The triple-option has never proven ineffective in the college game. But it's rarely seemed more impressive than it did just 29 days ago in the New Meadowlands when run to perfection by a Service Academy against the world's most famous college sports team.
But as explained below, Notre Dame's performance vs. the age-old attack tonight, as well as their approach with the football, will serve as an indicator of much more.
‘Aint gonna be like last time…(is it?)Apollo Creed's confident, taunting words to Rocky Balboa in their 1982 rematch proved false. It was exactly like "the last time," a 15-round battle to (nearly) the final bell.
If Notre Dame wants to avoid embarrassment in the Bronx – and let's face it, the Irish don't gain much from what would be a mandatory victory other than the guarantee of a 13th game to be played over the Holidays – they'll need to completely revamp their defense of the triple-option after an evisceration at the hands of Navy.
At least 50 percent of tonight's contest was decided by the team's preparation this week. The rest will be determined by an in-game adjustment or two by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, but mainly by the Irish players following their stated keys: trust your eyes, shed the block, and tackle the football.
The Irish staff did its due diligence to ensure another east coast defensive meltdown won't occur.
"We took a number of different teams that have had consistent looks against Army and teams that have defended the option," Kelly said of film study since the loss to Navy. "We're a three-down team (three defensive linemen). We looked at a lot of Air Force (another three-down team) film. They've done pretty good (defending the option). We've tried to collect as much information as possible as we move forward."
Still the nuts and bolts: "It's still about defending triple option," Kelly said this week when asked about Army's ability to throw the football as a change of pace. "It's still about the same principles that you have to defend the entire width of the field in the running game, and then obviously the passing game. They do a very good job of getting the football out and can really make some plays in the passing game. But it's still about the principles of option football."
Those principles were absent vs. the Midshipmen. Navy's offensive numbers that October 23rd afternoon were embarrassing, but it was the casual fans observations that proved more telling, and in this singular case, spot on: Notre Dame's defense had no chance to stop the Midshipmen attack; and its offense was out-muscled and slow to react vs. a more physical football team.
To be blunt, if it's anything like "last time" tonight, it will be a long off-season in South Bend with a trusted staff member suddenly on a short leash.
This week, the head man in charge appeared confident the defense would make good on its second chance.
"If you go back and look at the games leading up, the Navy game has been an aberration from my standpoint. We're going to correct that against Army. We have battled pretty good defensively all year," Kelly said.
100-yard dash?We noted last week that the well-publicized streak of the Charlie Weis era – 20 consecutive victories when the Irish outrush their opponents – has extended deep into the first season for the new regime with Kelly tacking on four straight (Purdue, Boston College, Western Michigan, Utah).
Notre Dame won't outrush Army tonight in the Bronx, but the ground game will decide the contest. Over-reliance on the pass plays directly into the strength of Army's complex defensive scheme (an excellent breakdown can be found here).
The Black Knight's rush defense ranks a solid 45th, allowing 4.3 yards per carry and 16 TD. Utah's was better; Week Five opponent Boston College's owns the nation's best. Both Pittsburgh and Michigan State join former foe Utah among the nation's Top 20 run defenses.
It Notre Dame's offense committed to the run on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, it will succeed Saturday. But if the package for Tommy Rees simply expanded to allow for 40 throws rather than 25, this space, my weekly Sunday Drive Thru column won't be for the faint of heart.
Power or deception? You choose: Notre Dame hasn't had a player rush for 100 yards in a game this season. That's less telling than the 24 consecutive number noted above, but probably worth mentioning.
Head coach Brian Kelly isn't concerned with the particulars of the statistic, at least not 10 games into his tenure.
"If you look at some of the plays that would get us over the 100-yard mark, (one) is our quick option shovel that we run a lot," Kelly noted when asked about the sub-100 yard unit.
"Most teams would attack that (defensive) end and pitch it – we shovel it, so it gets counted in our pass stats (but) it's really a run call for us, so they are skewed a little bit relative to our offense."
While the statistic might be skewed, the coach's explanation fails to touch on the essential truth:
Notre Dame hasn't been able to line up and move teams off the line of scrimmage in several seasons. It's a mindset that no longer exists in South Bend; it's an approach that is necessary to consistently defeat inferior competition and to compete with one's peers.
If it occurs during Brian Kelly's tenure, the Irish will pass their way toward their next national title, and that's perfectly acceptable in this era. But shovels and bubbles and various other screen passes intermixed with misdirection runs aren't the calling card of consistent, championship offense.
Lining up and moving defenders out of the way when one or two yards need to be earned, is, and always will be part of top level college football.
"I'm pleased with our ability to pick and choose when we need to run the football based upon what we did against Utah and Tulsa," Kelly said Thursday night, adding, "We need to do it on a more consistent basis."
If you pick and choose, it's not consistent. The Irish need to focus on the latter and learn from the mistake that was the former. A singular contest, especially one with apparent athletic mismatches such as this, can be determined by turnovers, big plays in the passing game, individual excellence, etc.
Those ancillary items can and do determine a football game. But toughness and physical prowess still determine the success of a football season.
We'll know by about 9:45 tonight whether Notre Dame has embraced that concept as the season draws to a close. We'll also have an indication as to how next Saturday will unfold and how much we can expect from the 2011 football season.