Notebook: Notre Dame's Mike Elko has history of success against triple-option offenses

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As both convincing and complete Mike Elko’s résumé looked to Brian Kelly at first glance, experience and success with triple-option football was a must.

“That was something that we vetted out in the interviewing process,” Kelly, Notre Dame’s eighth-year head coach said Tuesday. “So (I’m) very comfortable with what we'll be doing. This isn't a defensive coordinator that's coming in inexperienced in terms of stopping the option.”

It will be ND first-year defensive coordinator Elko’s first crack, though, at defending Navy, sort of the champagne of triple-option attacks during the decade coach Ken Niumatalolo has been leading the Mids. Kickoff on Senior Day for AP No. 9 Notre Dame (8-2) and the special tribute game to Irish coaching legend Knute Rockne is 3:30 p.m. EST (NBC-TV).

Added to the intrigue this time facing Navy (6-3), No. 1 nationally in rushing offense and coming off the fourth-most-prolific team rushing performance since 1948 (559 yards vs. SMU), is that the Irish coaches have no idea who will start at quarterback for the Mids:

Junior Zach Abey, the nation’s No. 5 leading rusher and a powerful runner; converted sophomore slotback Malcolm Perry, coming off a 282-yard, four-TD performance in a 43-40 win over SMU that happened to be his first career start at QB; or junior thrower Garret Lewis, who averages a modest 2.9 yards per carry and who has more pass attempts (18) then rushing attempts (16) this season.

The health of both Abey (missed SMU with a shoulder injury) and Perry (sprained ankle late in the SMU game) figures strongly into the equation.

Elko’s experience against triple-option football is intermittent throughout his coaching career, but in his eight seasons of coaching at the FBS level, his only exposure to it has been against Army while leading Wake Forest’s defense (2014-16).

The Demon Deacons didn’t have a crossover game with ACC Coastal member Georgia Tech, a triple-option team, during Elko’s three seasons with Wake.

In the three seasons in which Elko faced Army, the most points Wake’s defense gave up was 21. The Deacons beat the Black Knights 24-21 in 2014 and 17-14 in 2015, and lost 21-13 last season.

In each succeeding game, Elko’s defenses got progressively better against Army, relative to the rest of its schedule.

In 2014, the Black Knights rushed for 341 yards, roughly 150 above their average. In 2015, Army ran for 186, 58 yards below its average. In 2016, the Black Knights amassed 238 yards, which was 101 yards below their average.

In each of the games, Elko’s defense coaxed at least two turnovers.

And turnovers have been a huge issue for Navy this season, giving a whole new meaning to the term “turnover chain.”

After ranking in the top 12 nationally in fewest turnovers-lost six times and in Niumatalolo’s first nine seasons at Navy and twice finishing first in the past four seasons, the Mids rank 83rd this season in turnovers-lost and 115th in turnover margin.

Over the past five years, Navy is 28-2 (.933) when winning the turnover battle, but the Mids have won the turnover battle just once this season, finishing plus-2 in a win over Air Force.

Expect some defensive personnel shuffling on Notre Dame’s part, including a prominent role for senior linebacker Greer Martini. In five career starts against triple-options teams, the 6-foot-4, 236-pounder has averaged 9.2 tackles. That includes 11 in the 28-27 loss to the Mids last season at Jacksonville, Fla.

Cornerback Julian Love could be shifted to safety, as he was in last year’s victory over Army.

CFP rankings drop

Predictably the Irish fell from their No. 3 perch of the past two week to No. 8 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, which leaves them a virtual lock for a New Year’s Six bowl berth if the Irish can beat Navy Saturday and win at Stanford on Nov. 25.

The new top 4 this week are 1. Alabama (10-0), 2. Clemson (9-1), 3. Miami (9-0) and 4. Oklahoma (9-1).

Among the four New Year’s Six Bowls that aren’t hosting a playoff semifinal, the Dec. 29 Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, and the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl In Miami Gardens, Fla., are the most likely landing spot.

“Clearly, the most important thing for our guys right now is to get back on the winning ways,” Kelly said. “They can count. They know how important it is to win games. And they know if they win football games, good things will happen down the road.”

When asked how difficult pushing toward those goals might be with the national buzz washed away by Saturday’s 41-8 loss at Miami, Kelly bristled.

“It's not what we're about,” he said. “I think I was coach of the year two weeks ago, and then there's We don't live in that world.

“We coach our players, on a day-to-day basis, to the mission of our university and to the mission of our football program, and that is to graduate all of our players and play for a National Championship.

“So every day we're working on the traits to develop our players. Miami played really well. We didn't play to our level. We're back at it this week.

“And we'll get back at it this week, and we'll play hard for Notre Dame. And that's really what we invest ourselves with on a day-to-day basis. We can't get caught up in anything else. So that is left up for other people to judge.”

Personnel matters

Starting running back Josh Adams has exited games early each of the past two weeks because of injuries, but Kelly said Tuesday the nation’s 10th-leading rusher wasn’t limited by any lingering ailments this week.

Same goes for fellow junior running back Dexter Williams, who has been battling ankle and quad injuries since late in ND’s 38-18 win at Michigan State on Sept. 23.

“Knock on wood, this looks to be the best week that we've had with them in terms of the medical report,” Kelly said. “We're hopeful that all of the backs are in a better position than they have been at any time this year.”

Senior moments

Kelly said a total of 26 players will be honored on Senior Day, though only seven players on the Irish roster have expiring eligibility.

Those players are linebackers Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan, offensive tackles Mike McGlinchey, offensive guard Hunter Bivin, wide receiver Cam Smith, tight end Durham Smythe and defensive end Andrew Trumbetti.

For the 91st meeting between ND and Navy on Saturday, the Irish players will wear special Rockne heritage uniforms, helmets and cleats.

Rockne himself faced the Mids in each of his final four seasons as ND’s head coach, winning 19-6 in 1927, 7-0 in 1928, 14-7 in 1929 and 26-2 in 1930 — the latter game the dedication game for the brand new Notre Dame Stadium.

It’s a snap

Long snapper Mike Vinson, a preferred walk-on from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill., verbally committed to Notre Dame on Tuesday. He is listed at 6-2, 225.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko looks out onto the field during a lightning warning before the Notre Dame-Wake Forest, Nov. 4 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)