The triple-option dilemma

Since 2003, Navy has averaged at least 300 yards rushing seven times, including 349 in the last year of the Johnson era, and 325, 338 the last two years under Niumatalolo.

If there were a way to combat it on a consistent, every-down basis, some great defensive mind would have come up with it by now.

Year after year, the triple option offense confounds defensive coordinators from Colgate, Tulane and Army, to the nation’s elite in the Power 5 conference ACC and, of course, Notre Dame.

Since 2007, when then-Navy head coach/current-Georgia head coach Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen knocked off the Irish to end a 43-game drought, Navy is 3-5 against the Irish without a win since 2010, but with four-, six- and 10-point losses since 2008.

Now, Notre Dame must face Johnson as well as his Navy successor, Ken Niumatalolo, who has, by and large, continued what Johnson started in Annapolis, albeit without a victory over the Irish each of the last four seasons.

“Like I tell our guys, there’s nobody out there that has the answer,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose unit was sliced and diced in the second half in ’14 in a hard-fought 49-39 victory.

“If you look at that offense, primarily they’re (No.) 1 or 2 every year in rushing, and they are going to average somewhere around 350 yards a game.”

Since Johnson took over at Navy in 2002, and then moved on to Georgia Tech following the 2008 season, few have been able to stop the triple-option attack from its unrelenting success at both schools.

In Johnson’s 13 years as a FBS head coach, plus the seven years of the Niumatalolo regime at Navy, 11 of those 20 seasons have resulted in an offense that has rushed for at least 300 yards per game. In another four of those seasons, the Navy and/or Georgia Tech offense averaged at least 290 yards rushing per game.

Last year, Georgia Tech averaged 342 yards rushing per game; Navy was at 336.

The solution to the vexing dilemma is still somewhere out there in the defensive stratosphere, its formula yet to be deciphered.

“Coming up with something new schematically at this point in time, I don’t know if that’s as much the answer,” said VanGorder, whose banged up unit allowed 336 yards on 60 carries against Navy last year as the Midshipmen out-scored the Irish in the second half, 22-21.

“Good solid preparation and a good philosophical approach to it is required. You’ve got to be specific in terms of execution of your defense and what has to take place.

“But it’s different. It’s different for the player who’s all of a sudden lining up and playing something that to them is so different. It’s very difficult.”

VanGorder has spent a period or two of his practice time the last two weeks working on alignment and concepts with Notre Dame’s experienced returning defense. Preparation is even more important this year since Game Three against Georgia Tech and Game Six against Navy will force the defense out of its comfort zone twice within the first half of the 2015 season.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve worked on it a bunch, but we’ve wanted them to see it some, so we’ve put it out there so that game week of Georgia Tech isn’t the first time they’ve seen it,” VanGorder said.

Adding his 37 years of coaching experience to the equation is special assistant to Irish head coach Brian Kelly – Bob Elliott – who served two seasons as Notre Dame safeties coach before instructing the outside linebackers in 2014.

Elliott has worked with prep team players early in practice sessions, boning up on the specifics of the triple option so they, too, are up to speed when Georgia Tech and Navy preparation rolls around.

“Bobby is a great coach,” VanGorder said. “He’s been doing it for a long, long time. He brings so much knowledge into it. Being specific with the option, it’s been great.”

Navy has averaged 333.5 yards rushing per game against Notre Dame the last two seasons. Bob Diaco’s 2011-12 defenses limited the Midshipmen to 196 yards on 50 carries and 149 yards on 40 carries those two seasons – less than four yards per carry – although it helped having veterans Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming up front, as well as NFL-caliber talent in Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt.

Those strong performances, however, came on the heels of a 60-carry, 367-yard evisceration in Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame in 2010, which resulted in a 35-17 loss.

High-level defensive personnel is one way to stem the tide, and yet it still comes down to drilling the basic principles of the triple-option game.

“Stop the dive, stop the quarterback and stop the pitch, and then it works out,” VanGorder smiled. “But again, you look at the offense, they’re usually (No.) 1 and 2 in the nation running the football.

“I don’t know who’s figured it out. It’s not a secret thing; it’s all about good preparation, proper looks at it, schematically being consistent, and then you have to have some variable changes respective to dive, quarterback and pitch.”

There are no shortcuts, no secret panaceas, no precise remedy to alleviate the pain the triple option inflicts upon defenses. It’s an equal-opportunity offender.

“That’s the game, and then people don’t realize what an outstanding job those two offenses do with formations to get you out of something they maybe don’t like in the option game,” VanGorder said.

“Last year, Navy did a great job with some formation things, so we’ve had to put a lot of time into formations and such to combat some of that and make sure we can stay consistent in schematics.”

The bottom line?

“It’s difficult,” VanGorder said.

The numbers back it up.


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