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Leftovers & Links: Notre Dame, Clark Lea comfortable with option

Navy v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - NOVEMBER 16: Malcolm Perry #10 of the Navy Midshipmen pitches the ball to Tazh Maloy #25 while being hit by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 16, 2019 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

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Navy still had a chance at the start of Saturday’s second quarter. Notre Dame led 14-0, but the Midshipmen were near midfield and would receive the kickoff to start the second half. They could reasonably tie the game halfway through the third quarter.

Then a 3rd-and-13 resulted in Irish senior defensive end Khalid Kareem forcing his second fumble of the day, tapping it out of Navy senior quarterback Malcolm Perry’s hands as Perry desperately tried to make a play to convert the needed third down. Four snaps later Notre Dame scored and the route was on in full effect.

The stat sheet focuses on third-down conversions — the Midshipmen went 5-of-16 in the 52-20 loss — but the real work was done on the two snaps before Kareem’s reach. One Navy rush barely got back to the line of scrimmage; the next saw Perry tackled for a three-yard loss. The triple-option is not designed for 3rd-and-longs; rather, it specializes in turning 3rd-and-short into 4th-and-shorter.

Limiting the 3rd-and-short moments has allowed the Irish to halt the triple-option the last three years, since Clark Lea’s arrival, initially as linebackers coach under Mike Elko and the last two years as defensive coordinator.

“We’ve had a very disciplined approach to how we want to defend Navy,” head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “I would just say that we’ve put them in longer third-down situations, we have made it more difficult for them to convert. We’re physically a better defense.”

In this weekend’s first half, the Midshipmen went 3-of-9 on third and fourth downs, enjoying only one true 3rd-and-short. Lea’s scheme won the third downs before even getting to them. Sending junior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (above) after Perry forced the issue as often as not. Owusu-Koramoah was technically credited for a sack on the aforementioned second down. If not for him, that 3rd-and-13 may have been 3rd-and-4. All three of his tackles, with 1.5 sacks, came in the first half.

“We started pressuring more a little bit from the edges,” junior linebacker Drew White said after leading Notre Dame with 10 tackles. “Someone coming from the outside that was a quarterback player but was rushing, coming off the edge, causing havoc, not letting [Navy] dictate what we were in.”

That approach continued after the blowout allowed Owusu-Koramoah some rest. It was, in fact, his backup who had the defensive play of the day once the game reached blowout status. Sophomore Paul Moala was coming off the edge just as White described when he snatched the pitch out of the air.

The Irish held the Midshipmen to 9-of-21 on third and fourth downs Saturday, fitting that general trend line of the last three years:2017 — 12-of-242018 — 4-of-15

The latter of those numbers could be dismissed as a terrible Navy team, but this season’s Midshipmen are at least as good as last year’s were bad, and Lea’s defense held all the same.

Four different Irish backs took a total of 20 carries for 55 yards Saturday, hardly a strong showing. At this point in the season, the rushing attack is what it is: lackluster. Some of that traces to replacing a pair of three-year starters on the right side of the line, but only so much of it.

Kelly does not inherently dispute that, but he also sees beyond the initial stat line.

“I’m watching (sophomore) C’Bo Flemister really grow up and mature, and (senior) Tony Jones being a tough, hard-nosed guy for us,” Kelly said before noting sophomore Jahmir Smith and junior Jafar Armstrong have been bothered by injuries. “... I know everybody’s looking for that thousand-yard back, but we are going to be more of a committee and the one thing about them is that they all do the dirty jobs.”

Now tune in here, because what sounds like coach-speak is very much a truth.

“They’re going to pick up a blitzing ‘backer, they’re going to run interference on blocking areas. They do a lot of different jobs that some backs won’t do.”

On Notre Dame’s opening drive Saturday, a false start followed by a failed running play created a 2nd-and-18. Senior quarterback Ian Book bolted from the pocket and gained all of two yards. That brought up 3rd-and-16, when Book again failed to find a receiver. Scrambling on a 3rd-and-very long is generally ill-advised, and Book would have ended up five or six yards short of the first down if not for Jones.

That downfield block was the definition of dirty work. It led to a 4th-and-1 that Jones converted. Three plays later, the Irish were up 7-0.

Presuming the senior safety does indeed head to the NFL after this season, it should be noted he is 3-0 in the Notre Dame-Navy series. No other senior on either roster can claim that.

The Irish will be without sophomore linebacker Shayne Simon moving forward after he injured a patella tendon Saturday, per Kelly. Simon will miss spring practices but could be back in action by the fall.

Sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola sprained his ankle, making him day-to-day as of Monday.

Notre Dame’s air attack downs No. 23 Navy in 52-20 routThings We Learned: Book’s confidence carrying Notre Dame offense to new heights