After the debacle in the Meadowlands against Navy in 2010, Bob Diaco revamped his approach to the option and Notre Dame hasn't really been challenged since. Notre Dame's average margin of victory over the academies is 33 points while allowing an average of 15 points. It sounds like Notre Dame has solved the option offense.
Saturday's game was more of the same as Notre Dame won comfortably over Air Force. But the Irish gave up quite a few yards on the ground. Luckily, Notre Dame's days of playing down to the service academies are behind us as the Irish used their superior athleticism to torch the Falcons in the passing game.
But why were we wringing our hands in the first half? And wasn't there someone to cover the @#!? pitch?
Something that makes the option such a unique offense - and so hard to defend - is how subtle changes in alignment and blocking can make a huge difference. Air Force came prepared to stop Notre Dame's brand of option defense and consistently outflanked the Irish on their option plays. We'll look at a couple plays that illustrate this.
The Falcons ran very few triple option plays - maybe three or four total - but they ran the speed option quite a bit.
Here's Air Force lined up in the flexbone with both wide receivers to the right.
The Falcons are basically conceding the passing game. The inside receiver lined up near the offensive line is not an eligible receiver. The purpose of this formation is to get an extra blocker to one side.
Notre Dame's defense against the option the last two years focused on stringing the play to sideline and letting Manti Te'o clean the play up. He was fantastic at diagnosing plays, getting off blocks, and making the tackle. Te'o is gone, but Air Force counted on the Irish doing something similar, and they were correct.
Here is how the play was blocked:
That extra wide receiver will go up and block Carlo Calabrese, playing the middle linebacker position. Normally, the playside A-back would block Jaylon Smith and the B-back would block Eilar Hardy, but Smith ends up taking himself out of the play, which we'll get to in a second. The A-back ends up blocking Hardy at the safety position and the B-back blocks no one.
An added wrinkle to this play is the way it preys on the defense's desire to stop the veer. Here's a shot of this play from behind:
The offensive line wants to seal off the defensive line, but with Romeo Okwara lined up as 4-tech, that's a very difficult block for the tackle. So instead of blocking him, the tackle blocks down on the defensive tackle, leaving Okwara unblocked. Okwara was probably coached all week to crash hard inside to stop the fullback when unblocked. So when the tackle didn't block him initially, his first move was to the inside. But the guard pulled around and threw a cut block before he could recover.
Here's Okwara's first step on this play:
His first step was to his left, making the block from the guard very easy.
Back to the option. Bennett Jackson ends up being the optioned player on this play.
Here's where Jaylon Smith's freshman-ness came out. Instead of coming down to help on the running play, Smith actually follows the A-back. I'm not sure why he does this, unless he's afraid of a pass for some reason. Either way, the A-back just ignores him and goes up to block Hardy, essentially blocking two players at once.
Smith is way out of position and Romine picks up seven easy yards.
Watch the play below. Watch Jaylon, but also watch how the B-back has no one to block.
(If the video isn't working, link is HERE)
Here's another speed option, but this time the Falcons run to the weak side.
This alignment is similar to the last play, but instead of two wide receivers, Air Force has two tight ends to the right. Once again, the tight end is not an eligible receiver.
Like the last play, the guard will pull around and cuts Ishaq Williams. The playside A-back is responsible for the middle linebacker, and the B-back takes the safety. Dan Fox is the optioned player. Every Notre Dame defender to the side of the play is accounted for.
Ishaq and Carlo are cut-blocked and the Irish have only two defenders left. One will be optioned off and the other will be blocked by the B-back.
Romine pitches and Air Force picks up eight yards.
The scheme Air Force used on Saturday effectively nullified Notre Dame's option defense. Diaco had the defensive ends crash hard inside to take away the dive play and then string the play out with the outside linebackers and safeties until the middle linebacker could make a play. The trap on the defensive end with the pulling guard took advantage of the aggressive play of the ends. The extra wide receiver gave Air Force a blocker to account for the middle linebacker on every play while letting the offensive line focus on sealing off the edge. In addition, by moving both wide receivers to the same side, it also let Air Force attack the weak side by taking away a defender.
Notre Dame also made some mental mistakes that cost them.
This is Air Force's second play of the game and first in their "wide receiver over" formation. You can see Bennett Jackson talking to Notre Dame sideline, asking them what to do. Before he can shift, Air Force snaps the ball.
The Falcons run the rocket toss to the strong side. With Bennett Jackson on the wrong side of the field, Notre Dame simply doesn't have enough defenders to stop the play.
The offensive tackle goes outside and ends up blocking the middle linebacker, leaving the guard to take Prince Shembo. Shembo actually does a nice job of recognizing the play and getting outside.
But Shembo can't get to the running back before he gets the edge. The Falcons pick up nine yards.
Besides any mental mistakes, Notre Dame just didn't do a good job of getting off of blocks. Here's the fourth down play from Air Force's first drive.
This is the same defensive formation we saw on the other plays. The Falcons run the rocket toss again, this time to the weak side.
Notre Dame has defenders to this side and they have a pretty good shot at stopping this play. But Ishaq Williams and Dan Fox simply do not get off their blocks and Carlo Calabrese just isn't fast enough to get to the play in time
Air Force seals them off and picks up the first down. Fox actually almost makes a great play here, but he's already on the ground by the time the running back is past him.
So what adjustments did Notre Dame make? Honestly, Notre Dame's best defense was their offense. Between the barrage of touchdowns Tommy Rees rained down on the Air Force defense and the two turnovers by the offense, Air Force dug themselves a hole they couldn't get out of.
But Bob Diaco did make a few adjustments that helped the Irish pitch a shutout in the second half.
Here, the Irish have only three down linemen instead of four. Romeo Okwara is standing up in the Cat linebacker spot instead of lined up as a defensive end. This puts Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox together in the middle. What makes this play successful, though, is the play of the corner and safety.
Instead of just playing the wide receiver, Diaco has the corner play aggressively on the edge against the run. The safety has to roll over and cover the receiver in case of a pass.
KeiVarae Russell lets the receiver run by so he can help on the pitch.
The quarterback makes the pitch, but Russell is right there to drop him for a loss of two yards.
When the Irish did go to a four-man line, Calabrese started following the tail motion. This let him get a better angle on the play and make him harder to block. This makes him susceptible to counters, but Air Force only ran one or two counters all game, so Diaco probably wasn't worried about that.
I won't break down the play, but watch Carlo in the video. He doesn't make the play, but look at where he's positioned at the end versus all of the other plays we've looked at.
So what does this mean for the game against Navy? It wouldn't surprise me if the Midshipmen employed a similar strategy, so the defense needs to learn from this game. What the Irish really need is better defensive line play. No one on the line made any significant plays against Air Force. After getting burned on the speed option so many times, it might be a good idea if the defensive end took the quarterback instead of the dive. That will give the defense an extra player on the edge. It would then fall on the linebackers to stop the dive, which would probably work better than just getting them blocked on every play. It would also bring the interior linemen back into the game if Navy ran veer. Stephon Tuitt was taken completely out of the game because every play was on the edge. By taking away the edge and forcing plays inside, Navy would have run right into the teeth of the Notre Dame defense.
But none of that will really matter if the Irish hang 45 points on the scoreboard again.