SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame’s seen it before. The Irish know what’s coming. That’s not the question.
The question is if the No. 6 Irish can stop it.
It’s no secret Navy runs the triple option and is going to run on almost every single offensive play. The challenge for head coach Brian Kelly when the teams play Saturday at 8 p.m. on CBS is figuring out how to stop it.
“I think the most important thing is it’s not whether you’re athletic or strong or physical,” Kelly said, “it’s whether you can be 1/11 of that unit and do your job, and get off blocks and make plays and make tackles. That’s why this offense is a great equalizer as it relates to size, speed and strength.
“So we have to be extremely disciplined. We have to run and make plays and make tackles and get off blocks. If we do that, we’ll be successful. If not, it won’t matter if we’re more flexible or more athletic than our opponent.”
Navy (4-4) enters the game with more than 2,800 rushing yards and just 733 passing yards on the season.
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the leading rusher for the Midshipmen with 147 carries for 639 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Last year, when Notre Dame (6-1) needed a late fourth quarter touchdown to get past Navy 38-34, Reynolds rushed 22 times for just 53 yards, but scored three touchdowns on the ground and passed for another through the air.
“I think it starts with an unselfish quarterback whose understanding of the system is superseding any of his individual stats and accolades,” Kelly said of what makes Reynolds successful. “That is number one. Number two is an outstanding depth athlete, and the ability to throw the football. He’s not one dimensional where you’d say, okay, we’re just going to line up extra guys on the line of scrimmage because we know we can’t throw the football. He’s an accomplished thrower of the football. He can spin it on you and he can hurt you. So I think that’s the second piece of that. And then the third is that he’s extremely elusive. He’s put together pretty well.”
But Reynolds is far from the only athlete on the Navy roster, and Kelly said that’s what makes the team dangerous.
Noah Copeland has rushed for 602 yards on the season, averaging more than eight per carry. Chris Swain has rushed for 455 and averages 6.8 per carry.
Both players line up in the backfield with Reynolds and are the primary options on the triple option.
“When you have skilled players like Reynolds and Copeland and Swain, the fullbacks who have been there, it seems, for a long time, and complementary players at the slot and wide receiver position, that option is very difficult to defend,” Kelly said, “and seeing that all year in terms of what they do offensively, coupled with the fact that they know their system and they executed it extremely, extremely well.”
One of the keys to Navy’s triple option is the blocking, especially on the perimeter. The Midshipmen utilize the cut block, where the offensive player dives at the knees of the defensive player to try to take him out of the play.
Many teams complain about the play, but Kelly said he won’t let his team do that this weekend.
“As it relates to the cut blocks, stop being crybabies, and go play the game,” he said. “I don’t want to hear about cut blocks. Get in your stance, get off the ball and play the game. I don’t want to hear about it. It’s part of the game, and they’re legal, and you’ve got to get off the ball and go play. I told our guys this is a no cry zone this week. I don’t want to hear about it. Go play big games and go play the game the right way.”
Defensively, Navy gives up 27.6 points per game. Kelly said the Midshipmen will try to stop the Irish from getting big plays, something that has been a key ingredient to the Notre Dame offense this season.
“Defensively, Buddy Green does a very good job of forcing you to use up clock and take time to move the ball,” Kelly said. “They’re not going to give up big plays. They obviously work well together. Their systems work well together. Offensively they hold on to the football, and then defensively, you know they do a good job not giving up big plays.”
Who: No. 6 Notre Dame (6-1) vs. Navy (4-4)
Where: FedEx Field (home of NFL's Washington Redskins) in Landover, Maryland
When: Saturday at 8:07 p.m.
TV: CBS (WSBT Ch. 22)
Radio: 96.1 FM, 101.5 FM, 960 AM, SiriusXM Ch. 129