Tag: Navy

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


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.”

Offseason Q&A: Navy

Keenan Reynolds, Joe Nauert, James Kelly

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.

Mailbag: Captains, intanglibles and KeiVarae’s return

Malik Zaire, Chris Brown

It’s a weekend edition of the mailbag. Some great questions both in the comments and on Twitter. We’ll keep reopening this throughout the weekend and into next week.

Here goes nothing:


steincj36: Who do you think will be the Captain(s) of the team? Who do you think will be the emotional leader(s) of the team?

You could probably make an argument for a dozen guys being capable captains on this team. And that’s a very good thing. In year’s past, here are some guys I’d tell you would be a lock in just about any other season:

Matthias Farley
Corey Robinson (maybe next year)
Everett Golson
Jarrett Grace
Jaylon Smith (if he returns, for sure next year)
KeiVarae Russell (not sure if suspension will let him)
Tarean Folston 
(maybe next year)
Malik Zaire (a lock for next year)

Ultimately, I think returning captains Nick Martin and Sheldon Day will keep the ‘C’ on their chest. They’re the leaders of their position groups, and certainly didn’t do anything to lose that standing.

So if we’re replacing Austin Collinsworth and Cam McDaniel, you’ll probably do it with veteran players. An obvious one is Joe Schmidt. He’s the team’s returning MVP, a charismatic leader who probably should’ve been a captain last season and a more than worthy choice.

A maybe off the radar choice is Ronnie Stanley. Two captains along the offensive line is pretty rare, but so is this offensive line group. And if there’s ever a time to reward a player for making the decision to return for his senior season, it’s a great precedent to set—especially with Jaylon Smith likely looking at a similar decision next year.

As for emotional leaders, I think KeiVarae Russell was a lock to be a captain at Notre Dame, maybe even last season before his academic suspension. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was named a captain, and even if he isn’t, he’ll be an emotional leader.

On offense, we’ll get to Zaire’s natural leadership skills shortly. But he fits the emotional leader tag perfectly. I also think Jarrett Grace and Max Redfield will take on key leadership roles.


upthera44: 1. How valuable are Zaire’s intangibles (leadership, ability to rise to the occasion on game day, etc.)? How much should they be factored into the calculus for picking the starter?

Up until I saw Zaire handle the press after the USC game last year, I’d have called his intangibles (and really, intangibles in general) incredibly overrated. But seeing his charisma firsthand and watching him lift a team that was playing for nothing in the second half with effort, motivation and a true winner’s will, I became a believer.

(Candidly, before that game, I thought there was a better chance that we’d never see Zaire as a starter than him taking over the offense.)

Add to that the heart, effort and willpower he put into the LSU victory—and the genuine emotional outburst that came after the victory—I think his elite leadership abilities are a very real factor that the coaching staff is taking into consideration.

Of course, Zaire can be a leader playing a role on the team, even if it isn’t the starting quarterback. And part of the calculus is certainly figuring out how Zaire can lead while also allowing Golson to play a key role in this offense, a still-being-determined formula that’ll truly come into focus come June, when Golson officially commits to being a part of this football team (if not sooner).

But if Golson transfers, this will very quickly be Zaire’s offense. And the team will certainly rally around a pitch-perfect leader who will have plenty of success.



tampabayirish: It has been announced that San Diego (a great choice) is the likely destination for the 2018 Navy-Notre Dame game. Any word on the location of the 2016 Navy-Notre Dame game?

The report mentioned both the 2016 and 2018 game, and sign me up for either or both. With the Navy’s footprint in the San Diego area and another Southern California game for the Irish (Notre Dame will end the 2016 and 2018 seasons at USC), both schools would have some excitement for that game.

One suggestion: Get it out of that dump Qualcomm Stadium and put it in Petco Park. A Saturday at one of America’s finest venues and in the Gaslamp District would be a great day.


@irishpatient: Russell has a long layoff, assuming he’s back, what do we know about his conditioning and understanding of the new defense?

I take it you aren’t following Russell on Instagram? He’s been posting his workout photos from basically the start of his suspension. So if you’re worried about him being in shape, I’ll give you a greatest hits below.

As for his understanding of the new defense, Russell was already deep into the system last August and spent the spring learning it as well, tutoring roommate Nick Watkins on the finer points, when he was pulled from the team. He’s been in contact with the team and coaching staff. And it even sounds like the plan is for Russell to be a lockdown cornerback on the opponents best receiver, pairing with Cole Luke to be a great starting duo.






Five things we learned: Notre Dame 49, Navy 39

Tarean Folston, Parrish Gaines, Daniel Gonzales, George Jamison

It seemed too easy, didn’t it?

Notre Dame’s offense was rolling. The Irish were on pace for 860 yards after the first quarter. Looking unbeatable, Everett Golson was throwing strikes, Tarean Folston was cutting through Navy’s defense and Brian VanGorder’s first attempt at slowing down the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack found enough stops to build a 28-7 lead.

But those that expected the Naval Academy to pack it in and go home were ignoring 88 years of history. And after a quick touchdown drive, a Golson interception and a third-quarter Notre Dame sleepwalk, the Irish were on the ropes and trailing in a game that got out of control in a hurry.

As hopes of style points went out the window, Notre Dame scraped together just enough on both sides of the ball for a 49-39 victory. After a week of Brian Kelly paying tribute to the fight in the Midshipmen, the Irish had to go toe-to-toe down the stretch to find a way to come out alive.

“We knew this was going to be a challenge,” Kelly said after the game. “That’s really all you can ask for is to win a football game and get some guys experience, and then not have to play Navy again until next year.”

It’s tough to say it any better than that. Let’s take a look at the five things we learned.


Everett Golson isn’t back. He really never left. 

For as frustrating as the string of turnovers has been, it’s worth pointing out that for all the flaws we’ve now picked out in Everett Golson’s game, we might be watching the best quarterback at Notre Dame of the modern era.

Think about it. While Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen put up some incredible numbers in Charlie Weis’ scheme, they didn’t win games like Golson does. And while Tony Rice won a title and Rick Mirer went No. 2 overall, neither had the diverse skillset that Golson showcases every Saturday.

The scary part? He’s only getting better.

While most will focus on the interception that helped turn the momentum in Navy’s favor, Golson was absolutely dominant tonight, producing six touchdowns for the Irish offense, three through the air and three on the ground. His 18 of 25 for 315 yards including a 78-yard touchdown on his first throw and an eight-yard touchdown scamper to essentially end the game.

Golson has now thrown 22 touchdowns against seven interceptions. His three scores on the ground add to his team leading seven rushing touchdowns. On a night where the offensive line showed cracks in the second half and the team looked frazzled, putting the ball in Golson’s hands was the only ingredient needed for victory.

Losing the 2013 season cost Golson a precious season of on-field development, and the Irish a year where they very easily could’ve been a BCS contender. But after outplaying the defending Heisman Trophy winner (according to his head coach) last week, Golson threw his name back in the ring for the most coveted individual award in sports with a singular performance.


Awards talk earlier in the season proved distracting, even as the quarterback tried to shut it out. But four more games this month will give Golson an opportunity to lead the Irish into the postseason, and write a very impressive chapter in the Notre Dame history books.


End the debate. Tarean Folston should be Notre Dame’s featured running back. 

When Notre Dame’s offense was at its best, Tarean Folston was in the backfield. The sophomore had another impressive night, running for 149 yards on 20 carries to pace the Irish ground game.

When given the opportunity to establish a rhythm, Folston looked silky smooth in the backfield, showing patience as his blocks set up, suddenness going through the hole, and vision you just can’t teach. Add to his efforts the game-sealing 30-yard catch in the fourth quarter and it’s two consecutive games where Folston has made it clear that he’s the team’s best running back.

Now his head coach needs to reward his efforts.

After spending more than half the season trying to mix and match three running backs, Kelly and the offensive staff would be best served to just turn the keys over to Folston. For as wonderfully reliable as Cam McDaniel is, and for as talented and filled with promise Greg Bryant still figures to be, the Irish have a marquee running back in their stable who’s capable of doing it all if only his head coach will let him.

Want to see the Irish offense stuck in neutral? Just look at the running plays where McDaniel got carries. This isn’t 2012, where Kelly was willing to sacrifice some explosiveness for the versatility and toughness of Theo Riddick, who took the majority of carries over Cierre Wood even if Wood put up better stats.

Folston’s the team’s best all-around back. By any measurement possible.

Want to get McDaniel his snaps? Play him in pass protection. After starting the season getting his shot, Bryant’s best days are likely in 2015, with Irish Illustrated reporting that Bryant is also banged up.

If the Irish are going to play balanced offense down the stretch, this is Folston’s job. And give credit to the sophomore for ending a platoon with impressive production.


Notre Dame’s defense got even younger as they traded punches with Navy’s offense and came out alive. 

Make no mistake, the game tape won’t be pretty. But after being battered and bruised by Navy’s triple option, the Irish defense stood its ground and won the fourth quarter, helping Notre Dame escape alive. And they did it behind freshmen like Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill and Andrew Trumbetti.

Combined with big games from James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, Justin Utupo and Matthias Farley, the Irish defense won the game not on the back of their stars but rather on the shoulders of their lunch-pail performers.

Especially essential was the performance of Martini. The freshman linebacker shifted inside as VanGorder decided to put Jaylon Smith on the perimeter, making nine tackles in basically his debut as a non-special teams contributor, a heady performance by a young player who was — for better or worse — the next man in.

“Greer is a very smart kid and his attention to detail is really good,” Kelly said. “And he’s the only guy we had. We don’t have anybody else.”

Martini was joined by Nyles Morgan on the inside, with the promising Chicagoland product thrust into action after an ankle injury to Joe Schmidt. Morgan showed flashes of the prep All-American who many compared to Manti Te’o, showing a burst and obvious athleticism, not to mention shoulders made of concrete, as he ran sideline to sideline chasing Navy ball carriers creating a few big-time collisions. The next step in Morgan’s game is actually knowing where and who to chase, as a few broken assignments late likely contributed to Navy’s final touchdown and two-point conversion.

With the Irish on the ropes, the Irish defense actually stepped up. In five fourth-quarter possessions, the Midshipmen managed just one touchdown, turned the ball over on downs twice and threw a critical interception. Nobody can look at the stat sheet and see much beauty, but when it was needed it was the defense, not the offense that sealed the deal.


Notre Dame didn’t earn any style points for beating Navy. But there’s no reason to be embarrassed — and Brian Kelly certainly isn’t — after exiting this matchup with a victory. 

Don’t expect the Irish to make a move up next week’s Playoff committee rankings. And don’t expect Brian Kelly to care.

He’ll be too worried about an Arizona State team that will likely move up in the polls after winning in overtime over Utah. But if you’re expecting Kelly and company to apologize for struggling to put away a Navy team that fell to 4-5, don’t count on it.

“I challenge anybody to put these guys on their schedule, anybody who thinks Navy is an easy team to play,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s very, very difficult. I’ve got some smart defensive coaches back there. Bobby Elliott, one of the better defensive coordinators in the country in the eighties and nineties. He’s forgot more football than I know.

“Brian VanGorder’s an accomplished defensive coordinator at the NFL and college level. Mike Elston’s been with me for a long time. These are really good coaches. It’s hard to defend what they do at Navy and my hat goes off to Navy and their coaching staff, they do a great job on offense and once again they do a great job.”

That just about every Navy-Notre Dame game feels like the same scary movie played over again isn’t really the point of it all. That’s the great equalizer called the option. Knowing that it’s coming isn’t the hard part. Stopping it is.

So while most of us will look at the blown leverage by Notre Dame’s safeties or struggling to shutdown some plays to the boundary side of the field, the Irish coaching staff will gladly pull the Navy tape and their prep into storage, kicking this mess down the street when there’s more time to evaluate what worked and what didn’t.

Looking for something to correct? How about the Irish’s two series that started in plus territory, with the offense unable to even get a field goal that could’ve secured the victory. But all that comes after celebrating a hard-fought victory in the most thankless game of the season.


A serious injury to Joe Schmidt could drastically change the complexion of Notre Dame’s defense. 

If someone told you this spring that an injury to former walk-on Joe Schmidt could be the scariest news of early November, you’d likely think they had spent too much time in the comments section below. But seeing Schmidt in a walking boot and on crutches with a still undetermined ankle injury is a scary scenario for this Irish defense.

That’s not to say Nyles Morgan didn’t look impressive. But after serving as the nerve center of the Irish defense, Notre Dame’s losing more than its leading tackler, they could be playing without their rosetta stone, the critical translator of Brian VanGorder’s scheme-heavy approach.

Kelly said Schmidt will have an X-Ray once he returns to South Bend. But after doing his best to tape up his ankle and return to the game, this could very well be an injury that takes Schmidt out of the Irish game plan for a few games, hardly the type of news you want heading into a critical weekend.

“We don’t know the circumstances of Joe, but we’re praying he’s all right,” Jaylon Smith said after the game.

We saw what the reinforcements look like. Throw Greer Martini into the mix as well, with the linebacker likely better suited for coverage duties than Morgan.

But after seeing James Onwualu play his best football of the year (and then suffer what looks like a concussion late in the game after a nasty collision with Sheldon Day) and Matthias Farley serve as the closer, it’ll be all hands on deck next weekend in Tempe.

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.