Notre Dame eyes on Georgia Tech's triple-option

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – If the eyes aren’t right, everything else tends to fall apart.

That’s the philosophy the Notre Dame football team applies to its defense: Limit eye violations and success is attainable.

The hocus pocus Georgia Tech triple-option offense will give a significant challenge to those Irish eyes Saturday. Whether those eyes will be smiling at the end of the day will depend on the way they deal with the deception.

Think back to last week’s escape from Virginia. Keeon Johnson’s 42-yard touchdown pass reception from Matt Johns was a perfect illustration of the fallout from an eye violation. As the ball was snapped, Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell peeked into the Cavalier backfield when his eyes should have been trained on his assignment, Johnson. Johnson blew by Russell and had lots of room to catch the pass and score.

And that was with a traditional offense. Throw in all the mumbo-jumbo that the Yellow Jackets use, and the consequences of a mistake can be quite severe.

“(There was a) lot of motion, lot of misdirection in the Virginia offense which caused our safeties to lose sight of their run-pass keys,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “We have a specific key that we have to be locked in on. We got lost in the misdirection and didn't pay attention to what our specific responsibility was. We were violating what our eyes should be on.”

And that was against an offense that was struggling for an identity. The Yellow Jackets know who they are. They are a ball-control symphony that can make beautiful music with its tightly-choreographed expression.

“Eye violations and not paying attention to your job and responsibility will get you into the same kind of problems (the Irish experienced last week),” Kelly said. “You have to be extremely disciplined. You have to be locked into your responsibilities. That's where, if there is a carryover, that has to get better. That certainly has to be something that we get better at in the back end of our defense.”

“(Defending the triple-option is) really an eyes and focus game,” said Irish safety Matthias Farley. “Each play you have to start from zero. You have your key, whoever it is, on that play or call, and you have to be locked into that. What they do affects what you do. If you don't react in the way or manner you should, then that messes somebody else up. And 11 guys have to do their job and just their job each and every play; and come back and reset, re-focus each and every play.”

With weapons like quarterback Justin Thomas (10 of 13 passing, 151 yards, 3 TDs; 73 yards, 2 TDs rushing), and fullbacks Marcus Marshall (221 yards, 14 carries, 2 TDs) and Patrick Skov (122, 23, 4), the Yellow Jackets have proven to be effective in their first two outings.

Notre Dame heads into this game having made quite an investment into it. The work started this summer. Veteran assistant coach Bob Elliott, who had been on the Irish defensive staff the last three seasons, is now a consultant. With this game, as well as Navy, in mind, he spent the summer analyzing the triple-option and different defensive approaches that have been used against it. He deciphered the way the Irish have handled it in the past, and tailored possibilities to fit the current personnel.

“What we were looking for were some common threads; some common threads in defending the triple-option, and what are they?” Kelly said of Elliott’s fact-finding mission. “Finding that commonality, more than anything else, and where are the areas that get you in trouble?

“Everybody's going to have within their own system a comfort level of, ‘This is what we do.’ Are we an outlier? If we are, where do we have to make those adjustments? (Elliott’s) research was really to go around and look at where are we in lockstep? Where are we similar, and where are we dissimilar? That's where most of the research was done so we could come with a common approach to where we wanted to go defensively.

“Dissimilar can be risky. There is a risk reward. Then finding out when those risks need to take place and when you're willing to do that.”

Kelly said last season Navy “formationed” linebacker Jaylon Smith out of several plays. Smith collected just six tackles in the 49-39 Irish victory.

To avoid that from happening Saturday, the Irish defensive alignment will have Smith in the middle of the field, though not quite free to roam.

“There’s no true way to really stop (offenses like Georgia Tech and Navy),” Smith said. “There’s a reason why they’re always No. 1 or 2 (in the country in rushing). You have to make sure you’re on your duty.

“(Having seen Navy often) helps having that experience. Your eyes are pretty comfortable (with the defensive keys). (Preparing for those offenses) is all about re-training your eyes.”

As a freshman in 2013, Smith made a game-saving tackle against Navy. The Irish led 38-34 with 1:08 to play. The Midshipmen had the ball at the Irish 31, fourth-and-four. Navy ran a reverse, and Smith was there to seal the victory.

“My job was to protect against the reverse,” Smith recalled. “I got there a little late on it, but I made the tackle.”

Discipline is a given against the many possibilities that could cause trouble for a defense. Through two games, the Yellow Jackets have scored 134 points and have rushed for 954 yards.

Stats that will certainly grab some attention.

“When you settle on what your plan is and how you're going to defend the triple-option, it goes to guys that have a good sense and a feel for what the plan is and how to defend it,” Kelly said about what he looks for in his players. “(The players must) have a discipline about themselves. They've got to be guys that clearly understand the job in front of them and recognize what's being asked of them.

“There clearly has to be some athleticism there as well, but by and large they've got to be able to pick up the schemes that we're trying to put together. If you're lost out there, you could be the greatest athlete in the world, and if it doesn't make sense to you, you could be a liability trying to defend the triple-option.”

“It's a bear every time. It's never easy,” Farley said of the attack. “Technically, you have to be sound, and your eyes have to be perfect every play. There's a lot of mental stuff that goes into it, but there's definitely a comfortability factor having gone through it before.”

A lot more than just defending the fullback dive, the quarterback pitch, or the quarterback run, goes into dealing with that breed of offense.

There’s always the cut (not to be confused with the chop) block. It’s a lineman’s nightmare. The technique of the cut block used in this offense is normally a dive at the ankles or knees, to take out the defender. It’s a legal play, but can lead to injuries. Last year, Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt – who harbors no ill will from the situation – went down with a broken ankle against Navy. The chop block, on the other hand, which is illegal, is when a defender is hit low and high by two blockers at the same time.

Notre Dame senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day said he has already spoken to freshman Jerry Tillery about what to expect from that blocking scheme.

The fact that, having played Navy every year, Notre Dame is no stranger to the triple-option, doesn’t exactly mean the Irish have the puzzle solved.

“Each and every year certainly helps you, but (Atlantic Coast Conference teams see) Georgia Tech each year, and that doesn't seem to help them very much,” Kelly said. “Their efficiency and execution is outstanding. Their quarterback is very difficult to defend. If a play breaks down, he certainly can make plays. They've had outstanding wide receivers on the perimeter and a veteran offensive line. So it's a formidable task, but again we're much more familiar with the option having played Navy compared to having never seen it before.”

Seeing is believing – when the eyes are right.

Notre Dame's Joe Schmidt (38) rushes Virginia quarterback Matt Johns (15) during the second half of the Fighting Irish's 34-27 win over Virginia Saturday, September 12, 2015 in Charlottesville. SBT Photo / BECKY MALEWITZ