The Notre Dame Fighting Irish dominated Navy for over 50 years until in 2007, the Midshipmen snapped the longest losing streak in the NCAA. They did it with a coach calling the plays by the name of Paul Johnson, and they did it running an offense that specializes (but is not limited to) the triple option. Beginning in 2007, Navy has gone 3-2 against the Irish, and the Middies probably had more to do with Charlie Weis' departure than any other program. Brian Kelly, entering his third season as Notre Dame's head coach, has a 1-1 record against the Midshipmen. After decades as punching bags for Notre Dame, Navy has spent recent years doing this to Notre Dame.
In Kelly's first season as head man in South Bend, the Irish fell to the Midshipmen 35-17 in the Meadowlands. While the game was ostensibly a Navy home game, the Irish actually had the advantage as far as fans in the stands due to their incredible popularity in the north east. And instead of Paul Johnson, the man most associated with the flexbone offense, the Navy coach was Ken Niumatalolo, former Hawaii quarterback who played under Johnson when Paul was offensive coordinator there and coached under him until Paul left for the greener pastures of Georgia Tech.
Yet, despite the obvious talent advantage, a new coaching staff that actually believed in the concept of defense, a fan advantage, and the benefit of playing against a student of the system and not the originator of it, the Irish still fell prey to that flexbone (also referred to as "the spread option").
So how has Navy seemingly turned the tables against big bad Notre Dame? They've done it with an offense that combines the run and shoot and the wishbone triple option offense. The resulting system stresses a defense with outside run plays like the deadly rocket toss, inside runs like the midline iso, and both inside and out with the triple option. When the system is clicking, its a thing of beauty with defensive linemen left shaking their heads.
And unlike the old Nebraska I-bone attack or the Barry Switzer wishbone, you can't just load up eight defenders in the box with cover 3 deep, because the flexbone presents the ever present threat of four receivers lined up at the line releasing down field simultaneously, ready to make mincemeat of your sorry 3 deep secondary. Add playaction plays off that mimic the rocket toss and their option runs, and you have a decidedly un-fun day on your hands as a defensive coordinator
So if the flexbone triple option is such a fantastic offense, why don't more teams run it? The answer there likes with the oldest coaching adage of them all: It ain't the X's and O's, it's the Jimmies and Joes. It is difficult to convince the best offensive talent to come play in a system that will not prepare them for the NFL. That is why no major college program has signed on for the flexbone besides Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson's level of success for the Rambling Wreck will likely determine whether we see any other programs jump on with the offense, and the jury remains out on that one. But in Notre Dame's case, the flexbone attack the team has to defend is run by future naval officers, not future NFL players.
To narrow that down further, Navy's passing offense stinks. Unlike Georgia Tech, who have been able to terrorize defensive backfields with NFL caliber deep threats like Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Hill, Navy lacks that kind of deep threat. Compare 2011 Navy's passing stats to 2011 Georgia Tech, and remember that they are running the exact same offense. Navy's 7.6 yards per passing attempt would look fine for a conventional offense throwing it around 30-40 times a game, but for a team that throws exclusively deep throws, mostly off of play action, that number is pretty anemic.
So Navy's offense had to make it or break it exclusively on the run, and against Notre Dame last year, was overwhelmed by Notre Dame's significant advantage in the Jimmie and Joe department. Despite what some announcers will have you believe, you can't play assignment football against a flexbone team, but having faster and stronger linebackers and defensive linemen sure does make it easier to make plays even when the offense has schemed correctly.
And while Navy's offense sets out with the plan to make a defensive lineman's life a living hell, we're ultimately still talking about future Naval officers trying to block four and five star defensive linemen who could be playing on Sundays someday. All the cut blocks and double team blocks in the world can only do so much, some times. And so instead of Navy sending B-backs barreling straight into the secondary untouched for 20-40 yards, Notre Dame does this.
Navy has to be commended for the success it has had against Notre Dame in recent years. It has massive talent discrepancies to overcome just to keep a game close against a national recruiting powerhouse like Notre Dame. But with Brian Kelly in charge, the days of Charlie Weis' finesse defenses that seemed more worried about reading and reacting instead of attacking are over. Kelly has made a concerted effort to upgrade the talent on the defensive side of the ball, and it has paid off. Unless Navy can develop a passing attack that threatens Notre Dame's secondary, we here at Irish101 predict that the Dublin game will look a lot like the game in South Bend last year.
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