SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame already faced, and succeeded against, a triple option offense this year. That 30-22 win over Georgia Tech is buoying some confidence inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex as Notre Dame transitions from facing Clemson’s spread to Navy’s triple option offense on Saturday.
At its core, Navy and Georgia Tech run similar triple option systems — which makes sense, since Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was Paul Johnson’s offensive coordinator from 2002-2007, after which Johnson left for Atlanta to take over the Yellow Jackets. The concepts of the offense are similar, whereas when Notre Dame played Navy and Air Force in 2013 and 2011 or Navy and Army in 2010, it faced two different triple option systems.
Plus, both Navy and Georgia Tech’s best offensive players are under center in Keenan Reynolds and Justin Thomas.
“These are a little bit more similar in the sense that they're both true triples, and the quarterbacks are very similar,” coach Brian Kelly said. “So the game-wreckers are both at the quarterback position. They necessarily weren't that at Air Force and at Army. They were at some different other positions.
“So this is the challenge that we face is the quarterback in both instances with Georgia Tech and Navy. But it's still assignment football in all cases. It's still having players that recognize and understand how important it is to play option football, and it's different than what they practice all the time.”
Navy is 4-0 and ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ F/+ rankings. A significant reason why Niumatalolo’s side has had more success than Johnson’s is Navy’s success on third down (53.85 percent, 4th among FBS teams), compared to Georgia Tech’s 35.48 percent third down conversion rate, which ranks 96th.
The Yellow Jackets converted only three of 15 third downs against Notre Dame Sept. 19 and had four three-and-outs. Georgia Tech only managed seven points until Notre Dame’s defense let up a bit with a 23-point lead, with the 15 points it scored in the final few minutes making the final score looking closer than it was.
Notre Dame’s win over Georgia Tech was the culmination of months of preparation and significant resources poured into stopping the triple option — Bob Elliott was moved from an on-field coaching role to an analyst position to help combat the antiquated-yet-effective style of offense — both in September and October.
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Where Navy and Georgia Tech split in terms of scheme is in their respective formations. Kelly said Navy’s different formations are “too many to count” and, last year, ran a few plays they hadn’t shown on film since 2009.
“They always have an answer for what you're doing,” linebacker Joe Schmidt said. “You have to be on top of your game and know what you're doing to defend, how you anticipate they're going to attack you.
“They've seen every possible way of defending the triple action that you can do. Everybody does something different against them. So that's what makes it a unique challenge.”
Navy put up 34 and 39 points and gave Notre Dame scares in 2013 and 2014. So while Notre Dame showed last month it can stuff a triple option offense, it also tipped its hand by giving Navy a full game of tape on its defensive scheme. What Reynolds & Co. see on Saturday won’t be a surprise, but if Notre Dame can execute defensively, it may not matter.
“There's certainly some things that we're going to have to tweak a little bit,” Kelly said. “But I can tell you that I'd much rather have already have played Georgia Tech and played an option offense than not have played any.”