I’m not going to pretend that the Navy-Notre Dame game means as much to the Irish as it does to the Mids. Notre Dame is Navy’s Everest, the service academy’s annual shot at one of college football’s biggest programs. For a Notre Dame team that plays the likes of Michigan and USC every year, Navy is a nice tradition, but not really a game to get up for. This year, though, might have been an exception; if not for Notre Dame’s players, then at least for their coaches. Prior to 2007, Notre Dame had defeated Navy for a record 43 consecutive years. That came to an end when the Mids were finally able to pull out a 46-44 overtime victory. Two years later, Navy won again, 23-21. The losses to Navy became a symbol for Charlie Weis’ failures as Notre Dame’s head coach. Even the reviled Tyrone Willinghan, Bob Davie, and Gerry Faust never lost to Navy, but Weis lost to them twice. This year’s game, then, was important for the Notre Dame coaching staff as a way to show how things have changed. I don’t think too many people expected Notre Dame to start contending for national titles right away, but at least they wouldn’t lose to Navy anymore, right?
Well, one thing is certain: things have changed. They just haven’t changed the way that people thought they would. While Navy’s wins over the Irish in 2007 and 2009 were close games that came down to the final minutes and probably could have gone either way, there wasn’t anything close about Saturday’s 35-17 trouncing. I’m not a player, so I don’t know what the mood of the Navy team has been in years past; but if Notre Dame ever held any special mystique in the Navy locker room, those days are over. This was a bona fide ass-kicking. Navy piled on 438 yards of total offense, averaging 7 yards per play. Just as Vince Murray broke out for a career day against Notre Dame a year ago, Alexander Teich racked up 210 yards rushing, the most ever by a Navy fullback. Ricky Dobbs added another 90 on the ground, meaning that 300 of Navy’s 367 rushing yards came up the middle. The defense put on a classic Navy performance, preventing the big play, grabbing a couple of turnovers, and forcing Notre Dame into long drives. From the first gut-check moment of the game– Notre Dame’s 4th & goal from inside the 1 yard line– until the final whistle, Navy was in charge.
Being such a symbolic game for the Notre Dame coaching staff, one would think that they would come in well-prepared. According to Brian Kelly, the Irish had been preparing for Navy’s offense a little bit each week so that they would be familiar with it once game week arrived and they would practice against it full time. That would seem to indicate that he took Navy pretty seriously, right? If that’s the case, that’s bad news for Notre Dame fans. They better hope that Kelly just didn’t take Navy seriously, because otherwise– and I’m being brutally honest here– he must be clueless. If not him, then at least the defensive staff. I am very serious when I say that those of you who have read this blog for any length of time know the Navy offense better than the staff of paid professionals in South Bend.
At first I didn’t understand it… Did I miss something? There was Coach Kelly telling Sam Ryan at the beginning of the third quarter that Navy was doing things that they hadn’t shown all year. That Navy had “held back” some wrinkle of their offense that caught him off guard. How did I fail to pick up on this new tweak in the offense?
Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the same thing after practice this week.
As it turns out, I hadn’t failed to pick up on anything. Navy wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Kelly and Diaco just have absolutely no clue how the Navy offense works.
Navy started the game in the heavy formation, with two tackles lined up on one side and a wide receiver in the tackle position on the other side. Contrary to Kelly’s comments, this isn’t unusual at all for the Navy offense. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper frequently uses the heavy formation when the defense has an inside linebacker with exceptional playmaking ability; in Notre Dame’s case, that would be Manti Te’o. In the spread formation, it’s generally the playside tackle’s responsibility to block the inside linebacker on the triple option, but he might have trouble if the defensive end squeezes him inside. Putting an extra tackle next to him compensates for that by making someone else responsible for blocking the ILB. What it doesn’t do, however, is change the basic mechanics of the play. The first down lineman on or outside the B gap is still unblocked as the quarterback’s first key, and the next player out is still #2 in the count. Since it is the lineman in the B gap that is left unblocked, that’s the path that the fullback takes on his run. If that lineman steps upfield and takes the quarterback, that’s where the running lane will be.
That isn’t something new that the Navy coaches saved for Notre Dame. That is Navy Offense 101. It’s the absolute basics; the bread and butter play run in every game out of every formation. If Diaco and Kelly hadn’t seen it before, then I have no idea what film they’ve been watching, or if they even watched any at all. That isn’t even hyperbole; they thought that Navy’s fullback ran through the A gap. And that was their plan– to send the inside linebackers crashing into the A gap that nobody was running through. That just made those LBs easier to block as either the fullback or quarterback ran right by them and into the secondary.
Now all the coaches’ comments make sense. That’s why Kelly kept calling it “veer.” He thought that the fullback was supposed to run straight up the middle, and that Navy threw a curveball by running one gap outside instead. But it wasn’t a trick; that’s how Navy’s offense has always worked. Now, on the midline option, the fullback does run through the A gap, since it’s an interior defensive lineman that gets left unblocked. The midline is not uncommon, but it is also not the play around which the entire Navy offense revolves. Navy ran the midline a whopping two times on Saturday, both on the last drive of the second quarter.
Once it became obvious that the ILBs had no intention of scraping outside, it was no longer necessary to have an extra tackle on one side of the formation. So Coach Jasper switched back to the base spread formation and just kept running the same play.
Seriously, that’s it. There were some other things tossed in here and there, and we’ll get to those in a minute… But that’s why the fullback and quarterback combined to rush for 300 yards. What’s almost as incredible as this horrible game plan is the fact that despite Kelly’s assertion to the contrary, Notre Dame never adjusted. Those ILBs kept running into the A gap for the entire game. Once or twice Te’o scraped outside to make a play in the backfield, and I’d think,”OK, now we’ll see something else.” But we didn’t. Notre Dame would go right back to the same old thing on the next play, and the Mids would pick up a big gain. Navy never faced 3rd down with longer than 6 yards to go all afternoon, and even that they only saw once. It’s as if the Notre Dame staff flipped on the film projector on Monday morning, said “Oh crap WTF is this,” and decided their best defense would just be to complain about cut blocking and hope for some sympathy from the officials.
Coach Jasper did mix in a couple other plays. The ILBs focusing on the fullback limited their inside-out pursuit ability, opening up the toss sweep. Jasper called that play when the safeties would line up inside the tackle box.
The rocket toss then set up the one play that was new this season, the short trap. (Actually, we have seen it this year, but it was Air Force running it). The inside LBs playing the A gap made them easy for the two tackles on the strong side of the formation to block down on. Meanwhile, the OLB has to respect the toss motion, which makes him an easy target for the pulling guard. The slotback becomes a lead blocker to help seal off the inside, giving the fullback a nice running lane outside.
While it’s true that Navy hadn’t run this play this year before Saturday, that is because none of their opponents have come out playing defense the way Notre Dame did. This wasn’t something that Navy’s coaches were holding back; this was an adjustment to what Notre Dame was doing.
In the second half, #1 started to squat, committing to neither the QB nor the FB in an attempt to read and react.
The squat, as you know, sets up the fullback trap. By the time the defensive end realizes the fullback has the ball, he’s being blocked by a pulling guard. Meanwhile, the ILBs are still playing the A gap, leaving a vast wasteland between the fullback and the safeties.
The last play I want to highlight on offense is Teich’s TD reception on the fullback screen. I’ve never seen it work so well, and it was a result of a couple different things. First and foremost was Ricky Dobbs setting up the play with his patience. He kept his eyes to the other side of the field, looking off the defenders so well that three of them were covering the slotback’s crossing pattern. Teich himself did a fine job of looking like he was in pass protection, causing the linebacker who would otherwise cover him to decide to rush the quarterback. Ricky held onto the ball for so long that by the time he finally threw the pass, just about everyone was on the other side of the field. Teich was so wide open that two of the lineman released for the screen couldn’t even find anyone to block.
I’ll be honest with you; I’m a little less excited about the performance of the Navy offense than I was on Saturday. Not because they did anything wrong (they didn’t), but because against that defense, they probably would have succeeded no matter what they did.
That can’t be said of the Navy defense, though. I had mentioned before the game that I felt that Notre Dame would run the ball more than usual this week due to Navy’s linebackers having trouble early in the year defending their assigned gaps. And that’s what the Irish did in the first quarter; 8 of their running backs’ 19 carries came on their first two possessions. The Navy defense, though, showed none of the weakness in run defense that plagued them earlier in the year. Their ability to contain the running game forced the Irish to take to the air, and after some initial success, some holes in the armor appeared.
Irish quarterback Dayne Crist’s biggest strength is his ability to thread the needle between defenders with his passes. His worst weakness is the fact that he tries to do so way too much. That is exactly what happened on his two interceptions. The first pick he threw came after he was flushed out of the pocket by Jabaree Tuani. As he scrambled to his right, he tried to throw the ball back across his body; as a result, he couldn’t get much strength behind the throw. It was badly underthrown and picked off by a diving De’Von Richardson. That was probably the play of the game, as Navy would score on the ensuing drive to turn a likely 14-10 halftime advantage into 21-10. Crist’s second INT came on Notre Dame’s first possession of the second half. Duval Kamara was initially jammed at the line of scrimmage, and would run a fly pattern. Kwesi Mitchell was able to match Kamara pretty much step for step. Crist might have had a play if he was able to put some air under the ball, but he couldn’t; Navy was playing cover 2, and Mitchell had safety help from Wyatt Middleton. Instead of checking to a different receiver, Crist tried to throw a frozen rope and forced the ball to Kamara anyway. Mitchell simply stepped in front of the pass and caught it himself. Navy scored on that drive too, and just like that it was 28-10. With both teams going on extended drives that ate up clock and limited the number of possessions for each, that score effectively put the game out of reach.
I’ve watched all of Notre Dame’s games so far this year, but not with the same critical eye that I use during Navy games. I don’t really have an opinion as to how Brian Kelly and his staff have done so far this year. In this one game, though, they were completely outclassed by their counterparts in Ricketts Hall.