Gratification on a football field comes from the hours spent in preparation, and then the near-perfect execution of a plan, particularly when mastering that plan has been elusive.
Nine months of study, preparation and scheming came together three weeks ago when Notre Dame took hold of Georgia Tech’s triple-option spread attack and ran it into the ground. The final score was 30-22 in Notre Dame’s favor, but the reality of the accomplishment was far greater.
A mere 216 yards rushing, one touchdown through the first 59 minutes, and 3-of-15 on third down told the tale of a Georgia Tech offense running into a motivated Notre Dame defense, searching for answers to stop the triple-option attack, and then following through with a plan that actually worked.
Now it’s back to the program that is the originator of all the angst over the triple-option – Navy – where Paul Johnson mastered it and Ken Niumatalolo took the handoff in stride when Johnson exited for Georgia Tech.
“What they do that’s different from Georgia Tech is formations,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly as the inevitable “comparison” questions popped up Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “Ken is incredible in terms of the formations. A myriad of formations. I mean, too many to count.
“Now, their base is triple option. They’re going to operate out of their base and there will be counter option, lead toss…The tenets of triple option is the base. They’re going to throw the football, and there are going to be some gadget plays within it.”
Since 2010, when the Midshipmen shredded Kelly and former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, 35-17, it’s always felt like the Irish were starting from scratch as preparation began for another clash with Navy.
Not so this time. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, with input from special assistant Bob Elliott, came up with a formula that not only worked well in slowing down Georgia Tech three weeks ago, but provided a blueprint, a starting point, henceforth.
“Our guys were able to walk out there (Monday) and line up in our defense and know their keys and know what to do relative to the option,” Kelly said. “We hit the ground running. We were able to work on some of the nuances that you can’t work on when you’re just trying to figure out how to line up.”
The flip side, of course, is that Niumatalolo and his staff could take the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech film and devise a counter to the Irish defensive game plan. The beauty of triple-option football is that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction that can thwart defenses that have made inroads. The cat-and-mouse game will be raised to another level this Saturday.
“There are advantages on both sides,” Kelly said. “Certainly they’re going to look at the plan we had and dissect that and look at things they can do to attack it.
“There are certainly some things that we’re going to have to tweak a little bit, but I can tell you that I’d much rather have already played Georgia Tech and played an option offense than to not have played any.”
As deadly as Georgia Tech quarterback Justin Thomas can be, he’s no more of a threat than Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, of whom Notre Dame got its first glimpse of in the 2012 season-opener against Navy in Dublin when the Irish began their march to the national title game.
Reynolds has won 25 games as a starter. His 73 rushing touchdowns are the fourth most in NCAA history. His 31 touchdowns in a single season are the most by a quarterback in NCAA history.
Reynolds and the Midshipmen have yet to defeat the Irish, but they’ve certainly thrown a couple of scares into them.
In 2013, Notre Dame trailed at halftime, regained the lead in the third quarter, and fell behind two more times in the fourth quarter before Tarean Folston’s one-yard touchdown run with 3:47 remaining proved to be the difference in a 38-34 victory.
Last year, the Irish raced to a 28-7 first-half lead before Navy responded by scoring 24 straight points to take a 31-28 third-quarter lead. Notre Dame needed three fourth-quarter touchdowns to finally secure the victory.
“We’ve been in many very difficult challenges with Navy,” Kelly said. “Last year, the year before…(Our players) know what challenges are in front of us playing the Naval Academy, and how they compete for four quarters is like no other team you play.”
Compounding the degree of difficulty this year is what looks to be an improved Navy defense, which has allowed just 60 points in four games, albeit against Colgate, East Carolina, Connecticut and UConn.
“It’s still assignment football,” Kelly said. “It’s still having players that recognize and understand how important it is to play option football, and it’s different than what they practice all the time.
“The similarities are more than what (is) dissimilar. Georgia Tech and Navy probably are as similar as any option teams we’ve played.”
Saturday, we’ll find out if the same is true of the results.