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Notre Dame readies for option attack

| Friday, November 4, 2016

For the 90th straight season, Notre Dame and Navy will meet on Saturday in college football’s longest uninterrupted intersectional contest. When the teams meet on the gridiron this time around, some things will be a little different — Jacksonville, Florida, is a new venue for the rivalry, while star Keenan Reynolds has been replaced by senior Will Worth as Navy’s quarterback — one thing won’t be: that patented triple-option offense.

“They keep rolling offensively,” Irish head coach Kelly said Tuesday. “They lose their starting quarterback; Will Worth comes in and picks up where they left off. You think they lose Keenan Reynolds and there’s going to be a dropoff, but the production has been unbelievable.”

The Midshipmen (5-2, 4-1 American), under the guidance of head coach Ken Niumatalolo, are once again off to a strong start in 2016, sitting atop their conference’s West division on the strength of a key 46-40 win over then-No. 6 Houston on Oct. 8. Worth leads the Midshipmen in both rushing yards and touchdowns, but the offense works thanks to its versatility, Kelly said.

“Well, I would say, more than anything else, when it comes to defending Navy, they strike on such a broad front,” Kelly said. “In other words, you can’t take away a particular play. I think there was some thought, take away the fullback. Well, they don’t care if you take away the fullback. That’s okay. They’ll run, toss, sweep 47 times.”

If the Midshipmen go to the “dive” play, they’ll hand off to junior fullback Chris High; if they toss or sweep, senior slotbacks Toneo Gulley and Dishan Romine will see more of the ball. The nature of the triple option means it has to be defended differently from traditional formations, Kelly said.

“It never becomes a math equation, where in a lot of the football that’s played, you can get an extra hat to a particular run play and outnumber them — you can’t do it against this offense,” Kelly said. “So don’t try. If you try to outnumber the dive or try to outnumber the quarterback in a particular defensive structure, they’ve got answers.

“That’s really the answer to how you defend this, is that you can’t have all the answers.”

Over the past decade, the Irish have struggled with the Midshipmen and their unique attack — the 2007 game, Navy’s first win in 44 tries, was followed by two more Midshipmen wins in 2009 and 2010. In 2013 and 2014, Navy averaged 36.5 points per game in a pair of high-scoring losses. However, last year, the Irish defense found something that worked against both Georgia Tech and Navy’s triple-option attacks. Kelly said that while the unit will draw on last year’s scheme, it won’t be the same exact tactic used a season ago.

“I will say that there are some differences, in terms of fronts and coverages, that we may play compared to what we did last year, but by and large, guys are asked to play some different roles,” Kelly said. “I think we’ve got a pretty good sense of, at this point, the kind of system of defense we want to play against Navy. I think we found a system that we feel is effective. There’s no system that is going to cover everything.”

The different scheme means Notre Dame will be looking for more out of its safety unit this week — specifically sophomore Nicco Fertitta and freshman Jalen Elliott.

“For example, we’re going to have to ask more from Nicco Fertitta this week,” he said. “This is a week he’ll have to be more involved. Jalen Elliott will have to be more involved. So our safety position will be, certainly from a depth standpoint, called on to contribute more this week.”

Like last year, a special scout team will help the Irish try to prepare for Navy’s attack.

“Yeah, the flag team, they’re up and running,” Kelly said. “We started with them taking option about two weeks before the bye week, and they began in the first period of our practices just to get them sharp so this wouldn’t be the first time they were touching the football.”

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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