Navy

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Quarterback Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen carries the ball against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the first half at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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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.”

 

Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

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)
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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.”

Offseason Q&A: Navy

Keenan Reynolds, Joe Nauert, James Kelly
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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
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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.

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Five things we learned: Notre Dame 49, Navy 39

Tarean Folston, Parrish Gaines, Daniel Gonzales, George Jamison
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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.