Beyond scheme shock, attrition an issue for Notre Dame when facing triple-option teams

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — For all the prodding the media did Tuesday in pressing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly about how to deal with college football’s version of a 12-to-6 curveball — the triple-option offense — the real mystery may involve the aftermath.

Or, more to the point, to concoct a more favorable one than in recent years.

Notre Dame’s 90th meeting with Navy (5-2), unfolds Saturday (11:30 a.m.; CBS-TV) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. — the 16th different site to host the nation’s longest continuous rivalry.

A Midshipman triple-option offense that returned just two starters and the second-most inexperienced offense line in the 128-team FBS (four combined starts coming into 2016) has hit its stride the past three games.

Navy averaged 510 yards and 44.3 points against Houston, Memphis and South Florida after laboring for 21 points against Tulane and 14 in a loss to Air Force in the two previous games.

For Notre Dame (3-5), it’s not just about dealing with an unorthodox offensive scheme that seemingly mitigates the equity its post-Brian VanGorder defense has been building the past four games, it’s about attrition. Especially when considering another triple-option, cut-blocking team in Army follows on Nov. 12 in San Antonio, Texas.

The last time the Irish played cut-blocking teams back to back — Air Force and Navy in 2013 — serious leg injuries sidelined four regulars that Kelly directly attributed to the cut-blocking technique (Kona Schwenke, Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day and Ben Councell).

A fifth defensive front-seven player, starting nose guard Louis Nix, sat out both of those games leading to speculation that his NFL future prompted him to want to avoid the cut blocks, legal blocks in which defensive linemen’s knees/legs are targeted.

"It's unfortunate," Kelly said of the cut block-injury connection back in 2013. "It's the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is."

In 2014, before an eventual Irish 49-39 victory over Navy in Landover, Md., in which linebacker Joe Schmidt was lost for the season with a leg injury, Kelly resorted to reverse psychology.

"Get in your stance, get off the ball and play the game,” Kelly said in the week leading up to that game. “I don't want to hear about it. It's part of the game, and they're legal, and you've got to get off the ball and go play.

"I told our guys this is a 'no cry zone' this week. I don't want to hear about it. Go play big games and go play the game the right way."

On Saturday, Kelly said he’ll throw numbers at the issue.

“I think we were at a point there where we weren't in a deep rotation of players,” Kelly said of 2013. “We were grinding it out with some of the front-line guys, and they were getting all the reps.

“We're going to go deep with a lot of players. I think that, that will probably be the biggest thing that we do, is play a lot of players up front.”

He’ll also lean on the SWAG team (Students with Attitude and Game), a group of scout-team players that work to simulate the option offense year-round to help prep the Irish defense, as well as special assistant to the head coach Bob Elliott.

“We did some studies from other programs that had success and just really wanted to see some thoughts that other programs had that had gone against Navy multiple times, not just one time,” Kelly said of Elliott’s ingoing role with regard to defending triple-option teams.

“So we kind of just wanted to visit some other schools that had gone against Navy and had a modicum of success. We kind of compiled all those thoughts and schemes, and then sat down and said, ‘All right, what makes sense with what we do?’ And then went to work from there.”

There’s also work to do toward developing a trend toward positive results post-Navy. Last year’s 41-31 victory over USC was just ND’s third win in the past nine seasons (3-6) in games that immediate followed Navy. And it was the first win in which that team finished the season with a winning record.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI