone.

If history tells us anything, we’ll know fairly early how difficult this game will be for Notre Dame. And it’ll be determined by the Irish’s ability to execute from the start.


Kelly on cut blocks: “Stop being crybabies”

Keenan Reynolds, Justin Utopo, Cole Luke

With a week off between Florida State and Navy, Brian Kelly and his coaching staff had an extra week of preparation for Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack. Allowing his team to leave campus during the university’s fall break, Kelly afforded his players a chance to recharge their batteries after being on campus since June.

But back to work on Sunday, the objective was quickly clear: Stopping Keenan Reynolds and Navy.

To do that, Kelly’s defense will not only be taking on a talented quarterback, but a Navy offensive front that utilizes cut blocks in their triple-option scheme. A legal technique that nonetheless draws complaints because of the many injury risks involved, last season the Irish suffered key injuries to defenders Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day and Kona Schwenke during the Navy game, just part of a two-deep that was absolutely ravaged by injury.

Asked about the technique and Navy’s use of blocking below-the-waist, Kelly very quickly ended any debate about where he stood on the issue and how he plans to address it this week.

“As it relates to the cut blocks, stop being crybabies, and go play the game,” Kelly said emphatically. “I don’t want to hear about cut blocks.Get in your stance, get off the ball and play the game. I don’t want to hear about it.

“It’s part of the game, and they’re legal, and you’ve got to get off the ball and go play. I told our guys this is a no‑cry zone this week. I don’t want to hear about it. Go play big games and go play the game the right way.”

With the front seven of the Irish coming off their most decisive performance of the season, there’ll be some challenges posed by the low blocks, but that’s to be expected by every team. And while it’s Brian VanGorder’s first game against an option defense, it’s Mike Elston’s fifth-straight year of coaching against Navy’s offensive line, meaning he’ll have his team well versed on battling blockers as his team takes on a unique challenge as it enters November.

That challenge has come with unforeseen difficulties. As it was pointed out to Kelly this morning by AP writer Tom Coyne, the Irish have not just struggled with Navy, but struggled to get past the Midshipmen, losing in the weeks after they played their service academy rival in two of four seasons under Kelly.

With nearly three weeks between the Seminoles and Arizona State, Kelly talked about balancing an entirely unique week with keeping his young defense up to speed, especially with a drastically different opponent on tap next week. Kelly has used a portion of 7-on-7 passing practice to keep his team ready for the Sun Devils, while still downloading the game plan for the Midshipmen.

“Now 95 percent of our practice is against Navy, but we know that we have to transition out, and we want to keep speed involved in our practice as well,” Kelly explained. “So I don’t want to say that we have an eye towards Arizona State, what we have is an eye towards is Navy 100 percent. But we also have to maintain our base calls, so our guys don’t lose that understanding, because we had a bye week and then you go into Navy. We don’t want them to forget what quarter coverage looks like.”

That’s the type of juggling every coaching staff needs to do, especially with a group of young defenders still learning to play together. But if you’re looking for some lessons coming out of North Carolina’s up-tempo attack, this could be Kelly and VanGorder’s way to make sure the Irish don’t have translation issues jumping back into Todd Graham’s offensive attack and repeat some of the struggles against the Tar Heels.


With the College Football Playoff Selection Committee announcing their first rankings tonight, Kelly was asked if he planned on setting aside some time to see where the Irish were ranked.

He chuckled.

“It’s way too early for any of that stuff,” Kelly said. “I’ll be woking on Navy, figuring out a way to get some points and slow them down.”


Kelly gave an update on the status of two of his safeties, and his comments on the potential return of both Austin Collinsworth and Eilar Hardy to the playing field was more optimistic than many expected.

In his last update on Collinsworth’s re-injured shoulder, Kelly gave the good news that surgery wasn’t necessarily needed. And now it sounds like the Irish team captain will work with the medical team to try and find a way to get back on the field to contribute.

“We got Collinsworth dressed yesterday. He’s in a harness,” Kelly explained. “He’s going to try to give it a shot and see what he can do.  I don’t know if we’re going to have him activated for this weekend, but he was practicing yesterday.  We’ll see what happens there.”

On the flip side of the injury, the Irish welcomed Hardy back to the practice field, the only one of the five suspended players to be given that opportunity. While a few reports hinted that Hardy would only be eligible to practice, Kelly talked about a still ongoing process for Hardy, with hopes that he might be able to contribute this season after all.

“We’re hopeful. There are things that have to occur for that to take place, and those are above certainly what I can control,” Kelly said. “But we’re of the mindset that we’d like to get him cleared, and that’s a process that is working through right now.”