NAVY’S 4-TO-3 ADVANTAGE
The way Navy’s 28-27 victory over Notre Dame transpired, it’s no wonder the Midshipmen came out on top for the first time since 2010 and for the fourth time in the last 10 meetings.
It came down to approach and expectations.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo has a four-down approach to offense and Brian Kelly has a three-down approach to offense – like most non-option offenses -- which ultimately led to the math adding up in the winning team’s favor.
These approaches prompted one team to play for touchdowns and another team to play for field goals, which in itself is a mathematical advantage for the Midshipmen.
When Kelly decided to bypass a 4th-and-4 conversion trailing 28-24 with under eight minutes remaining, opting instead for a field goal, you know what Niumatalolo and the rest of the Naval Academy was thinking: we’ve got this; we just won’t let them have the ball back. (Interestingly, Navy didn’t just rely on the ground game to eat up the last seven-and-a-half minutes. They threw on second and third down, picking up an interference call on the latter.)
Questioning Kelly’s decision to kick the field goal is not a second-guess. Everyone in the stadium knew there was the possibility that if the Irish didn’t score a touchdown, there was a great chance Notre Dame wouldn’t get the ball back. Navy’s ball-control offense would emphasize ball control/running the clock more than normal. (Did you see Niumatalolo keep pointing to his watch in the last drive?)
Kelly put the game on the shoulders of a defense that played hard and valiantly, but had little chance of getting the football back for the Irish offense. They had done it just twice all day – the second drive of the game and the second-to-last drive of the game, only to have too many men on the field according to the replay booth. (More on that later.)
Navy’s extra advantage this year, contrary to most years, was its willingness and ability to throw the football. Quarterback Will Worth threw deep on the second play of the game-clinching drive. Freshman cornerback Donte Vaughn probably got away with a pass interference. But on third down, seldom-used sophomore cornerback Nick Coleman interfered on a pass to slotback Darryl Bonner for a fresh set of downs.
After Navy got away with yet another block in the back (more on that later, too), now the football was near midfield, and Navy’s four-downs-to-three-downs advantage kicked in.
Kelly even said it at halftime: this game will come down to a field goal. Well, when you take that attitude against Navy, you’re going to fall short, particularly when you know that the limited number of possessions will play counter to that philosophy.
Kelly didn’t have to say it on the broadcast for us to know it was true. He showed it was going to be a four-plays-to-three-plays disadvantage on Notre Dame’s second series of the game when on 3rd-and-2 from the Navy 21 with the scored tied at seven, a DeShone Kizer pass under duress skipped short of Durham Smythe. Justin Yoon kicked the 39-yard field goal for a 10-7 Irish lead.
By deciding to throw on third down, the four-to-three disadvantage became clear. Either complete it for a first down or Notre Dame would settle for a field goal. In the same situation, of course, Navy would have run the football on third down and fourth down if necessary to convert.
The situation was a little different on Notre Dame’s final field goal because Kizer threw behind Kevin Stepherson on 3rd-and-10, thus setting up a 4th-and-4. The irony is that Kelly said the Irish might have gone for a 4th-and-2 or a 4th-and-1. But really, what’s the difference? The Irish would have thrown it in any of those down-and-distance scenarios, thus making the yardage differential moot.
At the end of the day, this much we knew was true: Navy had the advantage in several areas. They tackle better. They block better. A four-yard run by Navy has blockers for every level – at the point of attack, on the second level against linebackers, and then the secondary. That’s why so many of their four-yard gains turn into eight- and 10- and 14-yard gains.
A four-yard run for Notre Dame ultimately comes down to a one-on-one tackle in traffic by Navy after the initial wall of blockers.
The 2016 Navy team is a more fundamentally-sound team in the basic concepts of football than the 2016 Notre Dame team. Armed with a four-plays-to-three-plays advantage on offense, it’s no wonder Navy won the football game, albeit by a mere point.
Seldom has there been a more deceiving 19-of-27 passing for 223 yards and three touchdowns – a sparkling 70.3 percent – than the numbers turned in by Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer. Kizer was scattershot most of the day. He did eventually complete 10 passes in a row, but his accuracy was shaky from the opening series.
He threw behind Kevin Stepherson on his second pass of the game. He overthrew Dexter Williams badly on a swing pass. He overthrew C.J. Sanders down the middle, but then found Torii Hunter, Jr. for 23 yards on 4th-and-4, which was Notre Dame’s only fourth-down attempt of the game.
Twice in the second drive, he made Irish receivers go to their knees to make a catch. On the third drive, he overshot Stepherson on a deep ball that would have given the Irish a 17-7 lead. On 3rd-and-4 in the same series, he completely airmailed a ball to St. Brown along the Navy sideline.
Kizer would settle down in the second half and complete 10 in a row, but again, like the earlier completions, a couple hit the receiver off-stride. And when the Irish needed his accuracy in their final field-goal drive, he misfired on three straight throws.
The incompletion to Hunter in the end zone was not a bad throw per se. The route was designed for the corner of the end zone, and when cornerback Tyris Wooten came over the top and took that away, it would have been very difficult to ad-lib that pass to Hunter with underneath coverage.
On 2nd-and-10 at the 20, Kizer threw the football over Stepherson’s head so badly that Stepherson started to jump and then stopped. On 3rd-and-10, he threw behind a crossing Stepherson, which allowed linebacker D.J. Palmore to catch up and get into Stepherson’s legs before he could make it closer than a 4th-and-4.
Armed with a three-down philosophy, the Irish kicked the field goal and never saw the football again.
Kizer finished 19-of-27. It was more along the lines of a 13- or 14-of-27 day.
THROW THE FLAG!
If that’s the way officials normally arbitrate Navy’s games this season, it’s no wonder the Midshipmen have just 17 penalties in eight games.
This is not a “the refs cost Notre Dame the game” cry, nor am I saying the refs are incompetent. Navy is better coached in all aspects and deserved to win. But the blatant blocks in the back and holds – on both sides of the football at crucial times – cannot be anything other than the officials swallowing their whistles, perhaps with the knowledge in the inner recesses of their minds that this is, after all, the Naval Academy and the Naval Academy is disciplined.
Two calls in particular should have been impossible to miss. The worst was one that the CBS announcers had to see but never said a word. They even replayed it and didn’t comment. It came in the Notre Dame field-goal drive that cut it to 28-27, so it came at a very crucial time.
Nose guard Patrick Forrestal had just sacked Kizer for a one-yard loss. Irish left guard Quenton Nelson was standing on the outside of the pile. The play was over. Navy linebacker D.J. Palmore drilled Nelson directly in the back, knocking him on top of the pile. Nothing. No call. You had to have blinders on not to see it. (Nelson, although not seen on TV, popped up and chased Palmore down to tell him his thoughts on the cheap shot/late hit.)
The other came at a significant time, too. It was Navy’s final drive when it ran out the clock. On 3rd-and-8 from the Navy 41, the Midshipmen called a reverse to receiver Jamir Tillman. Donte Vaughn, sensing a blocker behind him, sealed off his position. Vaughn was blocked directly in the back and sent sprawling forward, missing Tillman and setting up a 4th-and-1 that Navy ultimately would convert.
We’ve all watched Navy play often enough to know that they are one of the most disciplined football teams in the country. They certainly are better-schooled than Notre Dame. But we’ve also seen Navy play often enough to know that sometimes when it comes to the Midshipmen – when it doubt – officials tend to ignore the foul.
12 MEN ON THE FIELD
The screen shot only provides us with part of the picture. The rest, we’re just going to have to accept, unless you gain access to video that presumably only the teams, the officiating crew, and the ACC has seen. If they choose not to comment on it – which they likely won’t – it’s lost in the college football archives.
When officials ruled that Devin Studstill had not gotten off the field of play prior to the snap on a Navy punt with the Irish leading 24-21 late in the third quarter, it negated what would have been Navy’s only punt of the game. They maintained possession, which led to the game-winning score.
I know what we think we saw on TV, but what we saw was not definitive. Studstill appeared to be close to the sideline, likely more than one step, and the still-shot shows Navy long-snapper Josh Antol still hovered over the football.
We don’t know where Studstill actually was when the football was snapped.
Hypothetical Play No. 164 in the 2016 Instant Replay Casebook says: “Third and 10 on the B-22. Before the snap B23 realizes he is the 12th man on the field and runs towards his bench. He is near the sideline and after the ball is snapped, his next step puts him on the sideline. There are no flags on the play and the pass is intercepted and returned for a touchdown. RULING: Not reviewable. If after the snap the player’s next step puts him on the sideline, then the play is not reviewable. Touchdown.”
Quoting from Irish Illustrated’s rule expert: “TV does not show where No. 14’s foot lands after the snap. The replay views that the replay crew got in the booth must have shown that it landed inbounds, therefore making the play reviewable.”
Presumably, the replay booth had a shot that those in TV land did not. And thus, the ruling against Notre Dame, which contributed significantly to the penalty as well as the outcome of the game.
Leading 24-21, Notre Dame would have had an opportunity to march downfield for a touchdown and a 31-21 lead, which likely would have been enough cushion to win the game.
THE CASE OF THE MISSING NOSE TACKLE
Notre Dame nose tackle Jarron Jones played 12 plays for Notre Dame against Navy – six in Navy’s second drive of the game and six in Navy’s second possession of the second half.
In his first series, Notre Dame held Navy on downs; in his second series, Notre Dame held Navy on downs, only to lose possession because of the 12th man on the field.
CBS’ Adam Archuleta mentioned Jones’ name several times, referring to his dominant impact on Notre Dame’s 30-27 victory over Miami the previous week.
The media was remiss in not asking about Jones after the game, but quite frankly, in the back of my mind, I knew the answer – both what Brian Kelly said and what he didn’t say.
“It’s a whole different animal relative to option,” said Kelly Sunday. “He’s got a job to do and he can’t be the kind of force he was in a traditional offensive set.
“He’s got to play a gap and he has a responsibility. If they choose to run triple-option – even if he’s a force and he’s destroying his guy and getting upfield – they’re going to pull the ball and work the ball out to the perimeter. So (the opponent) can take a Jarron Jones out of the game, even if he’s being disruptive. It really neutralizes players like him when you play a team like Navy.”
That makes sense. Then again, it doesn’t. Clearly, as we will detail with each of Jones’ 12 snaps, they were aware he was on the field and adjusted accordingly. Only one of the 12 plays went to the fullback. In the first series, quarterback Will Worth carried a majority of those snaps, and in the second, the ball was kicked wide of the tackles.
On Jones’ first snap, he was taken down by a one-on-one block and slowly rose to his feet.
On his second snap, he was run off the play, and then shed the block too late.
On his third snap, he couldn’t get off a one-on-one block.
On his fourth snap, more of the same. Four plays, two first downs, nowhere close to the football.
Jones’ best play was his fifth when he pushed the center back into the vicinity of Worth, which contributed to Worth’s overthrow downfield. On his sixth snap, he held the point of attack and Greer Martini came flying up for a one-yard loss.
That set up a 3rd-and-11, and Jones came out of the game with Jerry Tillery sliding inside. Tillery, more agile and doing a better job of getting off blocks, maintained that role for all but Jones’ second series in the third quarter.
On the first snap, Jones penetrated and the play was pitched wide.
On the second snap, he was cut and flexed his right knee when he got off the ground.
On the third snap, he was stymied with a one-on-one block and the play went wide.
On the fourth snap, he made little progress and the play went wide with James Onwualu making the tackle for loss.
On the fifth snap, Jones didn’t get much push and the ball came out to receiver Jamir Tillman immediately.
On the sixth snap, the pitch went wide once again.
Jones has never liked playing against triple-option football because at 6-foot-5½, 315 pounds, he is not a knee bender. Most of his best work is in a straight-up, stand-up beast-mode push up the field. That leaves him vulnerable against Navy’s low-blocking approach. He suffered a knee injury last year on the heels of a serious foot injury, and playing against triple-option attacks is a bad match-up for him, physically and mentally.
The question for Tuesday’s press conference: Will Jones have value against Army this week?
Brian Kelly said earlier in the week that the Irish defense would try to give Navy’s offense a variety of looks. They went with the tried-and-true from the last couple years of some 4-4 looks with four-down, some 4-4 looks with three-down and James Onwualu in a two-point, and some 3-5 alignments with the linebackers forming a shell around the three-down. A safety in the middle with two cornerbacks flanking him was the general secondary alignment.
Bottom line: however you align, you have to get off blocks and win the battle to get low, and the Irish had difficulty doing that. Then after you win the battle to get low, you have to diagnose the three prongs of the triple-option, and Navy quarterback Will Worth did a good job of taking advantage of the soft spots in the defense.
On one hand, the Irish did well by holding Navy to just two touchdowns in each half. But the defense couldn’t get off the field. Navy converted 8-of-13 on third down and 4-of-5 on fourth down. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, as pointed out by Tim O’Malley post-game.
Of Navy’s five failed third-down attempts, four were negated by converting on fourth down. So in essence, that’s 12-of-13 short-yardage conversions, which means the defense couldn’t make the play it needed to get off the field.
Nine of 56 rushes netted double-digit yardage, but the big gashes hurt badly. Worth had the 60-yard run that set up Navy’s second touchdown. Calvin Cass’ 37-yarder went for a score. Worth’s 27-yarder on 3rd-and-7 from the Irish 28 led to the game-winner.
Isaac Rochell, Jerry Tillery and even Andrew Trumbetti did a decent job of holding the point of attack. They combined for 17 tackles, but they each had just one solo, which means they weren’t making much first-contact with the runner and “catching” runners.
Onwualu was stout when he was ball side (seven tackles), but he, too, had just one solo (a great one for a tackle for loss). Greer Martini (four solos, 11 tackles)diagnosed well, scraped well and was the most effective tackler, along with freshman cornerback Julian Love (five solos eight tackles), who fought off blocks incredibly well and played a physical game.
Te’von Coney didn’t play enough. He came in for Nyles Morgan, who showed he still has a long way to go when it comes to being effective against triple-option. Despite finishing with 11 tackles (10 assisted), he was a step behind the play most of the day.
Navy had a game plan for Notre Dame’s Mike linebacker. He was sucked into fakes to the fullback and had a very difficult time getting off cut blocks. He was almost completely ineffective against anything on the outside to the slotbacks, which is a lot of ground for a Mike to cover. He didn’t scrape well at all. He was at his best inside the Irish 10-yard line where he could work in a confined space.
Drue Tranquill joined Onwualu on the outside, although he did slip back into the deep middle spot in place of Devin Studstill with a couple of cornerbacks flanking. It was a rough day for freshmen cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride. Vaughn was a step behind everything in the run and pass games. His length hurt him leverage-wise. He was not prepared to handle Navy’s blockers getting into his shins. Pride was pile-driven into the EverBank Field turf by Darryl Bonner on Cass’ 37-yard touchdown run.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
The opening kickoff: the big skill guys were either buried (Smythe), missed a block (Matuska) or failed to make contact with anything other than air (Weishar). It was a 12-yard kick return. This almost always sets a tone on Notre Dame’s first kick return of the day…Weishar did a much better job on the second one, which was a 31-yard return by C.J. Sanders…The false starts by offensive linemen this season is maddening, particularly left tackle Mike McGlinchey…Check-with me/triple-option football is maddening, too. They might as well let the coaching staffs stand behind their players on the field like a pre-season scrimmage…Didn’t even mention Justin Yoon’s kickoff out of bounds in the special teams grade…Julian Love was concussed by helmet-to-shoulder contact. A devastating hit for Love as well as Navy slotback Tre Walker. Love has star quality against the run…I walked by Ken Niumatalolo in the hallway of EverBank Field when the Naval Academy arrived. I’ve known this from the past, but he’s a much bigger dude than people realize…
Notre Dame is now in jeopardy of its 14th losing season if they don’t win out. During the 21st century: 2007 (Charlie Weis), 2004 and 2003 (Tyrone Willingham), 2001 (Bob Davie); during the 20th century: 1999 (Davie), 1986 (Lou Holtz), 1985 and 1981 (Gerry Faust), 1963 (Hugh Devore), 1960 (Joe Kuharich), 1956 (Terry Brennan), and 1933 (Hunk Anderson)…Credit to Torii Hunter, Jr. for showing the toughness to take a significant blow to the lower quad that hyperextended his knee. He came back and finished with career highs in receptions (eight) and yards (104)…There are a ton of big plays in Kevin Stepherson’s future. He is lithe, slippery and a multi-skilled receiver who can hurt you on short, intermediate and deep routes. An incredibly underrated football player coming out of high school…
Speaking of agile, Equanimeous St. Brown shows again his prowess at cartwheeling his way into the end zone…Back to the kick return unit. The entire unit was overrun by Navy on Notre Dame’s final kick return/possession. The lack of preparation and determination of this unit is astonishing…No reason why Asmar Bilal should be on the field on a 4th-and-1 on what proved to be Navy’s game-winning drive. He simply wasn’t strong enough to hold the point of attack, although on 4th-and-1 against Navy, does it really matter whose on the field defensively?...By the way, Navy was a modest 8-of-14 on fourth down through seven games. They were 4-of-5 against the Irish.