After struggling with Air Force’s triple-option attack early in the game, Notre Dame’s defense adjusted and pitched a second-half shutout en route to a 45-10 victory last weekend in Colorado Springs. The offense, meanwhile, had no trouble dissecting the Falcons’ defense through the air.
Extrapolating from last week’s game and applying it to an option-based attack for the second straight week, one could conclude that the Irish shouldn’t have much trouble the second time through against a similar approach.
Not so fast, my friends.
Navy 2013 is a much better product than Air Force 2013, and it starts with a complete mastery of triple-option football.
“Navy runs the triple-option better than anybody in the country,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “It’s what they do, and they have so many variations off of it, little variations that make a huge difference -- splits, the preciseness of how they run it - it may not to the untrained eye look like much. But it’s a real big difference.”
Navy defeated Indiana, 41-35, in the season-opener, lost to an up-and-coming Western Kentucky program (19-7), overwhelmed Air Force in the second half (28-10), lost in double-overtime to Toledo (45-44), and is coming off a last-second 24-21 victory over Pittsburgh for its 21st victory over a BCS-conference opponent since 2003.
Kelly and the Irish are prepared for a close contest against Navy because, for one, the Midshipmen are more battle-tested. Whereas Air Force plays just one BCS school this season - Notre Dame - Navy plays four: Indiana from the Big Ten, Duke and Pittsburgh from the ACC, and the Irish. Ohio State, Maryland, South Carolina and Penn State are among the programs Navy has played in recent years.
Personnel-wise, the greatest difference between Air Force and Navy comes at quarterback and fullback, arguably the two most significant positions in the triple-option attack. Sophomore Keenan Reynolds, who enters the Notre Dame game as an established run-pass threat, spearheads the Navy attack while a trio of fullbacks - Chris Swain, Noah Copeland and Quinton Singleton - keeps the defense honest.
Contrary to last week, when Air Force went to its fourth starter at quarterback - freshman Nate Romine - Reynolds has spearheaded the Midshipmen since taking over for Trey Miller during the 2012 season. He currently is tied for second nationally in rushing touchdowns with 11 while leading Navy with 546 yards rushing and 667 yards (17.1 yards per completion) through the air.
When Navy is strong at quarterback - think Ricky Dobbs, who led Navy to back-to-back victories over Notre Dame in 2009-10 - they’re capable of knocking off the Irish.
“Reynolds is an outstanding quarterback who has really been a catalyst for their offense,” Kelly said. “He can throw the ball extremely well. If you’re sitting on just playing the triple-option, he can throw the ball effectively.”
Navy has always relied upon the fullback to loosen things up between the tackles. In fact, former Irish head coach Lou Holtz - who was a perfect 11-0 against the Midshipmen - insisted that taking the fullback away from the Navy offense was priority No. 1. The trio of Swain, Copeland (who was banged up last week against Pittsburgh) and Singleton are on pace to collectively rush for 1,060 yards in 2013.
“We were breaking down film the other day of (Navy) against Toledo,” Kelly said. “(The fullbacks) touched the ball a combined 40 times inside-out running the dive.”
Defensively, although the Mids have allowed the Irish to score at least 50 points in each of the last two games, they’re much more formidable than Air Force. Navy ranks in the upper half of FBS schools in scoring defense (24.6 ppg.) and total defense (392.3 ypg.). Although they’ve given up 187.9 yards rushing per game and 4.7 yards per carry, they’ve allowed just 11 touchdown passes in seven games. Navy is allowing just 9.9 yards per completion.
“What they do defensively is they don’t give up big plays,” Kelly said. “(Navy defensive coordinator Buddy) Green has been around a long time. Defensively, they’re fundamentally sound. I really like the way (linebackers D.J.) Sargenti and (Cody) Peterson play inside. They’re extremely athletic.
“Last week, we were able to get a lot of big plays because of the way the Academy played the game. They were looking for the opportunity to take the run away. In this instance, (Navy’s) playing the ball and keeping it in front of them, and they’ve done a great job all year.”
The longest pass play by a Navy opponent is 45 yards for a touchdown by Indiana. The second longest touchdown pass is 27 yards. The Irish had three touchdown passes of 30 yards or more last weekend against the Falcons.
“Coach (Ken) Niumatalolo does an incredible job of getting his team to play week-in, week-out, regardless of the competition,” Kelly said. “He plays a very difficult schedule, whether it’s Big Ten or the ACC.
“Each and every week, his team is prepared. They’re disciplined, as you would imagine, and they’ll provide us another great challenge this weekend.”