by John Vannie
Notre Dame travels to the State of Texas once again this season, this time as the home team in a Shamrock Series game in San Antonio against Army. The Fighting Irish are coming off a disappointing one point loss to Navy, another triple option team featuring small sized players with big hearts. Army fits this same mold, although the 5-4 Black Knights rely more on defensive prowess than their arch rivals. Army does not quite execute the option offense with the speed and precision of the Midshipmen, but they are no less motivated. The game will be televised by NBC beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern time.
Jeff Monken is in his third year at the academy after a four year stint at Georgia Southern. He was also an assistant coach at Navy and Georgia Tech, where he learned the triple option from Paul Johnson. Monken was 6-18 in his first two seasons, but the 5-4 mark to date in 2016 indicates that he has the Knights on the right path. Meanwhile, the Irish have won only three of their last 11 games and are only 14-13 in their last 27 outings as Brian Kelly’s seventh season winds down.
While Army’s defense is ranked sixth in the nation in the overall statistics, Monken has no illusions about shutting down the Irish. Still, he praised his coordinator, Jay Bateman, on the job he has done. “Jay has done a great job everywhere he’s been. He’s got a great track record. He and our defensive staff are doing a really good job with the kids we’ve got in our program. That’s not taking anything away from our players, but we don’t have 15 parade All-Americans, we have 15 guys who marched in a parade.”
Notre Dame will wear special uniforms for this contest, as has been the case since this series was conceived. On the injury front, defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage remain question marks for the Irish. Army is bolstered by the return of talented backup quarterback Chris Carter, but has lost starting cornerback Marcus Hyatt to a knee injury. This setback is yet another negative in a series of losses at the position. Senior Steven Johnson was lost for the year in preseason, and Brandon Jackson, one of the team’s best players, was killed in a car accident on September 10.
NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. ARMY’S DEFENSE
Irish Coach Brian Kelly understands that Army will try to follow the Navy model by maintaining possession of the ball and limiting his scoring opportunities. Kelly’s remarks this week indicated that Notre Dame will attempt to move the ball downfield and score quickly, which likely means that DeShone Kizer will be throwing it early and often. After the unfortunate attrition the Black Knights have suffered in the secondary, their starting cornerbacks are now a pair of freshmen, Elijah Riley and Jaylon McClinton. These young men will have a difficult time matching up with Torii Hunter and Equanimeous St. Brown, especially if Army fails to generate a strong pass rush.
Something has to give as the Knights have surrendered only 166 passing yards per game this year while recording a dozen interceptions. The team has 16 sacks and has held opponents to a 36% conversion rate on third down. Army’s schedule has not been very formidable, however, and Air Force, another option team, may be the best opponent they have faced. The Knights did hold Duke to 44 passing yards in a 13-6 loss, which is significantly better than Notre Dame’s result.
The Army 3-4 alignment up front will try to overcome a size advantage. The three down linemen average 253 pounds, led by nose tackle Andrew McLean. The linebackers are the strength of the unit, with leading tacklers Jeremy Timpf and Andrew King joining Alex Aukerman, who leads the team in sacks. The Irish could run on this group if they choose to play power football, but that has not been their identity and mindset this season regardless of the opponent.
ARMY’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE
The Knights run a similar attack to the Midshipmen in that they rely primarily on the quarterback and fullback in almost equal proportion. They do throw the ball a bit more, but Ahmad Bradshaw is not an accomplished passer. Bradshaw and fullback Andy Davidson share the carries and have each rushed for more than 700 yards. The wingbacks are sophomores Jordan Asberry and Tyler Campbell, along with promising freshman Kell Walker.
Notre Dame did a good job last week defending the fullback dive, but the cornerbacks did a poor job of filling the lanes on the outside pitch play. The quarterback also ran effectively and broke off a 60-yard run in the second half. The absence of Jones and Cage in the middle of the defensive line could be problematic since the Irish must do a better job on first down if they are going to get off the field without giving up long drives. They did not force a punt last week.
The Army front line is solid in the middle with center Bryce Holland and on the left side with seniors Colby Enegren and Justin Gilbert. Freshman Mike Johnson and junior Brett Toth are on the right side. If Army is going to throw the ball, it’s possible that Carter will enter the game at quarterback. The receivers are Edgar and Christian Poe, along with Jeff Ejekham. These three have combined for 30 receptions on the season. Edgar Poe is the most dangerous with several long plays to his credit.
One positive for Army is the red zone conversion rate, where they have scored touchdowns 73% of the time.
Notre Dame will try once again to clean up its costly mistakes that have been so catastrophic during the past two weeks. Kicker Justin Yoon has been the lone bright spot, and the return game has regressed after a strong start to the season by C.J. Sanders.
The Black Knights have been very strong in coverage but have not generated much yardage on their returns. Two punters have below average statistics while a pair of place kickers have missed as many field goal attempts as they have made.
The Irish must have the fortitude to battle against another team that absolutely will not quit, and after last week must be convinced it has a chance to win. The biggest danger with a pass-heavy scheme against an academy is the quarterback does not have a hot hand and possessions are squandered without producing points. Notre Dame should never be in a position against an academy that it has to execute perfectly to win, but that’s what can happen if the game plan does not include brute force by linemen with a tremendous size advantage.
Here are a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:
Will the depleted middle of the Irish defensive line be able to shut down the inside run?
Can the young Army cornerbacks keep Notre Dame from passing them silly?
Will Notre Dame’s special teams finally make a positive contribution?
Can Kizer get into a passing rhythm and improve his accuracy?
Will Army match Navy’s success by avoiding turnovers?
Can the Poe brothers haul in any long passes against the Irish?
Will the Knights elect to gamble on critical fourth downs? Can they convert?
Can NBC manage its camera angles to avoid showing all of the empty seats?
Notre Dame is looking at its best chance to win another game this season, although bowl eligibility remains technically possible. One indicator of the effort will be the physicality of the team after getting pushed around by the smaller Midshipmen last week. The second consecutive week of defending the option should yield a marked improvement provided the Irish play with passion. Another low-energy performance will keep this game closer than it should be, but I can’t believe they’ll let it happen while wearing those cool uniforms.
NOTRE DAME 34 ARMY 19