Football: Irish defense to face potent option attack
Chris Khorey | Friday, November 2, 2007
Notre Dame has played Navy since 1927 and, for much of that time, the Midshipmen have run the triple option.
But few Navy teams have moved the ball as well as the 2007 edition.
The Midshipmen are No. 1 in the nation in rushing, averaging more than 340 yards per game. They have scored an average of 35 points per game and put 52 points on Delaware last week in a loss.
The good news for the Irish is that they had last week off and have been preparing to stop the option for nearly two weeks. But as defensive line coach Jappy Oliver said, stopping the scout team is much different than stopping the Midshipmen.
“It’s entirely different,” Oliver said. “Within your own team, you don’t have people that run that type of offense. You don’t have the quarterback or that kind of running backs or linemen that block like that.”
The Navy offense operates out of a double-wing formation, with a fullback behind the quarterback and two wingbacks behind and just outside of the tackles. From this formation, the Midshipmen run a dizzying array of options, counters and misdirections.
“They’re scoring points in bunches,” Oliver said. “If you’re not used to seeing it, it’s very difficult [to stop].”
Up front, the undersized Navy linemen often use a cut-block technique, diving at the defensive line’s ankles to knock them over to open up running lanes. The blocks are not only effective – they’re also dangerous.
“You have to watch out for those cut blocks or you could roll and ankle or something,” Irish defensive end Trevor Laws said.
On a given option play, the Irish defense will have to defend against a fullback dive up the middle, a quarterback keeper off tackle and a pitch to a wing back on the edge.
To make matters worse for the defense, the Midshipmen substitute frequently, bringing in fresh wingbacks, fullbacks and backup quarterback Jarod Bryant off the bench.
“They have a lot of interchangeable guys,” Laws said.
Oliver spent eight years at Air Force, a program that runs the option and also plays Navy every season, so head coach Charlie Weis pronounced him Notre Dame’s “option expert” and let him have a major hand in drawing up the defensive game plan for this week.
The Irish defense will counter the option with multiple looks, using both three- and four- man defensive lines to make it harder for Navy quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada to read the defense.
Once the ball is snapped, however, sweeping defensive theories are thrown to the wind.
“It’s assignment defense,” Oliver said. “Everybody has to take their responsibility. If you don’t take your responsibility, you’re going to give up some big plays.”
One player who has a big responsibility is nose guard Pat Kuntz. Kuntz will be assigned to stop the fullback dive up the middle, while making sure he doesn’t get his legs taken out by a cut block. To help out the junior, Oliver gave him a DVD of the 1998 Air Force squad, which beat Navy 49-7.
“It’s the same technique that I’ll be playing, just keeping my head up, bouncing off cut blocks, and running around making plays,” Kuntz said.
If Kuntz and middle linebackers Maurice Crum and Joe Brockington take away the fullback, Kaheaku-Enhada will be forced to move down the line of scrimmage, where Notre Dame’s outside linebackers and defensive ends will be waiting.
Oliver said there are two kinds of technique that teams use to slow down the option once it starts moving sideways. One is to try to string it out and make the quarterback pitch the ball as close to the sideline as possible; the other is to be aggressive and try to force a bad pitch or a fumble.
The aggressive approach can sometimes give up big plays, but Oliver said it is necessary to try to keep Navy from grinding up the clock with long drives.
“If you play from sideline to sideline and don’t be aggressive, you can be robotic,” he said. “We’re going to have to come after them sometimes.”
If the ball gets wide to the pitch man or the quarterback runs upfield, Irish defensive backs will have to make the tackle. Last season against Air Force, safety Chinedum Ndukwe made 22 such stops.
Weis said he hopes this season’s defensive backs don’t have similar numbers, because it will mean they are over-committing to the option and might give up big plays on play-action passes.
“You have to make sure you don’t fall into a trap,” he said. “You come up, you come up, you come up and then the guy runs a wheel route and he runs it right by you.”
Laws said that, because of the option, Navy is one of the most physically demanding games he plays in each season.
“Every year I’ve played Navy since I’ve been here it’s always one of the toughest games on the schedule,” Laws said. “My body gets beat up.”