Notebook: How Notre Dame plans on curing the triple-option hangover

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The preventative medicine employed this time for Notre Dame’s susceptibility to a triple-option hangover was saving a few bye-week practice periods for defending something other than Navy’s curveball of an offense.

“I’m not too concerned about that,” Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday during his weekly press conference of the conversion back to normal football. “They know it’s a new challenge. They’ll put that behind them pretty quickly.”

Northwestern (5-3), winner of four straight games and sporting a two-game victory streak against Notre Dame, is just the kind of team to legitimately test that. The AP third-ranked Irish (8-0) on Saturday night visit Ryan Field in Evanston, Ill., for the first time since 1976.

Kickoff is 7:15 EDT, and ESPN has the telecast, with the broadcast team of Sean McDonough, Todd Blackledge and Holly Rowe.

The triple-option funk in the game immediately following a matchup with Navy, Air Force, Army, Georgia Tech or a two-game block from that group is real and spectacularly consistent.

The Irish are 5-6 under Kelly in such games, with the ND defense giving up an average of 35.7 points in the six losses. Of the five wins, only two came by more than seven points — UMass 62-27 and USC 41-31, both in 2015.

Only two of the 11 games post-triple-option matchups to date have come against ranked teams, and ND was the higher ranked team both times (vs. Arizona State in 2014 and Stanford in 2017). The Irish lost both, and by 24 and 18 points, respectively.

The Wildcats, alone in first place in the Big Ten West, are the first of four November opponents that are imbalanced toward the pass — all very un-Navy-like.

Northwestern is prolific (25th nationally in passing offense), but not necessarily efficient in its passing game. Senior Clayton Thorson has started 47 straight games, more than any other current FBS quarterback other than Washington’s Jake Browning.

His 9,620 career passing yards ranked eighth all-time in Big Ten history, but his 119.51 pass-efficiency rating this season — tamped down by 10 interceptions — ranks 96th among the 121 qualifying FBS QBS. and his 117.46 career rating is roughly two points lower than that of demoted Irish QB Brandon Wimbush.

From Notre Dame’s standpoint, its current No. 8 pass-efficiency defense ranking nationally, is two spots higher than the Irish have ever finished at season’s end in that category.

More good news on that front is that Kelly said ascending freshman cornerback TaRiq Bracy is back in the mix after being left in South Bend for the Navy trip due to a “coach’s decision.”

ND’s semi-regular November fades under Kelly is another haunting trend this Irish team will have to overcome, but the bottom line is Kelly’s best teams (2012, 2015) won games after playing triple-option teams, won big games on the road, and won in November.

And that’s where this team has a chance to distinguish itself, beginning Saturday night.

“They’ve got four weeks,” Kelly said, “So I think they feel like if we just stay committed to our process, if we stay humble, if we really work on our recovery, be prepared for the next guy to step in, then they’ll be fine.”

Tranquill update

At almost any other point in Drue Tranquill’s career, a demanding engineering undergraduate curriculum would have made ND’s starting buck linebacker’s prognosis for Saturday night far less optimistic.

As it stands, Kelly labeled Tranquill Tuesday as “questionable” for the Northwestern game, after ND’s second-leading tackler suffered a high ankle sprain in the first quarter of a 44-22 Irish romp over Navy in San Diego.

“He’s not ready to be a full-go practice player (Tuesday), but he’ll be out there. He’s not in a (protective) boot. He’s walking. He’s got a great situation obviously with being a graduate student, that he’s got a course load that he can handle and be in rehab, get the work necessary.

“Our physicians gave him an MRI just to rule out anything. That came back good, as well. It’s just a matter of time and how he heals. I would say that we’re definitely optimistic that we can get him back.”

Among those auditioning to be the understudy — or perhaps even the starter — Saturday night, per Kelly, are sophomores Jordan Genmark Heath and Drew White, and senior rover Asmar Bilal. The latter option would elevate freshman Shayne Simon to the starting rover position.

Personnel matters

• One of the players who is no longer trying to push up the linebacker depth chart is redshirting freshman Ovie Oghoufo.

Listed at 6-foot-3, 223 pounds to start the season, Oghoufo already has moved into his long-term track as a rush end.

“He’s up to about 230 pounds,” Kelly said. “He’s starting to look like a (junior) Julian Okwara in terms of his body and size, what we were hoping for. He really made an impact last week (in practice) in terms of his just physicality.”

• Senior tight end Alizé Mack left Saturday’s game after making back-to-back catches in the second quarter and didn’t return.

Kelly said Mack suffered a head injury and is in ND’s concussion protocol.

“He was feeling better (Tuesday),” the coach said of Mack, tied for third on the team in receptions (27) and fourth in receiving yards (250).

“We’ll take him through the steps — exertion will be the next stage for him. Then we’ll see where that goes.”

Sophomores Cole Kmet and Brock Wright and grad senior Nic Weishar would see increased roles if Mack is unable to go.

As a position group, the tight end corps has 43 receptions and is on pace for 70 in a 13-game season. The high-water mark in the 2000s is 66 in 2011.

Since Chip Long became ND’s offensive coordinator — and tight ends coach — the Irish tight ends went from 12 in 2016 before he arrived to 45 in 2017 to this season’s high pace.

• Freshman Bo Bauer, who plays mainly on special teams, didn’t finish the Navy game, either after getting the wind knocked out of him.

“Bo is a pretty high-energy guy,” Kelly said. “When he just, like, rolls over, you worry about him. He just couldn’t breathe. He got a compression injury. They were able to get his wind back right away. He’s fine.”

• Sophomore Aaron Banks is in line to get his second career start Saturday night after debuting in his home state of California against Navy.

“He was really solid,” Kelly said of the 6-6, 319-pound left guard. “Got his hands outside the framework of his body a couple of times. We’ll work on that. But he was physical. He moved his feet well. We were pleased with his first starting performance.”

Jalen Elliott (21), and the rest of the Notre Dame secondary, have the tough transition this week of moving past triple-option football and back to playing against a conventional offense.

Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) vs. Northwestern (5-3)

When: Saturday at 7:15 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Ryan Field; Evanston, Ill.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 9 1/2