Triple-option offense set to test Irish defense
Marek Mazurek | Friday, November 17, 2017
When Notre Dame’s defense watches film of opposing teams, it sees a lot of different looks from week to week. But this week, Notre Dame won’t see spread offense or read-option looks that have become commonplace in college football.
Instead, Notre Dame (8-2) will see the same offense it’s seen for much of its last 91 meetings with Navy (6-3, 4-3 AAC) — the triple option.
“First of all, it’s about getting back to our traits, and you have to have an incredible attention to detail when you play Navy and their offense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “I think everybody knows quite well how prolific they are and how difficult they are to stop. They do things offensively that teams each and every week struggle to defend.”
While Navy’s offensive system is generally a known-quantity, who will quarterback that offense on Saturday is up in the air.
Navy started the year with junior Zach Abey as the signal caller, and he has over 700 rushing yards on the season. But Abey injured his shoulder during the fourth quarter of Navy’s contest with Temple two weeks ago, and so Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo had sophomore slotback Malcolm Perry play the quarterback position versus SMU last week.
Perry ran wild for 282 yards and four touchdowns, but he twisted his ankle toward the end of the game.
“Malcolm for his first start, he played phenomenal,” Niumatalolo said during Monday’s teleconference. “He wasn’t perfect, didn’t get everything right, but provided the spark we were looking for. … he’s the best ball carrier in all my years of being here.”
Should Perry and Abey both be unavailable, junior Garret Lewis — who led the Midshipmen to a game-winning field goal drive against SMU — would be Navy’s next best option. On Monday, Niumatalolo said the team has to wait and see the extent of Perry’s ankle injury as to whether or not he can start versus Notre Dame.
“There’s clearly a little bit of difference in terms of who they are with their quarterback situation,” Kelly said. “So just looking at their numbers, Zach right now is their leading rusher, and if you go by just looking at that, you’d say, all right, how do you defend him? He’s difficult in itself, but Malcolm Perry runs for over 200, and they rush for 556. So you’ve got two quarterbacks of different style, but one’s the leading rusher that didn’t play last week because he’s banged up, and then Malcolm Perry comes in and rushes for over 200.
“So, obviously, you have to be able to play the triple option. You still have to be able to play both of them out, and that’s what makes them very difficult to defend.”
Whoever starts at quarterback will be asked to carry the ball a lot. Navy is the nation’s leading rushing offense, averaging just under 370 yards on the ground each game. Navy is also one of only five teams with more rushing yards per game than Notre Dame.
But for the Irish, Navy’s total yardage may not pose as much of a problem as its time of possession. Last season, Navy defeated Notre Dame 28-27 and controlled the ball for 33:53, and wound down the final 7:29 off the clock in the fourth quarter with the game in the balance. The Irish only managed six offensive possessions and scored on five of them, but still fell short.
“Offensively, we have to be able to score,” Kelly said. “Last year, obviously, we scored, but we didn’t score touchdowns. You have to score touchdowns. You have to finish off your drives. You have to be extremely efficient, and that’s what their offense forces you to do is to be extremely efficient on offense.”
The way to get more chances with the ball, Kelly said, is to play better defense.
“Get off the field defensively, right? It starts there,” Kelly said. “So each year you look at what you’re doing defensively, and we’ve been much better on third down, much better taking the football away. We’ve got to get back to playing that kind of defense where we’re much more aggressive. We’re defeating individual blocks and making plays on third down to get off the field. We need more than six possessions. Six possessions is not going to do it. It’s too razor thin.”
With six wins, Navy has reached bowl eligibility for the 14th time in the last 15 seasons, but the season had a chance to be truly special for the Midshipmen. Navy started the year with five straight wins, but lost three weeks in a row, before a close win over SMU last week.
But no matter Navy’s record, Niumatalolo’s squad has given the Irish fits in recent years. Notre Dame beat Navy in each game from 1964-2006. Since a Midshipmen win in triple-overtime in 2007, however, Navy has won the matchup in 2009, 2010 and 2016. Even in Notre Dame’s wins in 2009 and 2010, Navy put up 36.5 points a game.
One recent addition that should help the Irish slow down the triple option is defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Kelly said one of the things he looked for in a new defensive coordinator was the ability to coach against the triple option.
“His background is that he’s had to stop option teams before, Georgia Southern,” Kelly said of Elko. “He’s been in the option system. That was something that we vetted out in the interviewing process. So very comfortable with what we’ll be doing in terms of — this isn’t a defensive coordinator that’s coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”
But while Elko has experience against triple-option teams, Navy’s offense falls into its own category in terms of giving different looks, Kelly said.
“They have so many different formations, so many different looks,” Kelly said of the Navy offense. “They made a change obviously at the quarterback position, you know, after the Temple game. They had a bye week, and they made a change there, and that made a huge difference to their running game.
“Clearly, they are always looking to make some adjustments, and you have to be prepared for every look for the last 10 years. They did some things against us two years ago that we hadn’t seen in six, seven years. So you have to be able to adjust and sometimes adjust on the fly.”