If anyone here wants to commission me so I can blog full-time, please drop me a note. Until then, you’re stuck with whatever I can churn out that fits with my schedule. I apologize that this is late, but the videos are kind of a pain. Most of you have probably already written your opinions of the game in stone, unfortunately. I hope I’m not too late!
Anyway, another year, another loss to Notre Dame. I don’t know about you, but to me it stings a little bit more this year. Yes, it was the first game after finally breaking through against the Irish, and yes, there was the furious comeback that fell tantalizingly short. But most of all, this game hurt because it was so winnable. I have watched a few Notre Dame games this season, and I thought the Irish are definitely better now than they were in 2007. After last week, though… Boy, I don’t know. For the first time I can recall, I just didn’t get the same feeling of mismatch that usually accompanies a Navy-Notre Dame game. Don’t get me wrong; there was a definite physical difference between the two teams, and it was obvious right from the coin toss. Yet it didn’t seem to me that Notre Dame was really able to take full advantage of it.
Well, that’s mostly true. There was one exception. Notre Dame’s defensive line was very disruptive and really played an excellent game. One play in particular that sticks out in my mind was Ricky Dobbs’ first play. It was a midline option. Ricky made the right read and kept the ball, but when he tried to run through the gap vacated by the DL that took the fullback, it had already been closed by a ND defender pushing his blocker into Ricky’s path. It was a war all afternoon for the Navy o-line, and the Irish certainly won their fair share of the battles. But interestingly enough, that wasn’t the case on the other side of the ball. Just like every other Notre Dame game, CBS showed the on-screen graphic that highlighted the weight difference between the Irish offensive line and the Navy defensive line. Unlike those other games, it was Navy’s defensive line that was getting the better of it, at least in the first half.
I can’t say enough good things about the way the defense performed on Saturday. Everyone and their mother knew that Notre Dame was going to run the ball. That has been their bread & butter against Navy historically; Christian Swezey’s research tells us that during the 43-game win streak, Notre Dame had an individual with at least 90 rushing yards in 35 of those games. Not only that, but with Jimmy Clausen throwing 4 interceptions the previous week against Boston College, there was no way Charlie Weis was going to put his young gunslinger in a position to fail again. Navy’s defensive line knew it too, and they played as if their manhood had been challenged. Jabaree Tuani, the smallest of the three, had the biggest game. The freshman registered 7 tackles (2 for a loss) and recovered a fumble to lead the unit. Tuani is starting to remind me of David Mahoney; different positions, obviously, but both players who worked their way into the starting lineup as freshmen because of their motors and knack for getting to the ball. Both are undersized talents that could have gone to a BCS program if they were 3 inches taller. Being undersized is not a problem that Nate Frazier generally faces, and the nose guard made 4 tackles, recovered a fumble of his own, and blew up Notre Dame’s attempt to run out of the “Wildcat” formation.
When Tuani, Frazier, and Nechak weren’t making plays themselves, they were occupying the Irish offensive line enough to keep them off of the linebackers. That unit had a whale of a day. Jeff Deliz might have had the best performance of his career, racking up 17 tackles while lined up primarily as an outside linebacker. Ross Pospisil and Clint Sovie combined for 19 tackles themselves, and Corey Johnson had a career day of his own. Navy’s point-guard-turned-pass-rusher put his crossover moves to good use, getting past Notre Dame’s tackles to help force two turnovers. Johnson’s first-quarter sack of Clausen caused a fumble that was recovered by Tuani, while a hit delivered in the second quarter while Clausen was throwing led to a Ketric Buffin interception. You can add Ketric to the parade of superlatives too, with two interceptions and a pass breakup in the end zone. Notre Dame didn’t have a pass play longer than 14 yards– a sign of good coverage and good tackling. It was a remarkable turnaround from the Temple game, and an encouraging sign; once the defense can do this consistently, they’ll be pretty good. Until then I guess we’ll just have to take the good with the bad.
It’s a shame that this week’s “good” feels like it went to waste. While the defense was holding Notre Dame to 3 of 10 on 3rd down conversions, they were being supported by an offense that went only 1 for 13 in the same category. Eventually Navy’s inability to sustain drives took its toll, with the Irish able to run the ball better in the second half against a worn-down defense. Jarod Bryant has more or less taken the blame for this performance among the majority of readers here– or commenters, anyway– and the coaches have announced that Ricky Dobbs will get his first career start against Northern Illinois on Tuesday. But before you go off and hail Ricky as the solution, you might want to get a better idea of the problem.
We’ll start on the perimeter. Take a look at the picture. Here we have the base spread formation. The defense is lined up more or less the same way that Pitt did; 4-man front, with the middle linebacker deep.
The play called was the triple option. You’ll notice that the corners are lined up more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. When they’re that deep (aka out of the count), the playside wide receiver’s responsibility is to block the corner straight up. The playside A-back is supposed to carry out a load block, first checking the middle linebacker before moving on to the safety. But that isn’t what happened here. Instead, both players go to block the safety, leaving the corner unblocked. He ends up stuffing the play. The first two diagrams show what was supposed to happen. The third shows what actually did happen.
Now let’s look at a slightly different situation. Below we have twins to the left. The play is again the triple option, run to the left.
Running the triple towards the receivers out of this formation is the same as in the base spread, except the outside wide receiver always blocks the corner lined up over him. The inside receiver and the playside A-back have the same responsibilities that they would in the spread. Here, the corner covering the inside receiver is lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. In this case, the wide receiver is responsible for blocking the safety. The playside A-back should arc block the corner (aka #3 in the count). But he doesn’t; he carries out the load block as if he was on a 2-count side. Once again the corner is left unblocked, and once again he blows up the play. (To add insult to injury, Bobby Doyle was called for a chop block, too. Low-low is not a chop block. The ref screwed up.)
We also saw a problem that has been plaguing the offense all year; the tackle being unable to get to the middle linebacker, leaving him free to spy on the quarterback.
Take a look at those three plays. These were the types of problems that Navy was facing against Notre Dame. Notice what they weren’t. Did Jarod Bryant miss reads here? No. He made the right read on each of these plays, although in real-time it might have appeared to you that the wrong man got the ball. Was Notre Dame putting 8 men in the box? No. Hell, they barely even had 7 men in the box with the middle linebacker lined up so deep. So would passing have helped to loosen up the defense? No. Was Notre Dame stacking the box because they thought Jarod couldn’t pass? No, so there was nothing to loosen!
Now ask yourself this: how many of these problems will get fixed by changing the quarterback?
Look, I get it. You see the offense struggling, and you want to see corrective action. You don’t want to hear that it’s a matter of execution. Nobody is more visible in the offense than the quarterback, so you figure that the problems must start there. But sometimes, coaches actually tell it like it is. Jarod had issues– we’ll get to that in a second– but for the most part he put the ball where it was supposed to go. Ricky’s arm won’t fix this. Being an “exciting player” that “brings fans to their feet” and “moves the pile” won’t fix it either. Ricky Dobbs has all of the physical gifts one could hope for in a Navy quarterback, and he’s going to be a really, really good player for us. But that doesn’t mean he’s the answer to our troubles. If Navy’s offense plays well on Tuesday night, it will be because these problems were corrected.
Something else that won’t fix this is gadget plays. As Paul Johnson grows smaller in the rear view mirror, his legend grows larger. Apparently some people think that he ran two reverses or slotback passes per game. No, he didn’t. And when he did, it was when he noticed something in the defense, either in film study or during the course of the game, that convinced him that the play would work. You can’t just run a reverse whenever you want to and expect it to work. Besides, if you see that your offense is having trouble executing their bread & butter that they’ve practiced countless times almost every day for the last 4 months, would you really expect them to execute a trick play that they just installed this week? Sure, some trick plays, like reverses, get practiced every week too. But that’s a play that’s set up by running the triple option well, which is something that hasn’t happened much this year.
Which brings me to another point. This year, the offense has scored on the first drive of every game except Notre Dame. That’s a pretty strong testament to the preparation of the coaching staff. While being prepared is a great thing, some comments have started creeping in about the apparent lack of in-game adjustments. Some adjustments are obvious, while others are a little more subtle. But again, it all goes back to execution. In order to adjust to the way defenses are playing against the triple option, you first have to execute the triple option. You can’t adjust for blown assignments.
Even with the offense’s abyssmal performance, Coach Jasper was able to throw in a wrinkle or two. A couple weeks ago we talked about the cross charge, where the quarterback’s pitch key comes unblocked and takes the fullback. Notre Dame started using this in the first half:
It’s a read that Jarod has struggled with all year. When the quarterback sees the give key step upfield to play him instead of the fullback, his instinct is to give the ball. But when he does, the fullback is met by the pitch key, who was (correctly) left unblocked. It takes a lot of practice for an option quarterback to recognize what is happening beyond just the give key, and to make the right read. On a cross charge, you want to pitch the ball. The A-back will have wide open spaces. Ideally, you wouldn’t even have to adjust for this, since the quarterback would make the right read. But Jarod had a hard time with it. Fortunately, Coach Jasper had an adjustment ready, and the result was Cory Finnerty’s touchdown run.
Jasper’s adjustment was to change Jarod’s pitch key. He had the playside slotback block the linebacker that would ordinarily be #2 in the count. Mario Washington, the inside receiver in the twins formation, would block the safety’s inside-out pursuit (and do so rather effectively). Now Jarod would pitch off of the corner that was covering Mario.
With the cornerback lined up so far outside, it was an easy read for Jarod to make. The corner’s momentum towards the play in the middle of the field meant that he’d be out of position on the pitch. It was a great adjustment by Ivin Jasper, and well-executed by the team. Unfortunately for the Mids, good execution wasn’t the norm. Unlike the Pitt game where Scott McKillop was just that damn good, most of Navy’s problems against Notre Dame were home-grown. Against a defense the caliber of Notre Dame’s, it’s important to get your 3-4 yards a pop on every play. It only takes one blown play to stop a drive.
If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that maybe Notre Dame’s defensive success this year will lead them to line up the same way in 2009. There’s no one scheme that will stop this offense, but there are a few that can do the opposite. Until then, we’re back to hoping for better luck next year.