Irish Eyes Scouting Report

The Middies bring their version of triple option football to Notre Dame Stadium this week. Personally I love triple option football. It's a thing of beauty, great timing, and quite the equalizer in terms of one team's talent not matching up with another team. Of course you have to have the right personnel to run the triple option, or option of any kind.

At the skill positions it seems like Navy is doing very well recruiting. It's been forty-four years since Heisman winner Roger Staubach led Navy to a 35-14 victory over Notre Dame and the Irish have emerged victorious in the last forty-three games. It's "the streak" in college football much to the chagrin of Navy fans everywhere. Over those forty-three years there have been blowouts, easy wins, lackluster victories, and games that were decided by a few points, or came down to the wire. Should another close contest occur this week the Irish faithful will definitely feel a great deal of self-imposed pressure. Most fans probably don't fear an end to the streak as much as they fear the media backlash such a defeat would cause. So, if you are weak of heart you better stop reading this article right now.

You'll hear many of the clichés this week around the boards and in office conversations about option football. I'll list a few of them for easy reference:

i) We have to prepare for an offense we haven't seen this year.
ii) We really can't simulate the precision of the triple option in practice.
iii) We really can't simulate the speed of the triple option in practice.
iv) We have to play assignment defense.
v) We must stop the fullback, the key to defending the triple option.

There's one thing about clichés. They stem from the truth or from facts. Let's look at the above cliches one by one:

(1) This is obviously true since the Irish haven't had to prepare for the triple option once this year till now. This preparation involves teaching the defense to play disciplined assignment football and when a player doesn't play his assignment a big play can occur. The defense also needs to balance their defensive alignment across the field because the offense can attack both sides of the ball with the triple option. One good thing though is this week helps preparation against Air Force for the following week.

(2) Notre Dame can't do this one. No matter what player the Irish use in practice at quarterback, fullback, and pitch backs, no matter how fast and athletic they are, the Irish cannot match Navy's precision in the option. It just can't happen. The Middies' backfield has been doing this for years and certainly since August over and over again. No matter how good the Irish scout team might be athletically they won't come close to matching Navy in precision.

The Navy quarterback has four possible reads in the B gap on the fullback mesh before he makes the decision to give or pull the ball and it happens in microseconds. Then he slides down the line while making a decision over three possible reads before he keeps or pitches the ball. No one on the scout team will even come close to matching that skill. Hence, Notre Dame doesn't get a really good, game type, read on the triple option.

(3) Notre Dame can't do this one either. Again, no matter how talented the scout team players might be athletically they haven't the acumen for matching the speed of the reads, the finesse of the quarterback – fullback mesh, and the unison of the Navy backfield in running the option. The speed of those reads, the speed of players knowing what they are doing, and the countless repetition that the Navy backfield has practiced makes the Middies' game speed something the Irish will have to get used to on the field, during the game. Add to that the fine job Coach Johnson has done at Navy in recruiting speed for his offense.

(4) Assignment football requires far more discipline than normal defense. The triple option counts on the opponent losing discipline and free lancing instead of following assigned responsibilities. The triple option also counts on the opponent burning too fast, taking that one step in anticipation of what the opponent has gotten used to seeing and then pulling a surprise. Each time a defensive player fails to execute their assignment the option makes them pay, often for a big play.

(5) The fullback is so integral to making the triple option work. Since the fullback plows straight ahead there are few plays given to the fullback that end up with any significant negative yardage. Also, there a few offenses where one sees a fullback running downfield on a thirty plus yard run as much as with the triple option.

Conversely, the quarterback and the pitch backs, are initially moving down the line of scrimmage, and can be involved in plays that have significant negative yardage. Negative yardage is tougher on option teams than it is on passing teams. Depending on the talent level and perceived danger between the quarterback and the pitch backs the defense would place a secondary emphasis on one of the two aspects requiring the other to beat them if possible. So if you stop the fullback and try to contain the pitchmen you are saying beat us with your quarterback running, or stop the quarterback and try beating us with the pitch. Ideally you want to do all three, but most defensive coordinators try to stop the fullback and minimize one other aspect of the triple option based on their opponent's past success or personnel.

Navy Offense

Navy runs the triple option of Coach Paul Johnson from a base set of two wide outs split very wide with two running backs, or slot backs, as wings aligned just outside and behind the tackles. The quarterback is under center and the fullback is directly behind the quarterback at four and a half yards. Occasionally they bring the wide receivers down closer to the tackles. They do align some one at tight end on rare occasions, and they favor a slot to one side or another giving them three wide with the slot back. The offensive line takes wider splits than the norm to create better blocking angles on the defensive front.

The advantage of Navy's base set, two pitchmen in the slot or wing, over the traditional Wishbone is twofold. First, in going back in motion for a possible pitch the Navy slot backs are closer to the line of scrimmage than the pitchman in the traditional Wishbone formation. The runner is therefore more apt to gain more yards and if there is a loss it is less than in the Wishbone. Secondly, the slot back leading the play is closer to his blocking assignment than he would be in the Wishbone.

One thing the casual fan might not realize is that the running backs, slot backs, or whatever designation they are given are not just runners, but pass receivers as well, and that they are every bit the deep threat that the wide receivers are when aligned in the double wing look. A team such as Navy will recruit backs that are fast, tough, and have good hands while not being worried about their size like other teams might be.

Navy will most likely start, #10 Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, their leading rusher, at quarterback, but #2 Jarod Bryant is breathing down the back of Kaheaku-Enhada's neck. Bryant took over during the Wake forest game just before halftime as Kaheaku-Enhada took a helmet to helmet hit by a defensive lineman. Bryant also relieved against Duke and replaced Kaheaku-Enhada against Delaware State. Against Duke Bryant came from under center and received a touchdown pass from Bobby Doyle, a slot back. Of the two quarterbacks Kaheaku-Enhada is the fastest runner, but to me, in the games I've seen, Bryant makes decisions faster and is quicker to hit a hole. Both quarterbacks are similar as passers, with Bryant having the better arm. Bryant has yet to show me he can read the homerun ball off the option fake when it's there, throwing to the short man twice against Wake Forest denying Navy two easy touchdowns. I hope he continues that through Saturday. Combined these two quarterbacks have 915 yards rushing, thirteen running touchdowns, and 826 yards passing with four touchdowns.

It's the fullback that makes the triple option go and Navy has two ideal fullbacks in #36 Eric Kettani and #22 Adam Ballard. Both are over 230 pounds, both get their pads low, and both have great leg drive. Between them they have rushed for 987 yards and eleven touchdowns. Kettani has a 73 yard run and Ballard has a 55 yard run proving that they have the speed to go far when the safety makes a mistake.

The slot backs for Navy are primarily #7 Reggie Campbell, #28 Zerbin Singleton, and #26, Shun White. Both Campbell and Singleton are less than 170 pounds, but White is a 186 pounder. All are fearless as runners, receivers, and blockers. Between them they have rushed for 837 yards and seven touchdowns. Look for #33 Bobby Doyle to throw a pass from the slot back position. The MDM here is Reggie Campbell. MDM stands for most dangerous man and he's a threat any time he touches the ball.

The wide receivers are usually #80 OJ Washington, #89 Tyree Barnes, and #24 Greg Suddereth who don't have many receptions with twenty-one between then for one touchdown. It's the slot backs who have caused the most damage in the passing game. Campbell, along with Singleton and White total more receptions than the starting wide receivers with twenty-four between them and Campbell having three touchdowns. The scary thing about these receivers is their yards per reception with Washington leading the pack at 23.9, Suddereth at 18.3, Singleton at 18.0, and Barnes at 17.3 yards per reception. The lulling repetitive look of the triple option, the mistake made in over anticipating, the false step by the safety, and Navy can get deep with speed.

Navy loves to attack the short side of the field from either hashmark. On plays that began exactly on the hashmarks against Wake Forest the Middies attacked the short side of the field twenty-three times and the wide side sixteen times.

Besides the triple option the Middies feature a quick toss and their play side guard and tackle get out in front well. Add the quarterback duck play, a killer for Notre Dame in past Air Force victories, and the counter option to Navy's ground attack.

Watch Navy change up the blocking scheme between the play side slot back and the wide receiver to make life more difficult for those playing the edge against the option. It's just a little more to think about for the corner and safety as to who's going to block them. Navy's passing tree features a lot of sideline comebacks by their wide receivers and the deadly post off of an option fake. Their favorite pass play involves an option fake, a wide receiver runs a post, and the slot back runs an out and up. As I mentioned before Wake Forest should have been burned twice on this pattern had Bryant read it properly. The scary thing is that each time the Wake Forest safety just took one small, brief false step forward and the wide receiver blew by Wake's corner and was wide open.

Navy's third down conversion rate is second in the nation at 52% while their fourth down conversion rate is 68%. Coach Johnson has gone for it on fourth down twenty-two times this year. The Irish better be ready for four down football from anywhere on the field.

Navy Defense

Suffice to say that Navy is young. Navy bounces back and forth from a 3- 4 look to a 4-3. Against Wake Forest they were close to forty percent 3- 4 and sixty percent 4-3. They usually walk an outside LB up to the line of scrimmage in the 3- 4 and often blitz him. The best Navy defensive lineman is #99 nose guard Natt Frazier. The young man has a propensity for jumping off sides at inopportune times, doing so three times in the first half alone, making contact with the center each time.

The best player on Navy's defense is senior Irv Spencer, #55, an inside linebacker, but he doesn't have much help.

Navy's defense is basically like Notre dame's offense. Neither is getting the job done, and both are near the bottom statistically in NCAA stats.

Navy Special Teams

Reggie Campbell is averaging 12.7 yards per punt return and has the speed to go all the way although he has no touchdowns this year. The Irish gunners need to be there close in order to slow him down because once he gets going you better have the angle on him. He's that fast.

Campbell is also the leading kick off returner averaging 24.3 yards per kick off return. He has a longest of 73 yards and given a crease he tends to hit it hard, but dances too much looking for an opening in my view. Still, he's definite threat to take it to the house.

Navy has two kickers in #39 Joey Bullen and #19 Matt Harmon. Combined they are 13 for 20 in field goals and 33 for 33 in extra points. They have had three field goals blocked this year. The longest field goal for both is in the mid forties.

Navy's punter, #31 Greg Veteto, is the Maytag repairman of college football. At this juncture of the season most teams have punted around forty to forty five times. Veteto has punted eight times….all year. When he has actually kicked he averages 36 yards per punt and has only has three returned for forty-five yards and no touchdowns.

The Middie kickoff duo, Bullen and Harmon, get the ball inside the ten when kicking deep, but that was with a twenty mile an hour wind behind them. Navy also employs the pop up kick off, so their almost twenty-two yard average allowed in covering kicks is somewhat skewed.

Concerns for Notre Dame

The number of possessions and what Notre Dame does with those possessions is critical for the Irish in this game. Every third and out drastically diminishes the Irish chances for a victory. The twenty-five percent third down conversion rate the Irish currently have will not do. Eleven or twelve possessions may be the maximum number of possessions the Irish get Saturday. At the current Irish pace of third down conversions that leaves Notre Dame three series to score on.

The Irish must avoid turnovers and take advantage of Navy turnovers. The margin for winning this game is small on paper and comparative stats.

The Notre Dame running game can't be guaranteed simply because of Navy's defensive statistics. The Irish have, statistically, the worst rushing game in the country. The fact that Navy has the 82nd rushing defense and that the Irish should be physically superior doesn't necessarily make a good rushing day happen for Notre Dame. Navy has stopped Notre Dame running games superior to this year's Irish running game.

While Navy's defense has been less than stellar the same could be said about Notre Dame's offense. The clash between the two opposing forces is not the irresistible force versus the immoveable object. Until Notre Dame proves it can score, and do so in both halves of a game, then the oft proclaimed talent advantage doesn't necessarily trump the heart of the Middies.

Notre Dame not scoring in the twenties won't do either. One has to think Navy will score. Navy will also have clock eating drives. Coach Brown has never called a defense against a triple option team that I know about. Only Laws, Crum, Brockington, Lambert, and Zbikowski have any real game experience against Navy's offense.

Defensively the key to the Irish slowing Navy's offense may rest with David Bruton. Bruton has been a joy to watch this year, but he may be placed in a pressure-cooker environment he has never experienced by Navy's offense. Assuming the Irish are going to make him a hero like Ndukwe was against Air Force he's going to have to make quite a few tackles against the run. In pass coverage such as the deep man in a traditional cover three he needs to be near perfect in his responses. If he misreads one fake or takes one false step he could be watching a Navy wide receiver going deep on a post or skinny post for six. If Navy scores that way and still gets their scores through the run it's a recipe for Notre Dame to lose.

The previous paragraph was not intended to dump the whole defense on Bruton's shoulders, but more so to suggest that easy touchdowns cannot occur this week. In fact the defense, praised all season for battling uphill most of the year, needs to step it up a notch. Coach Brown's defense would be hailed resoundingly if they held Navy to two touchdowns as the Irish did last year.

Navy was eaten alive by Delaware on posts down the middle to wide receivers and by deep seams to the tight end. Notre Dame has not thrown the ball deep down the middle very often and all too often the tight ends have been held in to assist in blocking the pass rush. The Irish coaches have, of course, seen the films of navy's defense. The question remains whether they can take advantage of what they have seen.

There are many examples of our Navy, in the process of defending our country, overcoming the odds stacked against them. The Notre Dame record must have the Middies sensing that this could be the year for them to end the streak, so I see Navy coming out a little more inspired than normal.

My pick: Notre Dame 24 Navy 23.


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