SOUTH BEND — Stopping Navy’s triple option requires more than one standout defender.
A player like former Notre Dame linebacker Greer Martini, who recorded 44 tackles in four games against the Midshipmen during his Irish career (2014-17), can certainly help limit a triple-option attack. But in order to stop a rushing offense leading the country with 357.9 yards per game, the entire Notre Dame defense will have to be assignment correct on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (2:30 p.m. on NBC).
“It’s going to be a collective deal for us,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “We’re going to have to play really well in all facets. The fullback, they’ve got depth at that position. They’ve got two very good fullbacks.
“But it requires all 11 players. If you’re not attentive to all areas, you’re going to have some problems. So it’s not really just one player. You have to have great effort from all of those players.”
AP No. 21 Navy (7-1) has outpaced the entire FBS in rushing yardage per game by a wide margin. Air Force is the only other team to average more than 300 rushing yards per game. The Falcons are 34.8 yards per game behind Navy.
Navy’s rushing attack starts with quarterback Malcolm Perry. The senior quarterback, who played slotback most of last season, has averaged 130.3 rushing yards per game — good for fifth nationally. Perry rushed 12 times for 133 yards for Navy in last year’s 44-22 loss to Notre Dame while playing slotback.
Kelly joked Monday that he’d prefer if Perry still played slotback. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound quarterback makes Navy’s triple-option dangerous.
“He’s precise, very secure with the football,” Kelly said. “He’s a point guard distributing, making really good decisions. Very difficult to defend.”
Though Navy managed to rush for 292 yards against the Irish last season, Notre Dame’s defense limited the Midshipmen to 70 rushing yards and zero points in the first half. That allowed Notre Dame to build a 27-0 halftime lead and take control of the game in a down season for a Navy team that finished 3-10.
The Midshipmen have been consistently potent on offense this season. Only two opponents have held Navy to fewer than 300 rushing yards in a game: Memphis and Air Force.
The AP No. 16 Irish (7-2) didn’t wait until this week to start preparing to limit Navy’s triple option. Kelly said they recruited walk-on players in recent years with skill sets that can be used to build a triple-option replica on the scout team. Drill work in the spring and summer helps keep Notre Dame sharp against the triple option too.
“The hardest thing is playing to the speed of what you’re going to get,” Kelly said. “So how do you develop that with a group that is not as efficient in running that at the highest level? We think we’ve come up with some things that allow us to play fast enough that we can duplicate that model when we step on the field.”
Senior wide receiver Javon McKinley has become a fixture in Notre Dame’s offense. But increased playing time this season hasn’t resulted in consistent production in the passing game.
The 6-2, 220-pound McKinley has recorded 11 catches for 268 yards and four touchdowns this season, but seven of those catches, 189 of those receiving yards and three of those touchdowns came in blowout victories against inferior opponents New Mexico and Bowling Green. And McKinley’s two catches for 42 yards and one touchdown against Michigan came late in the fourth quarter of the lopsided loss.
McKinley did not record a catch in Saturday’s 38-7 win over Duke. One pass thrown his way by quarterback Ian Book was intercepted when cornerback Josh Blackwell broke up the pass, which ricocheted off McKinley’s helmet and into the hands of safety Michael Carter II.
McKinley has shown merit as a blocker for the Irish. He helped create room for Ian Book’s game-winning touchdown against Virginia Tech, and he made a key block to spring running back Jahmir Smith’s 40-yard run against Duke in the first quarter.
“Anything we can get from him this year is a bonus,” Kelly said of McKinley, who caught his first career pass in the season opener this year. “Certainly we would like him to continue to grow and step up into a guy that we can get some more plays out of, but he did some good things for us.
“He was really physical in the run game. Opened up some big runs for us on Saturday. I’m not here to wave the flag for every guy that plays for us, but he did some really good things. He did some dirty work for us that doesn’t get a lot of recognition.
“He has to continue to grow, but this is his first year playing. Yeah, we would like to see him make some more plays. He would like it as well. He’s on that track.”
The season-ending leg injury to defensive end Julian Okwara left Notre Dame’s coaching staff to ponder if activating freshman defensive end Isaiah Foskey for the rest of the season would be a potential solution at a position down two contributors in Okwara and Daelin Hayes.
Foskey already has played in three games this season, which means he can play in only one more game to receive a redshirt. Kelly said Foskey’s fourth game of action probably won’t be this weekend.
But is preserving a fifth year of eligibility for someone as talented as Foskey, a four-star recruit out of Concord (Calif.) De La Salle, worth the worry?
“Generally speaking there is not a fifth year for most of these guys,” Kelly said. “But that doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to just throw a guy out there and take that year away.”
“So I still think it’s a decision that we want to be — we want to take their best interests. For me, it’s difficult to just throw a kid in there for a fifth game and not consider the possibility for a redshirt, even though the probability is they’re not going to have that.
“So it’s just my way of doing business, just my business plan. Others may do it differently. That’s just the way I’ve erred towards doing it.”
Notre Dame currently has four scholarship players on the roster in their fifth season with the program: linebacker Asmar Bilal, cornerback Shaun Crawford, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland and wide receiver Chris Finke, who joined the program as a walk-on. Those players were part of a freshman class that included 23 scholarship players in 2015.
• Senior defensive end Jamir Jones will replace Okwara in the starting lineup at weakside defensive end. But the rotation on Notre Dame’s defensive line requires its depth to be used.
Kelly said fellow senior defensive end Adetokunbo Ogudeji, who typically plays as the No. 2 strongside defensive end behind Khalid Kareem, will also be used as a weakside defensive end. Sophomore Ovie Oghoufo will work into the rotation as well, Kelly said.
• Sophomore Houston Griffith hasn’t received much playing time since moving from cornerback to safety earlier this season. That’s in large part due to the success of Notre Dame’s starting safeties, Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman, and freshman Kyle Hamilton making an immediate impact.
Griffith broke up a pass on fourth-and-3 when inserted in the fourth quarter of the Duke game. He’s in line to play against Navy too.
“We really like what we see from him in practice,” Kelly said. “He’s got a chance to step on the field and make a nice play on (fourth) down for us.
“This is a week where you’ll see a little bit more of him. The safeties are really stressed in this offense. You can’t just get by on two. We tried to do that last year. We got up on Navy, but we got a little tired at the safety position playing two.”
• With junior running back Jafar Armstrong recording nearly as many catches (two) as carries (three) against Duke, his role in Notre Dame’s offense remains nebulous.
“We like his ability to catch the football,” Kelly said. “Obviously he has that role right now as both a running back and a guy that we can put in as a receiver, but I still think he’s a guy that has a dual capability for us. As we go through the year, kind of trying to identify where he fits and helps our football team the best.”
• Kelly expects senior running back Tony Jones Jr., who rushed seven times for 14 yards and caught two passes for 12 yards in his return to the lineup from a rib injury against Duke, to look more like himself this week.
“He was kind of getting back to where he was,” Kelly said. “He wasn’t certainly the Tony Jones that we saw running against USC. I think you’re going to see a guy that’s going to be back to 100 percent this weekend.”