Low Blows

Irish defenders are ready to hit – and protect themselves – vs. more than a few helmet-to-knee blows this Saturday vs. Navy.

The nation's longest continuous rivalry resumes Saturday with the 84th installment of Notre Dame vs. Navy.

Pomp and circumstance; non-scholarship athletes fighting and scratching for every yard vs. the nation's most storied college sports team.

This annual David vs. Goliath matchup has played out in favor of the guys with the slingshots in two of the last three seasons after the Irish played the role of hammer to Navy's nail in 43 straight; continuously from the end of the Kennedy Administration through the beginning of the end of the Charlie Weis era.

Competition, toughness, 60 minutes of effort…

And oh yeah, cut blocks.

"What I think is crazy is the lack of imagination for what they do. I don't get up here and talk about the illegal cut blocks. They hit (Brian Smith) illegally last year (2008), and put him out. They hit R.J. (Robert Blanton in the same game) on one of the most malicious plays I've ever seen since I've been playing."

Former co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown was downright defensive four days after the visiting Midshipmen laid a whipping on his defensive unit last November. Brown noted the directive to cut block – one which often falls on the wrong side of the gray area between effective and illegal, and one that sometimes results in serious injury to the opponents' knees/legs – likely comes from above.

"I called him about it," Brown continued of Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "And I told him I thought it was very poor. He probably thought I called because we lost (2009). I was going to say something to him before the game but I didn't.

"Very malicious. In this game, which we're supposed to be playing for our kids and working for our kids, you don't let your players do something like that."

I asked Brian Kelly about the practice, one more popular (and likely necessary if the goal is to win) in the version of the triple-option as executed by Navy and other Academies due to the obvious size disadvantage of the teams' offensive line.

"Oh sure, I think it's always a point of contention as to whether it's a legal block or not," Kelly began. "A post, a chop and things of that nature. I'm not a big fan of it but we have to do defend it, so to talk about it or to complain about it just gets it in the kids' heads. "We haven't talked about it at all, just go play."

Kelly might not have harped on it this week, but his Irish defenders are certainly aware of the maneuver.

"The offensive linemen will come out and cut you on every play," said senior safety Harrison Smith. "So no matter what, you have to keep your head up."

Smith will play his third game vs. Navy on Saturday. Sophomore Carlo Calabrese, a linebacker likely to be involved in anywhere from 10 to 30 potential tackle situations Saturday, will play his first.

"This offense, watching film, is real quick," Calabrese said. "They're cutting you every play pretty much. They're very disciplined in what (the offense) does and they don't make mistakes."

Brian Kelly noted the Irish have worked vs. cut blocks in practice this week.

"We are cutting. We had to cut them," Kelly said of his scout team going at the knees of his first and second team defenders in practice. "There's no way you can go into the game without cutting them."

Borderline…then again, so is most of the sport

Irish defensive backs coach Chuck Martin is familiar with option football. A collegiate safety in the late-80s will run into a triple option or two in his playing days as Martin did in high school and as an All-America DB at Milliken College.

"It should be outlawed," Martin said in what I assume was at least 51 percent facetious manner. "I don't know that it's dangerous but it can be dangerous," he continued. "I don't think it's a dirty tactic….hey, it's a football game. Sometimes you get a little bit coming from behind and it can be more scary.

"Our kids have to be alert and aggressive and know its coming every snap. It's not like a secret that they don't do it and then they spring it on you. If there's a navy guy coming at you, he's probably going to cut you, whether it's up front or on the back end."

Martin added that while the Irish demo squads are trying to prepare the defense for what they'll see Saturday, there's really no comparison between a group that has spent a few extra practices on the method and a program that has employed it for the better part of eight seasons.

"It's not that they cut, its how they cut. They come after you," Martin said appreciatively of the effort involved. "I know they practice a lot, but intensity is intensity. They're tough kids and they're flying at you.

You have to match their intensity. We tell (the players), ‘that kid is coming to take your pins out.' You have to be violent with your hands and strike him and keep him off your legs, otherwise you spend time on the ground which is no fun.

"You risk injury which is no fun, but more importantly there's a guy usually running down the field right behind the cut block that we need to tackle."

Sophomore linebacker Manti Te'o fell victim to effective cut blocks on more than one occasion last season. Navy ripped off runs of 11, 12, 32, 25, 16, 19, 18, 22, 39, and 12 yards at the expense of an Irish back seven that seemed ill prepared to handle the speed of the game in a 23-21 loss last November (hey, sometimes Week Nine can sneak up on you, right?).

Te'o noted that last season's matchup was the first that he had faced that type of option attack. Asked what else he remembered from the contest Te'o answered:

"Cutting. They do a lot of cutting. It's the way they block and the technique in which they're taught, to cut at the next level (linebacker level). We just have to do our jobs in utilizing our fundamentals so we're not on the ground because if you're on the ground, you're no good.

"You have to acknowledge the blocker," Te'o continued. "You have to have your eyes on him. 99 percent of the time you will get cut. You have to use your eyes and your hands."

Te'o, nephew to Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, admitted the foreign concept of fear exists for 60 minutes this Saturday.

"Of course, to answer the question, it scares me a lot," Te'o said of a potential debilitating cut block. "But as long as I'm focused and as long as our team is focused on where we're supposed to be and our eyes are focused on where they're supposed to be, we'll be fine."

Glass half-full

While blocks at the knees are the reality vs. an Academy's option attack, so to is the opportunity to play a physical, brutal contest. That suits a few of the Irish defenders just fine.

"I love hittin'," the aforementioned Calabrese offered.

Harrison Smith, who registered two of the four tackles for loss vs. Navy in last year's contest, sees at least one advantage to facing the triple option.

"Their offense is predicated on methodically moving the ball down the field," he said. "If you back them up on first down; and you don't give up many yards on second down, what are they going to do on third down?

"It's the same thing if you can get a lead on them. When you play option teams, you really want to focus on getting TFLs (tackles-for-loss), stopping them behind the line, stuff like that."

While Calabrese is ready to hit and Smith ready to attack when advantageous, Te'o noted a more technical approach.

"You have to give ground a little bit. If you don't give ground (the blocker) is just going to roll right into your legs," Te'o offered. "That's the hardest part as a linebacker, it kind of goes against your instincts, but you have to give ground a little bit. We've been practicing those techniques and we've gotten better at it."

The cut is coming. Chances are, one of them will result in injury. The reality of the game, however, is that one Notre Dame defender will likely bury his helmet into the chest or knee of a Navy runner; a shoulder to the head of an opposing receiver.

Cut blocks aren't the only borderline malicious act in the sport. Irish fans will cheer if Te'o or Calabrese or Smith de-cleats a Midshipmen pitch man and plants him back first into the turf while driving their shoulders through his pads upon impact. That's legal too.

It's violent; it's dangerous. It's football.

Saturday, it's hit first or be cut later.

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