Tim Prister’s Tale of the Tape (Part I)

ND’s safety play remains a significant concern heading into the final six games, although Max Redfield will be delighted that triple-option football is done for the year.

THE WEEKLY HICCUP

Since the Texas game, the Notre Dame defense has had an elongated period of failure in every game, including the second quarter of the Navy game.

• Leading 12-0 at Virginia, the Irish surrendered an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive and a seven-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter to fall behind, 14-12. In the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers put together touchdown drives of 76 yards (six plays) and 80 yards (13 plays).

• Leading 30-7 with 6:58 remaining, Notre Dame allowed Georgia Tech to score touchdowns on a 13-play, 79-yard drive and a three-play, 45-yard drive before securing a 30-22 victory.

• With the Irish leading 14-0 in the first quarter vs. UMass, the defense coughed up an 83-yard touchdown run and a 10-play, 50-yard touchdown drive to make it a 14-13 Irish lead before Notre Dame scored 48 of the next 55 points.

• After not allowing a first-quarter point in any of the first four games, Clemson had two touchdowns on the board just 6:17 into the game. Clemson scored just 10 more points over the final 51:17, but the Irish fell short when they scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns and failed on a pair of two-point conversions in the 24-22 loss.

• Navy added its name to the list by scoring two touchdowns on breakaway runs by a 253-pound backup fullback within a 4:32 span in the second quarter to turn a two-touchdown lead into a tie game with 24 seconds left in the half. The offense responded by scoring a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter en route to a 41-24 victory. The defense held the Midshipmen to less than four yards per carry in the second half.

What made this latest hiccup particularly disturbing was the fact that Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds was sidelined with an injury at the time. Tago Smith, who looks like he’s going to be a fine triple-option quarterback in his own right, is still the backup quarterback with limited snaps, and he and fullback Quentin Ezell knifed through the Irish defense.

The ultimate response was impressive. With the benefit of the offense possessing the football for 11:26 of the fourth quarter, the Irish defense limited Navy to just 25 snaps in the second half and one possession in the final 15 minutes.

But it will be difficult for the Irish to win all six of their remaining games if these defensive seizures continue. Notre Dame is not a turnover-based defense, although they managed three against Navy. Still, they have just seven in six games and they’re about to square off against a USC team that has turned it over just five times.

On Ezell’s 45-yard touchdown run, Elijah Shumate went for the pitch when the football already was in the hands of Ezell. James Onwualu easily was sealed off outside. A double team overwhelmed Joe Schmidt. Greer Martini, flowing from the opposite inside linebacker position, was blocked. Matthias Farley, also flowing from a backside safety spot, looked as if he didn’t see the squat Ezell as he ducked behind his offensive line. By the time Farley did see him, Ezell had a full head of steam for a 45-yard score.

When Navy used its third timeout of the first half at the Irish 22-yard line, you figured the Midshipmen would be hamstrung. Had they run a play on 2nd-and-6 that failed to gain a first down to stop the clock, the Navy offense would have been scrambling to get off another play.

But Ezell found a hole on the left side. Cole Luke, defending the edge, reacted too late to a rumbling Ezell. Onwualu dived at the feet of Tago Smith, sliding right by Ezell as Ezell was reaching the mesh point with Smith. Sheldon Day, on a rare occasion in this game, was swallowed by a double-team. So was Greer Martini as he was caught in a mass of bodies. Farley, starting play side, made a move to fill the hole, stopped his feet, and then tried to start again. Too late as Ezell scored from 22 yards out.

On both scoring runs, the Irish safety play was inadequate and -- based upon the way Brian Kelly lectured Onwualu along the sideline and then again when he took a seat on the bench – Onwualu’s was sub-par as well, which led to some second-half adjustments.

SECOND-HALF ADJUSTMENTS

As readily as Kelly pointed to the Jarrett Grace-for-James Onwualu move as the reason for Notre Dame’s second half success, the overall play of the defense over the final 30 minutes was significantly improved.

Playing against a hobbled Keenan Reynolds helped. After rushing for 95 yards on five carries in the first half – which means besides his 51-yarder, he had eight carries for another 44 yards – Reynolds managed just 15 yards on six second-half carries.

The greatest improvement came against the fullbacks. Quentin Ezell and Chris Swain combined for 97 yards on 11 carries in the first half, including Ezell’s two touchdown bursts. In the second half, their 10 collective carries netted 37 yards.

Grace certainly played a significant role. He totaled five tackles in the second half. More importantly, he offered a 6-foot-2 ½, 253-pound impediment in place of the 6-foot-1, 232-pound Onwualu.

Grace slammed into a blocker on his first snap, immediately setting a more physical tone and deterring continued thoughts of a wide rushing attack with the fullback. Kelly said Notre Dame’s inside linebackers weren’t able to reach the fullback wide. But with Grace in the game, it now looked as if Navy’s offensive line couldn’t get to the second level and offer the double-teams and clean shots at Notre Dame’s inside linebackers.

The players around Grace responded. Greer Martini came off a block to stop Reynolds for a one-yard gain. Sheldon Day continued a brilliant performance, finishing with nine tackles, including two for lost yardage. Isaac Rochell remained stout up front with six tackles, including one for a loss.

By taking away the fullback and with Reynolds limited, Navy found itself in more passing situations, and the Midshipmen are not equipped for success when the opposition knows it’s going to the air. Romeo Okwara got a second half sack as Day, coming from a two-point stance from a nine-technique, caught Navy with a scheme.

When it became a 38-21 Irish lead, Navy marched from own 30 to the Irish 31, using a pair of fourth-down conversions to keep the drive alive. Notre Dame’s veterans stepped up. Day tackled Swain for two. Schmidt filled the gap and stopped Swain for three, and then Grace used his size and strength to corral Ezell for three. Navy opted for a field goal at that point and they would possess the football just one time over the final 15:18.

Twenty-five second-half snaps, 71 yards rushing, 95 yards total offense, and a mere three points. The adjustment was complete.

WIDENING THE WIDTH OF THE FIELD

Brian Kelly joked after the Navy game that the reason the Irish used so many shovel passes to their running backs was to improve DeShone Kizer’s completion percentage.

While all four of his shovel passes were completed and converted into 33 yards, there were other benefits beyond Kizer’s stat sheet.

Getting the football to C.J. Prosise on the edge is always a good thing. The Irish were able to exploit Navy outside the tackles. Some might have thought the Irish would try to make it a between-the-tackles game from the outset. But Kelly and his staff devised a 60-minute game plan that used the entire width of the field.

Give Navy nose guard Bernard Sarra some credit. He makes it a bit more problematic to gash the middle than in some of the previous Navy matchups. He’s a stout and strong 6-foot-1, 297 pounds. Plus, the Midshipmen have 249-pound and 240-pound inside linebackers. Kelly and his offensive coaching stance pounded the exterior to get things loosened up between the tackles.

In other words, Notre Dame broke through offensively in the manner in which spread-offense attacks do.

Prosise, obviously a bit banged up, has been a warrior. He carried it 21 times and caught four passes (three shovels for 31 and a swing pass for 25).  The Irish ultimately got Josh Adams eight carries, five of which came in the fourth quarter with the Irish leading by 17.

Prosise appeared to be favoring his left shoulder. It’s doubtful that’s his only physical ailment. He had the hip-pointer during pre-season that kept him out for a week-and-a-half. He’s a big target and he doesn’t do much to protect his upper body. He takes direct hits to his upper shell and that takes a toll.

The Irish were in a game, thus preventing them from steering clear of Prosise. They fell behind 7-0 right away, and as soon as they scored their third straight touchdown to take a 21-7 lead, Navy struck on back-to-back drives. The sense – at least from the stadium press box – was that they needed Prosise in this important “game situation.” He can break a run at any time and give a team immediate breathing room.

Navy presented a formidable defensive effort. They remain smallish at defensive end (height-wise), but not on the back end. Over the course of 60 minutes, the Irish gained 457 yards, which is less than Notre Dame is accustomed to against Navy as the Midshipmen make the transition into conference play, which required improvements in size and length.

Offensively, Navy’s line is still small by today’s standards, but that works in their favor in the triple-option. Virtually every one of their offensive skill-position players is better than 200 pounds, including both quarterbacks. Their fullbacks average 250 pounds per man.

It’s not as easy as it once was against the Midshipmen, and it wasn’t easy to begin with.

TOUGH DAY FOR REDFIELD

There is only one conclusion to be reached as it pertains to junior safety Max Redfield and triple-option football. He doesn’t get it. He can’t execute it. He can’t play effectively against triple-option offenses.

Coming of a 14-tackle, 11-solo tackle effort at Clemson, Redfield – who did not play against Georgia Tech because, we were told, of a broken thumb – proved again to be a bad fit against triple-option football.

Redfield was so far off his run fits in the first two series of the Navy game that Brian VanGorder and defensive backs coach Todd Lyght had no choice but to insert Matthias Farley into the single-safety position. (Farley missed his fair share of run fits too.)

On Navy’s first play from scrimmage, Redfield flowed with the play where Navy freshman left tackle Andrew Wood essentially occupied three players – Greer Martini, Joe Schmidt and Redfield, who had flowed into the back of the three-player clump and allowed Keenan Reynolds to turn it up north and then northwest to the Notre Dame sideline for a 51-yard gain. (It’s nice to have Jaylon Smith on the field to run the quarterback down.)

On 1st-and-10 from the Irish 19, Reynolds pitched to DeBrandon Sanders, who juked past Redfield without Redfield making any contact with the Navy slotback for a six-yard gain. On the third and final play of the drive, slotback Toneo Gulley scored from 13 yards out as wide receiver Jamir Tillman engaged Redfield in a block at the eight and ran him all the way back to the one as Gulley lunged into the front corner of the end zone.

Redfield remained in the game for the second series, and although Navy ultimately had to punt, he still struggled.

On the second play, he missed the run fit again, drifting outside as Reynolds gained 11 with Redfield allowing Tillman – a notable 6-foot-4, 206 pounds – to seal him off. On 3rd-and-6, Redfield played the pitch and Reynolds took that tight corner for 10 (with Schmidt missing the initial tackle opportunity). Redfield also ran by a seven-yard Reynolds gain.

Farley eventually replaced Redfield in the second series after a holding call really handcuffed the Midshipmen. It appeared that Farley missed the run fit on both of Quentin Ezell’s touchdowns runs. And although Elijah Shumate was productive with a tackle for loss and an interception, he ran toward the pitchman after Ezell already had the handoff on his first touchdown run.

Notre Dame’s safety play remains wildly inconsistent. Redfield has become a pretty consistent safety against conventional offenses, and Shumate has had his best season by far. Option football can wait until November of 2016, which is the best news the safeties could possibly get.

This was a difficult game to prepare for after Clemson and before USC. The loss to the Tigers provided a motivational boost. The success against Georgia Tech three weeks earlier was a significant advantage in terms of scheme and confidence to play against it. Once the Irish adjusted, they locked in like they did against the Yellow Jackets. But it took some time.

Keep in mind something Doug Flutie said. Georgia Tech runs its offense from five or six formations; Navy runs from about 30. As a defense, you have to be prepared to account for every one of those formations, even if you only see 15 of them once.

Give credit to Shumate for playing the single-safety position well against Georgia Tech and then taking over Drue Tranquill’s edge position with another solid performance. That’s a clear sign he’s learned a few things along the way and is applying them to a productive performance.

Make no mistake, Tranquill was sorely missed in the Navy game. Redfield can breath a sigh of relief. He should be a much more effective player now that triple-option football will be put on hold.

THE NEW NAVY

Navy’s not as big as most teams the Irish play and they have less talent than most. But they’re bigger and stronger and more athletic than they’ve been. They’ve got a 300-pound nose tackle, 240- and 249-pound inside linebackers, and a pair of cornerbacks who can play. They’re no longer a novelty act, particularly when you play more than one triple-option offense in a year.

Navy seems more like a mid-level Power 5 conference team as a member of the American Athletic Conference. They’ll now have to deal with the realities of conference play, which is a familiarity that creates rivalries and close-scoring games.

When Navy has a 6-foot-4, 206-pound wideout blocking Max Redfield halfway to the Michigan border, you know this isn’t your father’s Navy football team. As frustrating as an injury against Navy can be for an opposing team, the Midshipmen are here to stay. By the way, Notre Dame came out of the game mostly unscathed.

The Irish – at least as long as Brians Kelly and VanGorder are around – have a handle on triple-option football. Now, they’re dealing with improved physical and athletic skills to make Navy a consistent, legit, worthy foe moving forward.

Navy defeated Notre Dame three times prior to this five-game Irish winning streak. They now have the physical capabilities to match that record of success against Notre Dame.


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