The Irish gave up 39 points to Navy on Saturday, but how bad was it? Should we consider this a defensive failure? It all depends on how you look at it.
Personally, I wasn't too upset by the defense's performance. They gave up points but the offense failed to put Navy away when they had a chance. But they didn't do much to stop Navy's 24 point run in the second and third quarters. So read on and decide for yourself.
Notre Dame came out in a 4-4 defensive formation with a free safety playing centerfield. Sheldon Day and Justin Utupo are the defensive ends with Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones inside. Joe "Former Walk-On" Schmidt and Greer Martini are the inside linebackers. Jaylon Smith and Drue Tranquill are the outside linebackers. That's two freshman and two sophomores in the front seven.
VanGorder chose to use the middle linebackers to take away the dive while the defensive ends forced the pitch from the quarterback. The outside linebackers covered the pitch with the free safety coming down for support.
The stunt between the linebacker and defensive end is a fairly common tactic against the option. The quarterback either starts reading the linebacker instead of the end or does an "area read" where he just reads the area around the B-back. VanGorder likely wanted to give the young linebackers (Martini especially) easy assignments and wanted to get Sheldon Day on the edge where his quickness can be an important asset.
Unfortunately, Navy threw a wrench into this plan by running midline to start the game. If Navy had run veer, they probably would have needed to double-team Jarron Jones or Isaac Rochell. Instead they just optioned them off and let the guards and tackles block linebackers or the free safety.
Here's an example. Navy is going to run midline, optioning off Jones (#1) on the dive and Day (#2) on the pitch. Jones, who was probably caught off guard by being let unblocked, doesn't cover the dive.
With Jones and Day taken care of on the option, the guard moves up to block Schmidt. The tackle was probably supposed to block Redfield, but Redfield stayed in the middle of the field so the tackle blocked Schmidt as well.
Schmidt, who should be taking away the dive, gets swallowed up by blockers. The B-back simply runs behind his blockers and picks up an easy ten yards.
On Navy's next drive, Notre Dame switched to a 3-5 defense. With Jones lined up over the center, Navy could no longer run the midline. It's not a good idea to try and option off a 0-tech that's right in front of the QB.
Instead of midline, Navy runs veer. The extra linebacker in the box messes with Navy's blocking scheme and frees up a defender on the edge,
This time, the defensive end takes the dive. The first outside linebacker (red arrow) takes the quarterback. The outermost outside linebacker (blue arrow) takes the pitch. The middle linebacker and free safety play centerfield and run to the ball.
The defensive end and linebacker still stunted quite a bit but it doesn't change the basic mechanics of the defense.
Here's the new defense in action. Andrew Trumbetti is the first read and he takes away the dive.
Martini comes down and forces a quick pitch. This is a nice play because the early pitch causes the A-back to catch the ball deep in the backfield.
Tranquill and Shumate are there to cover the pitch against one Navy defender.
Tranquill does a nice job getting off his block and he and Shumate drop the A-back for a loss.
This new defense must have messed with Navy's blocking rules because the offensive tackle didn't block anyone.
He ran right past Shumate and wandered downfield. There was no one past Shumate.
Navy responded by splitting an A-back out into the slot.
This took a linebacker out with him but ND did not shift the other four linebackers. This took away the defense's numbers advantage. Navy also always split out the A-back to the field side, which is the side Jaylon Smith played. This formation had the added benefit of taking Smith out of the equation.
Navy runs veer again. Here you can see the DE/LB stunt in action. Schmidt takes the dive while Day takes the QB. Smith can't help on the QB or pitch because he has to follow the A-back in case of playaction.
By the time Reynolds pitches the ball, Smith (circled) is ten yards downfield and Shumate is blocked by the tackle (who didn't wander off this time).
This leaves all kinds of room on the edge for the A-back.
Navy also put both A-backs on the side to give them an even more favorable advantage on the weak side.
Jaylon (circled) is covering the A-back in the slot again. Tranquill should be lined up by the star, but he had to move to the other side of the formation to cover the A-back still lined up in the flexbone.
Navy runs veer to the boundary side and there's no one to take the pitch again.
After Joe Schmidt left the game with a leg injury, Navy went to an unbalanced line, likely to see how ND would handle a new formation with their "defensive quarterback" out of the game.
James Onwualu shifts down to the strong side of the line to account for the extra blocker. Cole Luke is also on the line, but he needs to cover the wide receiver lined up at tackle, who is an eligible receiver in this formation.
Navy runs veer again. Luke (yellow arrow) has to chase the receiver so he's out of the play. That leaves Tranquill (red arrow) to take the QB and pitch himself with an A-back leading the way to block. Shumate can't get to the edge fast enough and Nyles Morgan is swallowed by blockers.
Tranquill chooses to take the pitch. It's up to Martini and Shumate to track down Reynolds.
Notre Dame did a nice job of stopping Navy after giving up the touchdown on the opening drive. A couple players made some nice plays, like the one Tranquill made getting off his block in the second play I highlighted. But those types of individual efforts were missing when Navy started scoring.
But VanGorder did began to counter Navy's counters.
In order to get Smith back into the game, VanGorder put him on the boundary side of the defense when Navy went to their split-A formation.
This is the 4th down stop. Smith is the outside linebacker closest to the sideline. Navy will run a toss to the B-back.
Smith and Rochell do a nice job shedding their blocks. This play is dead already.
Rochell, Smith, and Martini make the stop and Irish get the ball back. This is the type of play that was missing earlier in the game - someone fighting off a block and making a play. But with Navy scheming Smith out of the game with the A-back split out into the slot, it took away one of Notre Dame's best defensive weapons.
Speaking of big plays, here's the play before Utupo's interception.
Navy has the A-back in the slot once again and runs a speed option to the field side.
Kelly said after the game that they only had one defensive call once Schmidt left the game. With Nyles Morgan getting his first extending playing time, Kelly and VanGorder had to keep things simple. Morgan's assignment seemed to be "hit the quarterback."
Morgan finds a hole, explodes through it, and level Reynolds. Maybe it's the number 5 but he looked a little like Te'o on that play, huh?
Of course that aggressiveness comes at a price.
Here's Navy in the redzone in their unbalanced formation.
Reynolds fakes a weakside toss to the A-back. Morgan turns his back and takes off in that direction.
But wait - the B-back slips out into the flat and is wide open. Easy TD.
I'm not blaming Morgan for the TD - he was trying to chase the ball which was his only job. But when you have a true freshman in that position this kind of breakdown will happen.
So the game might have been frustrating and 39 points is a lot to give up, but was it really that bad? Notre Dame allowed the third fewest rushing yards (336) and third fewest yards per carry (5.60) by a Navy opponent this season. Both numbers were less than what Ohio State gave up (370 yards at 5.87 per carry). Of course, 5.60 yards per carry is almost an entire yard more than what ND gave up last year (4.73).
But the Irish also forced a turnover, got a 4th down stop, and forced several punts. The defense did what they needed to do early in the game to let the offense close the door.
We also saw a willingness to try different things on defense and make adjustments. In my preview I stressed the importance of keeping things simple, but I thought BVG did a good job of mixing things up. The defense got some stops at the beginning and the end of the game but the 24 point run let Navy back in the game.
I thought VanGorder did fine in his first game against the option in 12 years. Take away Golson's ill-timed interception and this is probably a much different game.