For the second straight week, Notre Dame’s defense will take to the practice field Tuesday with its focus on shedding chop blocks and reaffirming triple option assignments.
Kona Schwenke and the rest of the Irish front seven got a feel for defending the triple option against Air Force.
The Irish welcome Navy to South Bend this weekend on the heels of a 45-10 win over fellow service academy Air Force in Colorado Springs Saturday. The military teams both lean on an option offense to mitigate their size disadvantage and throw opposing defenses a change-up. Playing them in consecutive games should give the Irish the benefit of a shorter adjustment period.
“It definitely takes that first long series just to get used to it just to get in rhythm and feel the tempo out,” said senior cornerback Bennett Jackson after the win at Air Force. “The scout team does a great job in practice, but it’s never really realistic. I think we got it after the first series.”
The Falcons spun Notre Dame’s defense in circles during its first look at the triple option in 14 months. Air Force ran the ball nine times on its way to a touchdown on its opening drive. Six of the nine attempts picked up at least eight yards on the ground, including a 21-yard run from Anthony Lacoste and a 10-yard score from Colton Hunstman on the following play.
The pitchman gashed the perimeter of the Irish defense on most of the Falcons’ long runs early in the game. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco adjusted, scrapping man-to-man coverage in the secondary and relying on two deep safeties to patrol the back end of the defense. That left the Irish cornerbacks near the line of scrimmage to help bottle Air Force’s third option.
“We got exposed because we didn’t have an edge on our defense,” cornerback KeiVarae Russell said. “The second half we played a lot of Cover 2, and if we did play man-to-man we had a safety that rolled back. We just basically added an edge in the second half and that really worked out for us.”
Russell made six tackles, including one in the backfield, and recovered a fumble to end Air Force’s last possession of the first half. Notre Dame’s cornerbacks as a group finished the day with a combined 22 stops, which was more than any other position.
They also provided help to freshman Jaylon Smith, who led the team with eight tackles and a fumble recovery of his own. Smith looked like an exposed rookie during Air Force’s first series, but settled in quickly with the added edge support from the secondary.
“We made some adjustments when they got the ball out on the perimeter and started to make some checks and got our corners involved. I think that was a nice adjustment that we made,” head coach Brian Kelly said.
The drawback to back-to-back games against the triple option is the potential toll it takes on the ankles and knees of the defense’s front seven. Defensive end Sheldon Day and outside linebacker Ishaq Williams both watched the second half of the Air Force game in sweatpants. Day needed attention on the same ankle that kept him out of the majority of October. Williams hurt his knee during the first quarter and did not return.
Kelly said William isn’t likely to play against Navy. Day is questionable, along with nose guard Louis Nix, who skipped the trip to Colorado because he was nursing sore knees. Kelly said before that game that stopping chop blocks is not Nix’s “cup of tea.”
“They don’t like it,” he said of his defensive linemen Sunday. “Clearly they'd rather have teams that don't go below the waist. I think they've become so much more aware of how to defend and take on those blocks that it's less of a concern. I wouldn't say it's the kind of teams they enjoy playing against, but I don't think they fear injury when they play option teams.”
The Irish have scheduled multiple academy teams in three of Kelly’s four seasons as head coach, but haven’t played them in consecutive weeks since 2007. That year the extra practice didn’t help. Notre Dame lost to Navy in overtime before giving up 41 points to Air Force the following week. Then again, there wasn’t much that went right for the 2007 Irish team that finished 3-9.
Kelly said this year’s convenient scheduling is more of a happy accident than a conscious effort to line up like opponents, but he hopes it will help the Irish defense avoid another slow start.