Thursday, November 02, 2006

Dwindling Options | by Pat

Anyone who watched the recent game against Navy saw an Irish defense that looked almost helpless against the Midshipmen option attack in the first half turn into a near brick wall in the second half. After letting up 217 yards rushing on 35 carries for an ugly 6.2 yards per carry, the D buckled down and held Navy to 70 yards rushing (not counting any sacks here) in the second half on 18 carries for a much better 3.8 yards per rush.

So what happened? What did the Irish do differently? And why didn't they do it earlier?

Well, there really wasn't one magic bullet as much as a cumulative effect of a number of things. At first, Ndukwe lined up alongside the other linebackers in the box but it was Zibby from his strong safety spot that appeared to have responsibility for the pitch man in the option attack. As Charlie mentioned in his pressers before and after the game, you can simulate the option all you want with your scout team, but nothing gets you ready for the game speed version. And that certainly looked to be the case early on. Ndukwe got stuck in no-man's land a few times between the QB and the pitch man and Zibby took a few bad angles getting to the ball carrier on the edge. That resulted in some big gains early, and when the Irish defenders tried to get a few early steps in order to avoid arriving late, Navy brilliantly worked in some misdirection to keep the chains moving.

Despite the early struggles against the run, the Irish D did manage to shut down the fullback option up the middle. Adam Ballard, used to averaging over 5 yards a carry, found his normal running lanes clogged with defensive linemen and linebackers. Keeping Ballard from bulldozing for his usual allotment of yards early in the game took away perhaps the biggest threat of the option attack and forced Navy to have to beat ND on the edges later in the game.

Coming out in the second half, ND moved Ndukwe and Travis Thomas on the other side up to the line of scrimmage to force an earlier decision by the Navy QB Kaipo on whether to pitch or keep. Not only that, but Ndukwe started to attack the pitch man first, as opposed to the QB. This "encouraged" Kaipo to continually keep the ball and turn up field where the Irish linebackers and corners were waiting for him. Notre Dame also lined up Terrail Lambert on the line of scrimmage next to the DTs on a few occasions as well (a couple of example snapshots here and here). By eliminating the middle in the first half and then taking away the extreme edge early in the 2nd half, the ND defense started to dictate some of the running room for the Midshipmen. This is pretty obvious from the drastic change in 1st down averages for the Midshipmen. In the first half, Navy had 19 first downs and averaged 7.6 yards per 1st down play. In the second half, Navy had only 9 first downs and averaged 1.1 yards per 1st down play. That is an amazing defensive improvement.

Of course, Navy coach Paul Johnson had some other options (so to speak) to counteract the Irish defensive adjustments, but by this time in the game the size advantage of the Irish players really started to compound and ND was able to physically overpower the Middies' line. Equally important was the efficiency of the Irish offense, which put Navy in a deep hole and forced them to switch to the team's weakness, the passing game, in order to try and win.

To get a better sense of all this, I highly recommend you check out the Navy game tape study provided by Not only do you get to see the better endzone and zoomed-out sideline angles that show you more of the play, but the video is sychronized with excerpts from Charlie's presser where he talks about the individual plays being shown. You also get to see all of the offensive highlights from different angles. Highly recommended viewing. Also, if you are a member of, there is an excellent article on the chess match between the Navy O and the Irish D by Chris Swezey. Check it out.

Other Navy notes...

• Quinn played a fantastic game against Navy. Sure, "against Navy". But still, Quinn was on target all day and also showed that he's quicker than some might think with his nifty 20 yard TD run. One of the best games of his career.

• Already having locked up the Most Improved Player award, Terrail Lambert continued to shine with some impressive hits on the Midshipmen in the game. It's easy to tell that he played linebacker in high school because he is excellent when it comes to hitting and wrapping up the ballcarrier. His week-by-week improvement in pass defense to go along with his tough run support is just great to watch.

• Although they obviously held the physical edge, the DL played very disciplined and looked great stuffing Ballard in the middle and sacking the Navy QB 4 times on only 11 Navy pass attempts. That's pretty impressive. Victor, Trevor, and Landri in particular were all over the field.

• It seems we now have a legit 3rd wide receiver. In the last two games David Grimes has come out of nowhere to total 151 yards and 1 TD on 11 catches. This after totaling 5 catches for 55 yards in the first 6 games.