NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Isaac Rochell didn’t wait to hear the rest of the question. He knew where it was headed and there would be no equivocation on his part.
“If you had a choice to play a third option team…”
“No, not at all,” interrupted Rochell following Notre Dame’s 41-24 victory over the Naval Academy. “I’m so glad to be done with the option. I vote a strong no.”
Option football – at least the triple-option version – is out of sight, out of mind until next November when the Irish play the Midshipmen in Jacksonville, and then tackle Army’s version of the offense in San Antonio one week later.
When that time arrives, presuming all the key figures remain in place, the Irish will be transporting a defensive blueprint they’ll be carrying with pride.
Combined, Georgia Tech averaged 680 yards rushing per game in ’14. Between them, they managed 534 yards against Notre Dame in ’15, a number that doesn’t do justice to the job Brian VanGorder, option analyst Bob Elliott and the Irish defense did against quarterbacks Justin Thomas (Georgia Tech) and Keenan Reynolds (Navy).
The Irish battered Thomas. Reynolds and his backup, Tago Smith, a couple of strong 200-pounders, were actually a greater challenge than Georgia Tech’s attack, due largely to that physical strength at the quarterback position. Navy fullbacks Chris Swain and Quentin Ezell are 245 and 253 pounds respectively.
“Those two guys are a load,” said Rochell of the Navy fullbacks.
Navy is bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. Now that they’re part of the American Athletic Conference, Navy no longer feels like the “little academy that could.” This has become a formidable opponent, the equivalent of a mid-range Power 5 conference opponent with the triple-option twist.
But while Navy has upgraded its profile, so too have the Irish. The key to a Navy upset over Notre Dame is to catch the Irish when they are in one of their down years, which doesn’t appear to be the case, even after starting slowly and dropping a 24-22 decision a week earlier at Clemson, temporarily tabling playoff talk until making up some ground lost in South Carolina.
The Irish began making up that ground Saturday with a somewhat jaw-dropping three turnovers forced. Navy had coughed it up just once in four games while Notre Dame creates turnovers at a rate of about once every 85 snaps.
The Irish defense didn’t exactly slam Ken Niumatalolo’s squad into its three miscues. The first one was an unforced fumbled pitch. The second one came on special teams. The third was a late-game, desperation throw that was picked off. But it was something different.
“We were able to gain more possessions in this game than any other game that we’ve played against Navy,” Kelly said. “I don’t know exactly how many possessions we had, but I think we were close to 15. We normally average 10 against them.”
Actually, the Irish had just 11 possessions. But to Kelly, it seemed like more because the Irish scored five touchdowns and two field goals on those 11 series, and for once, the Midshipmen weren’t nipping at Notre Dame’s heels in the second half because the defense was limiting them to 73 yards rushing, 95 yards total offense and just three second-half points.
“We knew we had to play perfect against these guys and it was probably our worst game this season,” said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “We had been taking care of the ball and had three turnovers, and against this team, you can’t turn the ball over. Against a good team like Notre Dame, that spells disaster.”
FROM GREEN TO PEHRSON
While most of the attention during Navy week naturally gravitated toward triple-option talk, the side of the football largely ignored was the Notre Dame offense against the Navy defense.
One of the untold stories of this game was the insertion of defensive line coach Dale Pehrson into the coordinator’s role to replace long-time Navy coordinator Buddy Green for the 2015 season.
Green, known for his bend-but-don’t-break approach, is sidelined for the year following August neck surgery. Niumatalolo had to step in and force the hard-nosed Green to do what was in his best interest and sit out the season. Green is serving as Pehrson’s off-the-field advisor.
Pehrson, a 20-year Naval Academy coach, has installed a bit more aggressive, get-up-the-field defensive approach. It paid dividends through the first four games as the Midshipmen limited the scoring to a mere 60 points (15.0 per game). But would it work against Notre Dame’s score-in-a-heartbeat offense?
In Notre Dame, Pehrson was going against a different animal. A wounded offensive line – minus starter Quenton Nelson – was in a foul mood after losing the battle of the trenches to Clemson.
It took some time to loosen up the interior, and the Irish had to get C.J. Prosise on the perimeter to make that happen. Ultimately, the ground game complemented a 281-yard passing attack with Prosise doing what he normally does, which is beat the beef for a couple of quarters and then explode. His three touchdowns raised his total in six games to nine rushing scores. Most of his rushing yardage (129 for the game) came in the second half (95).
“He kind of reminds me of Chuck Muncie,” said Niumatalolo, referencing the 1970s Cal-Berkeley standout who went on to rush for nearly 7,000 yards for the Saints and Chargers in the ‘80s.
“Just real slithery, and the next thing you know, he’s gone. Just a really patient, physical back with good vision.”
It’s an interesting comparison to the 6-foot-3, 227-pound Muncie who, like Prosise, combined the rare football skills of size, strength and breakaway speed. Because Prosise is so new to the position, many football analysts are trying to come up with an accurate characterization of Prosise. For those a bit more long in the tooth, Muncie is an accurate link.
The Irish don’t have long to pat themselves on the back for a positive response to the Clemson adversity. Waiting in the wings is this week’s Team Turmoil – USC – which is strongly contemplating its future with head coach Steve Sarkisian following its 17-12 flameout loss at home Thursday night to Washington.
Sarkisian has created serious doubt about his ability to lead the Trojans, beginning with an embarrassing pre-season public appearance in which athletics director Pat Haden had to get the cane out and yank Sarkisian offstage for his slurred and profane speech at a summer USC function.
In what some thought would be a battle of unbeatens on the third weekend in October, it’s the two-loss Trojans against the once-defeated Irish, just one-half season after USC annihilated Notre Dame to cap the 2014 regular season.
Has Notre Dame narrowed the gap enough since the 49-14 thrashing last November? It certainly seems so, although make no mistake, Cody Kessler can still wing it – he has 15 touchdown passes in five games – and has a plethora of weapons such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson and Steven Mitchell, Jr.
If anything, USC’s loss to Washington only makes Notre Dame’s task that much more difficult. Adversity usually brings out the best in the wounded, particularly at programs that expect to win like USC and Notre Dame.
Whatever problems the Trojans are having in the leadership department, this remains a wildly talented bunch of athletes with quick-score capabilities and high-level defensive talent. The only exceptions to those perceptions so far were the offensive performance against Washington and the defensive outcome against Stanford, which scored 41 points on the Trojans, including 34 points in the final three quarters.
USC will be looking to salvage its season while Notre Dame will be trying to preserve its playoff status, a bid that would require a clean sweep of the remaining half of the 2015 regular-season schedule.
The combined three losses of the two combatants only tamps down the pre-game chatter among the talking heads. USC likely isn’t walking into Notre Dame within anything less than its best effort while Notre Dame knows it has a path to post-season glory after a bye week if it can get by the Trojans in Saturday night primetime.
Home wins over USC have been hard to come by for the Irish since the new millennium. Notre Dame has defeated the Trojans at home just once since 2001, although that one time was the last time in an ugly 14-10 victory pitting incapable (Andrew Hendrix) and inexperienced (Kessler) quarterbacks.
This game will be higher scoring and quite telling as the two traditional powers try to save a season and the potential for playoff participation in a true Separation Saturday night clash.