It’s not deciphering the theory of relativity or the splitting of an atom.
But it’s pretty damn close.
Notre Dame’s recent success slowing down triple-option football has provided a guidebook for the Irish as they enter into consecutive games against Navy and Army.
“We did some studies from other programs that had success against Navy multiple times, not just one time,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, who has won five straight against the Midshipmen after a one-sided loss (35-17) in his first year with the Irish in 2010.
“We had played against them, but we wanted to visit some other schools that had had a modicum of success against them. We compiled all those thoughts and schemes and then sat down and said, ‘Okay, what makes sense with what we do?’ and then went to work from there.”
At the forefront of those plans was veteran college football coach Bob Elliott – a college defensive coordinator for 11 seasons, Notre Dame’s safeties coach for two seasons and outside linebackers for one, and now a special assistant to Kelly the last two years.
“Coach Elliott compiled all that information by sitting down first-hand with other coaches who had knowledge of what they were doing,” Kelly said. “We installed some things that have been really effective.
“We fine-tuned them a little bit, and then (Elliott has) worked directly with the graduate assistants that are running the scout teams to help them run the offense effectively for our defense.”
The Irish figured it out against Navy’s option attack for one half of football in the 2014 game (a 49-39 victory), and then put together two solid outings against Georgia Tech and Navy last year.
It was current Georgia Tech head coach/former Navy head coach Paul Johnson who played an integral role in creating the mess opponents must face versus the triple-option attack.
Against Georgia Tech last year, the Irish limited the Yellow Jackets to just 3.6 yards per carry on 46-of-47 running plays. Notre Dame held Navy to seven points through the first 25 minutes of the game, allowed two late-first half touchdown drives, and then kept the Midshipmen out of the end zone the entire second half.
During Lou Holtz’s days as head coach of the Fighting Irish (1986-96), the emphasis was taking the fullback out of the equation. Things generally trickled down in Notre Dame’s favor once the fullback was neutralized.
The evolution of the game with multiple formations and additional plays within the triple-option attack has changed some of the precepts. Make no mistake, an effective fullback within the triple-option attack precipitates success with the quarterback run and the outside pitch. But today’s approach must be more all-encompassing.
“When it comes to defending Navy, they strike on such a broad front,” Kelly said. “You can’t take away a particular play. There was some thought of, ‘Take away the fullback.’ They don’t care if you take away the fullback. They’ll run toss-sweep 47 times.”
Kelly and the Irish hope to take advantage of their physical advantages over Navy. For example, 6-foot-5½, 315-pound Jarron Jones and powerful 6-foot 3½, 290-pound Isaac Rochell must exert their physical superiority over Navy, although the weight disparities from the past have been narrowed.
“It’s not about a specific thing you take away as much as at times you’re going to have to fight through a block-on-block situation to make a play,” Kelly said.
“It never becomes a math equation. A lot of football that’s played, you can get an extra hat to a particular run play and out-number them. You can’t do that against this offense, so don’t try.
“If you try to out-number the dive or try to out-number the quarterback in a particular defensive structure, they’ve got answers and that’s really the answer to how you defend this. You can’t have all the answers.”
The Irish are preparing this week with extra film study. Navy uses more formations than ever before, even dipping back a decade or more to pull out alignments the Midshipmen used with success in the past.
The old tried-and-true staples of triple-option offense are ever-present. But now they’ll present more unbalanced looks, use tackle-eligible plays, and line up wide receivers attached to the line of scrimmage.
“You can’t just live through the experience or you’re going to have a bad day, a real bad day,” Kelly said. “There are late nights and they are watching extra film. There is extra preparation for a team like this. This is a difficult week of preparation. But having said that, we have a system in place that will help them as we teach it to them.”
In recent years, the Irish have shown Navy and Georgia Tech a 4-4 look up front, creating waves of tacklers, somewhat mimicking the multiple layers of attack the triple-option presents. Key figures in recent years against the triple-option have included linebacker Greer Martini and safety Drue Tranquill.
Of Martini’s 35 tackles last season, 17 came against Georgia Tech/Navy. Tranquill was dominating the Georgia Tech game (four tackles, two for loss and a pass broken up) when he suffered a knee injury while celebrating a play in the end zone.
Four-year starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds is gone from Navy, but 6-foot-1, 205-pound Will Worth has emerged for the Midshipmen after Reynolds’ expected heir apparent, Tago Smith, was injured in the season-opener against Fordham.
Worth, more of a power running back than a quarterback in Reynolds’ nimble-footed mold, has scored 13 rushing touchdowns while pacing Navy with 88 yards per game on the ground. He’s also shown himself to be quite adept at throwing the football with 52 completions on 87 attempts (59.8 percent) and six touchdowns.
Last week, trailing South Florida, 28-0, Worth not only ran 28 times for 129 yards, but completed 15-of-25 for 299 yards in Navy’s 52-45 loss.
Kelly says the best way to combat Navy’s multiplicity is to offer some multiplicity of your own.
“It’s all predicated on how you defend them,” Kelly said. “The last three teams have played virtually one front. They were in Bear Cover I. After a while, they’re going to getcha. They scored 24 points in the fourth quarter (against South Florida). It took them a while, but they’ll getcha.
“You’ve got to show them a few looks. You’ve got to move around. You’ve got to be fundamentally sound. And you have to have a base plan.”
It’s never easy against triple-option football.