No longer a given
43 straight for the Irish followed by an unlikely two of three won by the visiting Midshipmen.
Saturday’s Vegas-issued spread between the teams began at a mere six points (the Irish are favored by seven as of this column).
A third loss in four seasons would do to the 2010 campaign what the previous two did to the Charlie Weis regime. And Brian Kelly is well aware of that.
“(Notre Dame) lost a lot of games in the last couple of years. For us to think about any game as anything other than a great opportunity for a win is unrealistic,” Kelly said. “Our focus is to get a win against a team that really derailed their season last year. I know they all remember that. I don’t, I was doing something else. But my focus is strictly on this week.”
Kelly’s credo that the Irish are not good enough to ignore any opponent serves as a double-edged sword: respect is one thing…but believing you’re better than a team and unceremoniously putting them under is part of big-time college football.
Can the 2010 Irish attain that level of confidence and execution?
“We’re climbing up the mountain, in this climb, its one we haven’t done in a long time. We have not climbed to the very top,” Kelly admitted. “It’s not easy for us…we’re not experienced enough at winning so many games…the further you go up, it gets more treacherous, and that’s what happened last week in terms of how we played in the first half with the second half.
“I’m not too concerned that they think they’ve figured it out. They know they have to pay attention to detail if they’re going to win.”
Can a coach that wasn’t present for a painful loss use the past as motivation?
“I’ve relied more on the preparation: knowing your opponent, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses,” Kelly said. “If they carry (the pain from the loss) with them, that’s fine. That can’t hurt us. But I won’t be walking around with a hat: ‘Remember 2009’
“We’re going to find a way to stop the triple-option and put points on the board.”
First…we need success
Defensive players and coaches like to refer to “getting off the field” to 3rd down success as the key to their side of scrimmage.
When you play Navy or another effective triple-option attack, the key to 3rd down success generally starts two snaps prior.
“The measurement of success on first down is huge,” Kelly began. “They’re going to try to control the football by using all four downs. I’d say that’s a pretty important piece.”
Navy’s offense endured just one three-and-out possession vs. the Irish in last year’s upset win in South Bend.
In the wake of that sobering stat its relevant to note: Notre Dame has punted three times in the last five contests vs. the Midshipmen, each occurred in a 27-21 win. Charlie Weis’ offenses did not punt in the 2005, 2006, 2007, or 2009 matchups.
The Irish will and have always moved the ball vs. Navy. Converting yards into points remains the determining factor.
“Looking at last year’s game I think it was turnovers in the red zone that caught Notre Dame,” Kelly noted. “This is still about putting points on the board.
“Quick strikes are not what their defense is going to give up. They’re going to keep the ball in front of them. They’re very solid in their fundamentals so you have to earn it. What they’re saying is: go ahead and take 5-6 minutes to score; we’ll shorten the game and we’ll be fine with that.’
“So we have to be extremely efficient on offense.”
Coach Ken’s the household name
Kelly began his press conference with a friendly comment regarding the tricky pronunciation of Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s last name:
“Coach Ken, I’ll call him. I don’t want to mess up coach’s last name…has done a great job since taking over there.”
Niumatalolo’s name around the Irish coaching staff late last year rhymed with “Bud” but he was no friend of since deposed co-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, who took exception to the head coach’s post-game comments in a 23-21 victory over the Irish.
“First and foremost, I thought it was very disappointing what the Navy head coach said after the game…regarding how we prepared, and what we prepared to do,” Brown said last November.
“Because let me tell you this, we came out in the second half – minus one mess up – they don’t get anything…To say that we didn’t play well or to say that we didn’t have a good game plan is crazy. What I think is crazy, is the lack of imagination for what they do.”
Brown’s unsolicited comments the Wednesday following Navy loss No. 2 in Year No. 3 of his defensive tenure in South Bend were in reference to Niumatalolo’s post-game comments that seemed to indicate the Irish defensive staff wasn’t all that hard to figure out.
“I think the one thing that helped us, and I really hope this doesn't come across wrong, but I think the thing that helped us this year was last year, because we knew that they'd line up the same way.”
Necessary in victory? Probably not. Accurate? Let’s put it this way: I’ll see your lack of defensive adjustments and raise you 343 rushing yards to boot.
The 2010 matchup offers a new scheme, new staff and new approach. Kelly noted Sunday that his scout team has shown the triple-option offense for a portion of practice for approximately the last five weeks and at times during the spring. Adding that, “you can’t take two days to prepare for this offense.”
Moreover, the Irish rush D is in a better place, holding their last three opponents to an aggregate 152 rushing yards on 80 carries. Bob Diaco’s Base 50 (fans enjoy calling it the 3-4) is purportedly better suited to combat Navy’s triple-option attack.
“I think you could probably make the case (for either). We’ve defended in four-down and three-down (4-3 and 3-4),” Kelly said of the team’s chosen defensive method. “We will continue to blend and mix up. It still comes down to assignment football; getting off blocks, whether you’re 3-down or 4-down – provided that you start with the premise that you’re fundamentally sound.
“After that you’re still defending inside/out across the board.”
Kelly added that the key to keeping Navy’s production to a minimum is negating the big shot that the Midshipmen will inevitably take each week. “They try to lull you asleep and then throw one over your head,” he said. “It’s the discipline that we’ll need. Our eyes will have to be on our keys at the safety position.”
Navy QB Ricky Dobbs threw just three passes in last season's matchup between the teams: one was a 52-yard touchdown (Brown's aforementioned "one mess up") to extend the Midshipmen lead to 21-7 late in the 3rd Quarter.
Chances are the new defensive staff will recognize what the former did not: imagination is no match for attention to detail.