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Irish shut down Navy triple option

Jack Hefferon | Sunday, October 30, 2011

For 43 years, it was pretty simple: Notre Dame scheduled Navy, and Notre Dame beat Navy. Starting in 2007 though, the Midshipmen and their option attack upset the balance of power by taking three of four victories from the Irish, averaging 31 points and 287 rushing yards a game.

The most egregious of those Irish losses occurred last year at New Meadowlands Stadium, when the option burned the Irish for 367 yards on the ground as Navy cruised to a 35-17 victory. After that loss, questions about Notre Dame’s ability to stop the triple option lingered, even after they handily defeated both Army and Air Force.

After Saturday’s dominant 56-14 win over the Midshipmen though, Irish coach Brian Kelly believes those doubts can finally be forgotten.

“A great victory for our football team today against a team in Navy that has been very difficult for us to defend, obviously,” Kelly said. “And I think we can put that to rest about our ability to defend a very, very good offensive football team.”

Especially cathartic for Notre Dame was its ability to stop Navy from running the ball up the middle. After allowing senior fullback Alexander Teich 210 yards rushing last year almost exclusively between the tackles, the Irish defense was able to plug the middle and hold Teich to just 66 yards on the ground.

“Our front was outstanding,” Kelly said. “Our two inside guys didn’t give much. You are not going to talk a lot about them, [freshman defensive end Stephon] Tuitt and [junior defensive tackle Sean] Cwynar, but they were really good inside. They took the fullback away and forced the ball out on the perimeter. Those two guys played very well.”

The defensive line was indeed the key to stopping Navy on Saturday, even without its two most experienced players. Senior Kapron Lewis-Moore suffered a season-ending MCL injury against Air Force, and senior Ethan Johnson was a ruled out as a game-time decision. In their absence, Kelly had to rely heavily on the inexperienced tandem of Tuitt and sophomore nose guard Louis Nix, and the two answered the bell.

“[Tuitt and Nix], those are the guys that are going to stop the fullback and keep the linebackers free,” senior captain Harrison Smith said. “That might not end up on the stat sheet and they might not get the tackles, but they created the tackles. They created the tackles for loss and the big stops.”

And with Navy’s offensive line occupied, junior linebacker Manti Te’o was free to create chaos and disrupt the Midshipmen’s offensive flow. Te’o registered 13 tackles on the day, including three tackles for loss.

According to Kelly, it was Te’o’s ability to make the right reads and stick to his assignments that allowed the junior linebacker to constantly fly to the ballcarrier.

“Manti played well,” he said. “He’s very disciplined. Obviously he was in a position where he had to play [the running] back and QB, and he wasn’t guessing. He was very disciplined today and played a solid game.”

And on the other side of the ball, Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo was at a loss on how to scheme against or contain his fellow Hawaiian.

“The difference for us offensively against their defense was Manti,” Niumatololo said. “We could not block Manti. We have been doing this for a long time. We tried a lot of different schemes and tried a lot of things to block him, but the kid played phenomenal.”

With the defensive front forcing the ball outside and Te’o and company suffocating the run on the perimeter, the Irish were finally able to shut down the option and, for the time being, silence their doubters. While that would be plenty enough for some teams, the Irish look to improve further against Wake Forest this weekend.

“That’s always our goal, is to shut people’s rushing game down, but we’ll watch tape and say we could have held them to less,” Smith said. “We just always want more, and as well as we did today, we’re going to come in tomorrow and we’re going to say, ‘Man, we could have had an even better of a day.’

“This was one week, and we got it done this week. But we have a game next week, and we’ve got to move forward.”