Since losing to Navy became a possibility in 2007, four different Notre Dame defensive coordinator reigns have come and gone, each suffering a besmirching at the hands of the Midshipmen.
Corwin Brown snapped the 43-year winning streak by allowing Navy to convert 9-of-16 third downs. Jon Tenuta’s defense gave up 6.1 yards per rush in 2009, a number matched by Bob Diaco’s botched planning in 2010. The remains of Brian VanGorder’s defenses had the most trouble getting off the field in 2016, giving up first downs on two-thirds of the Midshipmen’s third and fourth downs.
The Mike Elko-into-Clark Lea tenure has not had that humbling moment in its first two seasons. In fact, the Irish have handled the triple-option challenge with aplomb the last couple years, keeping Navy to only 12-of-24 on third and fourth downs in 2017 and 4-of-15 last season. The better of those two Midshipmen squads, the 2017 version, managed only 3.8 yards per rush against Notre Dame.
Finding that defensive success once was a good sign for Elko’s and Lea’s schemes. One could argue doing so twice was a coincidence bolstered by a subpar Navy rendition. Keeping the triple-option in check a third year in a row would be the latest pillar in Lea’s reputation.
Lea’s defenses have given way just once in his two seasons as coordinator, though that once is still fresh in memory. He has proven adept at developing players, linebackers in particular. And recruiting has ticked upward the last few cycles. But stopping the Midshipmen is a different beast entirely.
It is a headache with prep requiring the services of specific offensive players, ones sought in recruiting.
The Irish devote parts of the spring, preseason and the idle week to working against the triple-option. Last year, then-freshman receiver Lawrence Keys spent time as the scout team quarterback to give Lea’s defense a look at the triple-option ripe with speed. This season, those duties have been handled by freshman receiver Kendall Abdur-Rahman, a fall removed from his time as a high school quarterback. Walk-on Cole Capen, a high school option quarterback, chips in a good amount, as well.
“We always have a plan to get some speed at the position,” head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “Then somebody that’s really efficient with the football to run the triple-option effectively, so the ball is not on the ground.”
There is a dichotomy to that challenge. Anyone both fast enough and well-versed enough in the triple-option has probably gone to play at a program using it, yet No. 16 Notre Dame needs to be ready for that speedy efficiency. Keys and now Abdur-Rahman provide the speed the Irish defense needs to adjust to while Capen gives the fundamental look.
Keys and Abdur-Rahman were not recruited for this scout-team need. Keys has already proven himself a worthwhile contributor in the making on the first-team offense, and Abdur-Rahman’s multi-tool potential could force him onto the field sooner than expected. Nonetheless, Kelly and his staff recognized this other practical application of their abilities while chasing their National Letters of Intent.
“Our coaches are always looking at Navy, always have within what we recruit — we always recruit somebody that can play in the quarterback position that can run triple-option,” Kelly said. “… We stay on top of it all year-round because it’s very difficult to prepare for this team with three days of practice.”
These approaches are the results of lessons learned the hard way. Diaco’s failure to account for the veer in 2010 was particularly appalling, as was his remaining shock afterward that anyone could have possibly seen the adjustment coming. These roster wrinkles are thought of and implemented only because the Irish face the Midshipmen every year; if it was a sporadic series, that prep would get shelved for years at a time and forgotten. All this came to be long before Lea, but he is now its beneficiary.
He furthered Notre Dame’s success against Navy the last two seasons in his work with the Irish linebackers. When Drue Tranquill sprained his ankle early in last year’s matchup, it could have spelled doom. An underclassman not disciplined in details could be overwhelmed by the triple-option. Instead, then-sophomore Drew White stepped in without flinching, finishing with six tackles.
It was a moment that put White’s name alongside Greer Martini’s as a triple-option specialist.
“Everybody gets their opportunity and chance, and when you get it you need to make the best of it,” Kelly said Monday. “He made the best of his one opportunity and chance, and that was his one opportunity.
“Option football requires a discipline. It requires a knowledge and awareness. Those instincts obviously serve you well at that middle linebacker position. It was a glimpse of things that were to come.”
White has indeed followed a career path more resembling Tranquill’s than Martini’s — far from actually reaching Tranquill’s, just more on that end of the spectrum — currently second on the team with 55 tackles, trailing fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal by one.
The task will be more difficult for both White and Lea this time around, the result of the Midshipmen moving Malcolm Perry back to quarterback and running to a 7-1 record as a result, ranked No. 23 and in position to chase a Cotton Bowl berth.
“He’s precise, very secure with the football,” Kelly said of Perry. “He’s a point guard, distributing, making really good decisions. Very difficult to defend.”
Kelly did not specifically mention Perry’s speed and quickness, presumably because it was implied. If White or Bilal or anyone else among Lea’s charges misses a fit, Perry will make the Irish pay for the mistake. And if they don’t miss a fit, Navy’s coaching staff will look to manufacture such a mistake. That staff is, after all, made up of triple-option experts, as well, a fact not always given proper due.
“They can make adjustments to what you’re trying to do in a split second,” Kelly said. “… They’ve seen it all. You’ve got the best and brightest that are playing at the academy that can make some quick adjustments in-game, at halftime, so they’re not going to be fooled by what they see.”
This was all somewhat known by Brown, by Tenuta, maybe not by Diaco at first, and who knows about VanGorder. None of it will catch Lea unaware.
Nor will Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long be caught by surprise. He knows the Midshipmen shorten the game. When Notre Dame lost 28-27 in 2016, its offense touched the ball a total of six times, including just twice in the second half. It scored on five of those drives. As much as that loss twisted the knife in VanGorder’s already-fired back, the defeat also traced to a second-quarter punt.
One wasted drive by Ian Book & Co. could doom the Irish, no matter how well Lea’s defense plays, no matter how inspired senior safety Alohi Gilman plays in what could be his last game against his former teammates, no matter how good of a Perry impersonation Abdur-Rahman put forth the last six months.