Containment Issues

Notre Dame may again yield ample yardage vs. the Naval Academy's vaunted triple-option. But unlike the last two times the teams played, both Irish losses, it appears to be part of the plan...

Rutgers didn't completely shut down Navy's triple-option in mid-October, a 21-20 victory for the Scarlet Knights: Midshipmen quarterback Kriss Proctor broke free for a 54-yard touchdown run.

But on its remaining 45 carries, Navy's #3 ranked running game managed just 108 rushing yards.

That total is unlikely to be revisited Saturday in South Bend, where the incoming enemy has eviscerated the last two Irish defenses faced for a combined 715 rushing yards and six rushing scores. Navy didn't pass often in those two wins over Notre Dame, but when they did, it was generally completed...and devastating: five passes, four completions, 96 yards, 2 TD plus a pass interference call, to boot.

So then, besides making sure to put somewhere in the neighborhood of 59 points on the board as the Irish did vs. Air Force, what is Notre Dame's overall approach to Saturday's contest?

"Take away the big play, and keep the points down," head coach Brian Kelly explained. "Don't care about yardage, when you play an option team, you're going to give up yardage. You can't give up the big play, because you've got (defenders) with their eyes in the backfield and now here comes the slot on an arc release and he's running three down the middle of the field.

"So when you play option teams, the yardage is irrelevant. It's all about minimizing big plays and keeping the points down."

To that end, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco believes this week's practice approach doesn't fundamentally change, but points of emphasis certainly differ.

"Same as always, everybody is on their fits, doing their jobs, playing with their hands below their knees," he began, adding, "Extraordinary effort to the ball can be the eraser for missed fits.

"They'll always have the pen last," he continued of the Midshipmen offense, "They've seen every conceivable thing that can possibly be done to defend the offense; there's only a few things that can be done.

"So effort, fundamentally sound football, a clear understanding of the plan, and it always helps if (Navy) can get off schedule as it relates to option offense, also."

Last season, Navy faced 13 third-down situations; just three of them were of greater distance than four yards to the sticks. On the first two, the Midshipmen gained 71 yards on two passes and scored a 31-yard touchdown. The other occurred in the fourth quarter and resulted in a 4th-and-1 punt.

Getting them off schedule is indeed an issue; keeping them from capitalizing in said situations could be another.

It goes both ways

2010 third-down results aside, the Irish defense would clearly prefer to put Navy in disadvantageous third-down situations. Oddly, it was Navy that was able to do so vs. Notre Dame last season, forcing the Irish to pass 38 times; 60 the previous season. Notre Dame rushed for 3.5 yards per carry in last year's loss; 3.0 yards per carry in 2009.

"I think it's important every week," Kelly noted of establishing a running game. "We got down 14-0 (vs. USC) and then got down after the turnover 24-10 and (that) got us out of – we got behind schedule.

"So it's very important that we get off to a good start. If we get off to a good start, then our running game is going to be part of what we do. We don't want to be in a situation where we don't run the ball enough, because it makes it more difficult for us to throw the football obviously. So it's very important to get off to a good start."

The Irish passed on 17 of their 20 first-half snaps last week and 20 of the first 23 (counting Dayne Crist's fumble on a called pass play) in the second stanza. On the 24th snap of the second half, Jonas Gray sprinted 25 yards for his fifth rushing score of the season.

Notre Dame is now 4-8 under Kelly when it attempts at least five more passes than rushes in a contest. They're 7-0 when the offense produces rushes more than or equal to total pass attempts.

"I think keeping Navy's offense off the field is a good idea," Kelly offered. "They're obviously a very talented football team in the way they run their option. Offensively, (the key is) controlling the flow of the game; putting points on the board and forcing an option team to play from behind."

Experience not needed?

An early worry for Irish fans this week: a defensive line rotation that will likely include three true freshmen, a sophomore with fewer career snaps than said freshmen trio, a redshirt-freshman, and senior Sean Cwynar.

Will the lack of experience haunt Diaco's defense vs. the triple-option?

"It's very hard," Diaco said of preparation, quickly adding, "It is what it is, I'm not making an excuse…The young guys are playing roles they really shouldn't be playing now. They're really not ready to be playing the amount of reps they have (played) each week.

"(Lack of experience) doesn't suit assignment football, play-after-play, the discipline and mental focus necessary to play four quarters against a team like this and be assignment correct on every play. So it becomes a challenge. But they're locked in and they're preparing hard," Diaco offered. "The coaches are being as creative as we possibly can to maximize every permissible second to work with them. And they'll be ready."

One player who could return to help contend with the Navy rushing attack is left defensive end, Ethan Johnson, who missed both of the last two outings and most of the Purdue game with an ankle injury. The still-recovering senior doesn't think experience is a major factor.

"I don't think it takes a whole lot of experience. Last year was my first year really playing the option," Johnson explained. "I didn't play it my freshman year; my sophomore year, Kapron (Lewis-Moore) played over me (vs. Navy, as then-defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta removed Johnson from his alignment), so I didn't get a lot of playing time, at all.

"Last year was my first time in a serious manner. I didn't do too badly against Army. Against Navy (pained smile), they had a good game against us. As long as you work on your responsibility within a game plan, you'll do great. If you do your job and be successful at it, that's what matters," he continued.

With Kapron Lewis-Moore lost for the year and Johnson's status tenuous at best (Diaco offered of him: "The extent of his ability to protect himself and function is yet to be seen."), can Diaco move his front, specifically, allow freshman defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt to play both nose guard and/or defensive end vs. Navy's experienced O-Line?

"If you're zeroed out (aligned directly) on the center there's not much difference than if you're zeroed out on the tackle," Diaco explained. "If you're shaded on the guard, you can be shaded on the tackle…It's when you start flipping sides and techniques that (it) becomes a problem…we definitely can't bounce sides."

(When in good health, Johnson and Lewis-Moore rarely switched sides, either). Additionally, Diaco clearly wants to minimize the pre-snap adjustments for his young troops up front.

"You can't have a lot of moving parts before the snap or a wire might short circuit," he said. Top Stories