Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Dry Docked | by Jay

Try, for a moment, to block out the last three minutes of the Navy game. (We'll get to it, I promise.) What you're left with is an outstanding effort by the defense against a tough Navy option attack: 178 yards rushing given up, total.

And as nice as that sounds, I don't think I appreciated just how good this performance was until I placed it in some kind of historical context. Remember, this is a Navy team that ranked thusly in national rushing in the Paul Johnson Era (counting this year as part of that era, as coach Niumatalolo, a longtime protege of Johnson's, is still running the Johnson offense): 2nd, 1st, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st, and 3rd, and averaging well north of 300 yards rushing per game over that period. While it might have been tempting to blame Navy's lack of punch on the absence of the injured Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, the truth is he's only played 4 games this year, and has had only 34 carries. He hasn't been an integral part of Navy's offense, which despite his absence was still second in the country in rushing.

One hundred seventy-eight yards given up is downright miserly, and almost without precedent. For starters, It's easily the lowest output notched by Navy against a Notre Dame team since Johnson's been there.

ND vs Navy in the Paul Johnson Era
            USNA rushes yds     avg    3rd Conv-%
2008 W, 27-21 45 178 3.96 1 of 13 8%
2007 L, 46-44 66 257 3.89 9 of 16 56%
2006 W, 38-14 56 271 4.84 5 of 12 42%
2005 W, 42-21 58 239 4.12 9 of 14 64%
2004 W, 27-9 61 216 3.54 8 of 15 53%
2003 W, 27-24 53 238 4.49 3 of 12 25%
2002 W, 30-23 56 216 3.86 3 of 16 19%
(And if you take out the one scoring drive against the Irish second-stringers, it's even better: 43-150).

Yet beyond being a Notre Dame record, this was also the fourth-lowest rushing output Navy has ever put up since 2002 against any team. The last time they had such a low total was in a game against Rutgers in 2006, when Navy's leading rusher, quarterback Brian Hampton, got hurt early in the game. The other two happened way back in Johnson's first year.

So, why was Navy stymied?

Well, for one thing, you'll notice the Middies were held to just 45 rushing attempts, an ND series-low. This also happens to be the 4th-lowest rushing attempts by Navy in the Paul Johnson era.

Okay, but why so few carries?

Navy converted just 1 of 13 on third downs. Over the past three years, the Middies have converted close to 50% on third down, so the Irish did a great job of bottling them up and getting off the field.

And why was that?

Pat usually covers this in Statistically Speaking, but it's worth highlighting here: simply put, we absolutely stuffed them on first down, and forced much longer second- and third-downs than what they're used to. Navy usually slashes for an eye-popping 6.35 yards per rush on first down. Against Notre Dame? Just over 3 and a half yards. Fantastic.

So...why? Or rather...how?

Discipline. We had a solid scheme, it was coached well, and it was adhered to by the players. There was no over-pursuit; our guys kept their eyes on the ball, and didn't get sucked in by the misdirection. Most importantly, everybody played his responsibility: middle men plugged the middle, corners covered the pitch, and linebackers and safeties smacked the quarterback when he turned it upfield.

Robert Blanton's shed and tackle-for-loss to open the game set the tone for the rest of the day. See for yourself.