SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame poured time and resources into figuring out how to stop the triple option. It was a major undertaking in the offseason, and it’s one that netted the Irish two wins against the antiquated-yet-effective offense that terrorized them over the last few years. The efforts were successful, and Notre Dame doesn’t have to think about stopping the triple option until next November.
“Thank God,” coach Brian Kelly smiled.
Notre Dame beat Navy, 41-24, Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame Stadium in what was another “program win” for a team without any margin for error going forward. Scout team — er, “Swag Team” — quarterback Rob Regan, a Hinsdale South alum, earned the game ball for his work mimicking in practice Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, whose five touchdowns away from breaking Montee Ball’s Division I record for most rushing scores. A couple of in-game adjustments to get Matthias Farley in at safety and Jarrett Grace in at linebacker keyed a strong second half for the Irish, in which Brian VanGorder’s group limited the Mids to 79 rushing yards and three points.
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C.J. Prosise ripped off 129 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns, while DeShone Kizer completed 22 of 30 passes for 281 yards. The special teams unit forced a critical fumble on a kick return to open the second half, and Justin Yoon connected on a 52-yard field goal to end the first half.
“It takes every facet of the game to overcome an opponent like Navy, because they’re going to attack you non-stop,” Grace said. “… It’s a different type of feeling, whereas if you’re relying on your offense or your defense to get the win. But I think that (complete effort) was needed for today.”
Notre Dame didn’t play mistake free-football, but it made far fewer mistakes than a Navy side that had three turnovers and never found a way to slow Notre Dame’s offense. Mids coach Ken Niumatalolo said he realized in his first in-person look at Kizer that the 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback was “bigger than our linebackers,” which underscored the size and talent advantages possessed by Notre Dame on both sides of the ball.
But even with the advantage of recruiting blue-chip high schoolers without the height and weight restrictions under which Navy operates, Notre Dame learned over the last few years how important a complete effort is against Navy. It took Jaylon Smith’s last-ditch stop on fourth down for the Irish to eke out a four-point win in 2013; in 2014, Notre Dame needed a few late offensive plays to pull away for a 10-point victory.
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Those narrow wins are why Notre Dame moved Bob Elliott from an on-field coaching role to an analyst position, giving him the primary task of studying how to stop the triple option. It’s why Kelly feels Regan, who according to Rivals.com didn’t hold an FBS or FCS scholarship offer, is so integral to the program’s success (he certainly will be next year when Notre Dame plays Navy and Army in back-to-back weeks).
A 17-point win over Navy and an eight-point win over Georgia Tech — a game in which the final scoreline didn’t indicate how well Notre Dame played — are significant markers for a program that finally believes it has the right system in place to succeed against the triple option every year.
“I think there's always things that we can work on to get better but I think we have established something that I wanted to establish, and that is a base way of playing the option teams and something that we can carry with us and something that can be repeat able that we can work on in the spring and keep our guys familiar with our system as we defend option,” Kelly said. “I think that that's what we — we wanted to win both games, that was first and foremost, and in whatever fashion, if we won by one and that would have been fine with me. And then have a system in place that's repeatable and that we can come back to each and every year.”
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Of all the successes of Kelly’s six-year tenure in South Bend, these efforts to formulate a consistent plan to play against the triple option rank among his best. Georgia Tech and Navy are two teams Notre Dame should’ve beat this year, but without the right strategy, are games it easily could’ve lost.
“It’s a tremendous job by our whole program,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “The scout team, everybody does a really good job when it comes to the triple option, they do a great job. It’s a program win, just like Georgia Tech was.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Rochell added, “and we’re happy to be done with it.”