Notre Dame’s trip to Death Valley was a whirlwind beyond the gusting winds and torrential rainfall courtesy of Hurricane Joaquin. The Fighting Irish barely had time to tighten their shoelaces before finding themselves in a 14-0 deficit as the Clemson Tigers bullied their way to 9 yards per offensive snap and a lead they would never relinquish. Head coach Brian Kelly’s team came roaring back in the fourth quarter and nearly spoiled Clemson’s home celebration but fell just short on a two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds remaining. Notre Dame’s late rally was impressive, but the Irish’s lethargy within the first seven minutes of the game ultimately doomed a chance for a road win. If Notre Dame intends to defeat Navy, it’s critical to establish the quick start that was lacking against Clemson.
“I’m not disappointed in our guys, I’m disappointed that they didn’t take advantage of the opportunity that they had this weekend, and that was to beat a team on the road in a tough place to play and overcome the elements,” Kelly said after Notre Dame fell 24-22 to Clemson. “You know, you don’t want to repeat that and I hope that they never forget that.”
A quick start against Navy could pose a challenge given its status as a “trap game.” Coming off an emotional loss and playing against an opponent with – at least on paper – less talent is a risky proposition given the natural tendency to let one’s guard down, particularly when that opponent boasts a 4-0 record and executes an antiquated offensive scheme to perfection. That offense, a triple option attack, is one that has plagued Notre Dame in recent years.
The triple option was worrisome enough for Brian Kelly to assign former assistant coach Bob Elliot the offseason task of thoroughly researching the scheme – its strengths, weaknesses, and how best to stop it. Elliot became a shadowy figure looming over the practice field the past several months, with Notre Dame dedicating an allotment of practice time each week to the triple option. The extra preparation was in anticipation for Notre Dame’s showdown against Paul Johnson – the former Navy head coach who snapped Notre Dame’s 43-game winning streak against the Midshipmen – and his Georgia Tech squad.
The strategy worked, as Notre Dame stuffed Georgia Tech’s offense and quarterback Justin Thomas, who many expected to have a Heisman coming out party against the Irish defense. The Yellow Jackets came to South Bend with what many believed to be an unstoppable offense, averaging 67 points per game. Since being dismantled by Notre Dame, Georgia Tech, a preseason favorite to win the ACC, has lost two conference games in a row to Duke and North Carolina. Yet it’s a misnomer to believe Notre Dame cracked the triple option riddle and that Navy poses no threat.
The athleticism of Georgia Tech when running the triple option – as well as Notre Dame’s status as an underdog – forced Kelly’s team to dial in and focus. Navy, whose recruiting cannot match the level of an upper-echelon ACC program, lacks the athleticism of a Georgia Tech, and with Notre Dame’s players trying to recover from a painful loss on the road the previous week, the likelihood of a letdown rises. And a letdown against the Midshipmen could spell disaster.
What Navy lacks in Power Five conference talent it makes up for in brutally efficient execution of the triple option. The Midshipmen are currently undefeated, soundly dispatching new conference mates East Carolina and UConn. They average nearly 340 yards on the ground per game – ranking third nationally – and are putting up 38 points on the scoreboard each week. Navy’s potent offense is complemented by a defensive unit that has been surprisingly stout this season, ranking No. 13 in the nation in scoring defense and surrendering only 15 points per game. What makes Navy a true threat to Notre Dame, however, is at the triple option’s most important position: quarterback.
Keenan Reynolds is the best quarterback to don a jersey for the Naval Academy since Roger Staubach, and he is a master of the triple option. Since becoming the first true freshman to start at quarterback for Navy in over twenty years, Keenan Reynolds – now a senior – has gone on to a historic career, and is currently five touchdowns shy of breaking Montee Ball’s record for most career rushing touchdowns in NCAA history. And In four games this season, Reynolds has rushed for 9 touchdowns – three more than starting Notre Dame running back, C.J. Prosise – and 488 yards at nearly 6 yards per carry.
Brian Kelly pulled aside team captains after Notre Dame’s loss to Clemson and informed them they let an opportunity slip away after failing to get off to a quick start. Navy will prove to be a perfect test to see if that message was taken to heart.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.