Mids’ triple op­tion poses a puz­zle for Ir­ish

Notre Dame probes Navy of­fense for weak points

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Bill Wag­ner

When Bob El­liott was hired as a spe­cial as­sis­tant to the head coach at Notre Dame, one of his first tasks was to con­duct an in-depth study on op­tion foot­ball.

Notre Dame plays Navy ev­ery year and also had Ge­or­gia Tech and Army West Point on the 2015 and 2016 sched­ules. El­liott, who had pre­vi­ously coached the Jacksonville, Fla. To­day, 11:30 a.m. TV: Chs. 13, 9 Ra­dio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Notre Dame by 61⁄ safeties and lineback­ers for the Fight­ing Ir­ish, looked closely at op­po­nents that did a de­cent job de­fend­ing the op­tion. He vis­ited those schools, talked to de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tors and compiled a list of strate­gies that had worked against the un­usual at­tack.

“We did some stud­ies from other pro­grams that had suc­cess and wanted to see some thoughts that other pro­grams had that had gone against Navy mul­ti­ple times and had a mod­icum of suc­cess,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “So we kind of compiled all those thoughts and schemes, then sat down and said: ‘What makes sense with what we do?’ ”

El­liott, who served as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Iowa, Kansas State and San Diego State, was charged with in­stalling a scheme de­signed to stop the op­tion and work­ing with the Notre Dame scout team to pre­pare those play­ers to op­er­ate such an

of­fense ef­fec­tively.

“I think we’ve got a pretty good sense at this point of the kind of sys­tem of de­fense we want to play against Navy,” Kelly said. “I think we found a sys­tem that we feel is ef­fec­tive.”

Navy’s coach­ing staff can only wonder what that de­fen­sive game plan will be. Of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Ivin Jasper had de­vel­oped a feel for the schemes of Brian Van Gorder, who served as Notre Dame de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in 2014 and 2015. Kelly fired Van Gorder af­ter a dis­ap­point­ing de­feat at the hands of Duke and pro­moted Greg Hud­son to the po­si­tion.

Jasper has no clue what Hud­son, who had been a de­fen­sive an­a­lyst for the Ir­ish, will want to do against the op­tion. But the Navy staff fig­ures it will be sim­i­lar to the past two years, since Hud­son has been the pri­mary ar­chi­tect of the op­tion schemes.

“It’s a new de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor so it will prob­a­bly be a new plan. We don’t have any idea. We’ll go off what we saw last year to try to fig­ure out how they might line up,” Jasper said. “We’ll prac­tice against what we think we might see, but we may have to change gears once the game gets go­ing.”

Kelly in­di­cated dur­ing his weekly news con­fer­ence that Notre Dame’s safeties will be heav­ily in­volved. Start­ing strong safety Drue Tran­quill is the team’s sec­ondlead­ing tack­ler while Devon Studstill is the start­ing free safety. Nyles Mor­gan leads the Ir­ish with 67 tack­les, and Jasper fig­ures the out­side line­backer will also play a prom­i­nent role.

Notre Dame has strug­gled de­fen­sively for most of this sea­son and ranks in the mid­dle of the pack among the 128 Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion schools in most ma­jor cat­e­gories. The Ir­ish are al­low­ing an av­er­age of 28 points (67th) and 388 to­tal yards (54th).

How­ever, the Notre Dame de­fense has shown im­prove­ment of late, lim­it­ing North Carolina State and Stan­ford to 10 and 17 points, re­spec­tively. Jasper said the Ir­ish were “play­ing fast” against Mi­ami, which scored 27 points de­spite be­ing held to 306 to­tal yards.

“Re­gard­less of the record and stats, they’re the Fight­ing Ir­ish. They’re go­ing to be bet­ter than us, they’re go­ing to be more ath­letic — big­ger, stronger, faster,” Jasper said. “We try to level the play­ing field with what we do. It’s go­ing to be a phys­i­cal game.”

Kelly is con­cerned about Navy’s tripleop­tion of­fense, which has been fir­ing on all cylin­ders of late. The Mids av­er­aged 510 yards and 44.3 points over the past three games — wins against Hous­ton and Mem­phis along with a loss to South Florida. Start­ing quar­ter­back Will Worth set a sin­gle-game school record for to­tal of­fense (428 yards) Oct. 28, one week af­ter es­tab­lish­ing a ca­reer-high for rush­ing yards (201) against Mem­phis.

“They just keep rolling of­fen­sively. You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there’s go­ing to be drop-off, but Will Worth comes in and picks up where he left off and the pro­duc­tion has been un­be­liev­able,” Kelly said.

Kelly be­lieves one key to de­fend­ing the op­tion is to change fronts over the course of the game.

“If you’re go­ing to line up in one front and that’s all you do, they’re go­ing to get you. They’ve seen ev­ery­thing and have an­swers for ev­ery­thing,” Kelly said. “So you’ve got to show them a few looks. I mean, you’ve got to move around a lit­tle bit. You have a base plan of ‘This is how we’re go­ing to de­fend you.’ Then you’ve got a cou­ple wrin­kles off that.”

Kelly also be­lieves it’s im­por­tant to ro­tate de­fend­ers to keep them fresh, and he feels for­tu­nate the Ir­ish have the depth to do so.

“This is a game where we’ll have to use more play­ers,” he said. “It’s a dif­fer­ent game. It’s a down­hill game and it’s a phys­i­cal game. So we’re go­ing to go deep with a lot of play­ers. I think that will prob­a­bly be the big­gest thing we do, is play a lot of play­ers up front.”

Mean­while, Navy must con­tend with a Notre Dame of­fense that has put up big num­bers at times this sea­son. Quar­ter­back DeShone Kizer is the trig­ger man of a pass­ing at­tack that ranks 35th na­tion­ally with 264 yards per game.

Kizer has a pair of dan­ger­ous wide re­ceivers in Equanimeous St. Brown and Torii Hunter Jr., who have com­bined to make 67 catches for 1,091 yards.

“Kizer is a great quar­ter­back with a re­ally strong arm. They have big-time re­ceivers, very good run­ning backs, out­stand­ing tight ends,” Navy de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dale Pehrson said. “Also a very big, ath­letic of­fen­sive line. Ev­ery year, I think they’re the best-coached of­fen­sive line we see.”

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