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Notre Dame vs. Army: Keys to an Irish Win

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Notre Dame vs. Army: Keys to an Irish Win

The Irish head to New York City to take on historic foe Army this weekend. Notre Dame is coming of its biggest win of the season and first victory over a ranked opponent since 2006 while the Black Knights enter the game after a road win against Kent State.

The underlying storyline figures to be the matchup between the Irish defense and the Black Knights offense. The last time defensive coordinator Bob Diaco faced a triple-option attack the results were far from positive. Since then, however, the Irish defense has turned in arguably its best two performances of the season—Diaco’s unit surrendered only 13 points to Tulsa (11th ranked scoring offense), and then bested that effort by allowing only a field goal to Utah (15th ranked scoring offense).

Army is 6-4 against the 102nd toughest AVR strength of schedule with wins over Eastern Michigan, North Texas, Duke, Tulane, VMI, and the aforementioned Golden Flashes, and losses to Hawaii, Temple, Rutgers, and Air Force. Excluding the Falcons, Army’s losses have been by an average margin of 4.3 points, and none have been by more than a touchdown.

Army, Version 2010

Head coach Rich Ellerson is in his second season in West Point. Ellerson has nearly 30 years of college coaching experience including over 10 years of head coaching experience, primarily at the FCS level.

Last season Ellerson went 5-7, a two-win improvement over the prior year. The five wins were the most by an Army team since 1996 and the 6-4 record this year has secured the same honor for a second consecutive season.

Ellerson is nothing if not innovative. Offensively he is widely regarded as an option expert, and the Black Knights certainly run plenty of it. But his defensive experience is even more intriguing. Ellerson started his coaching career at Hawaii under Dick Tomey before reuniting with Tomey in the early 90’s as the defensive line coach at Arizona. While in Tuscon, Ellerson, Tomey and defensive coordinator Larry MacDuff developed the “Desert Swarm” double-eagle flex defense, an unconventional 3-4 alignment designed to confuse blockers and create exotic blitz packages.

Apart from the option-based offense and atypical defense, one of the primary reasons for Army’s success this season is turnovers. The Black Knights have only coughed up the ball 10 times (6th best in the country) and have forced 22 takeaways (19). Additionally, as is often the case with service academies, Ellerson’s troops rarely handicap themselves with penalties, averaging only 4.4 infractions (5) and under 45 penalties yards (21) per game.

Offense

Ian Shields serves as the offensive coordinator for Ellerson. Sheilds was with Ellerson at Cal Poly, is well-versed in the tripe-option, and also doubles as the quarterbacks coach.

The Black Knights offense is primarily a split-back veer attack that runs through a pair of sophomores—quarterback Trent Steelman and fullback Jared Hassin. The two are responsible for the majority of Army’s rushing production with 304 carries, 1,454 yards (4.8 yards per carry), and 20 touchdowns, and combine for about 145 rushing yards per game.

Last year the Black Knights struggled running effectively on the perimeter, but Hassin’s inside presence has helped this season. The sophomore fullback is certainly the first priority for the Irish defense, but slot backs Patrick Mealy, Malcolm Brown, and Brian Cobbs aren’t to be ignored. Sheilds likes to run plenty of jet sweeps and the trio have combined for 945 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, and are typically good for over 100 yards a game on the ground.

Upfront Army features a veteran and experienced offensive line. Anees Merzi, Zach Peterson, Seth Reed, and Jason Johnson lead the front five. All four are seniors, started at least 10 games in 2009, and have started at least nine games this season. Sophomore Frank Allen rounds out the unit which has combined for nearly 110 career starts.

The unquestionable (and obvious) strength of the Black Knights offense is running the ball. Army ranks in the top 10 in rushing attempts, yards, first downs, and touchdowns per game as well as yards per carry, and haven’t posted fewer than 230 rushing yards in any outing this season.

As one would expect of a strong rushing team, Army excels on third down and in the red zone. The Black Knights rank 18th in the country converting third downs at a 48 percent clip and score touchdowns on 77.2 percent of their red zone opportunities (5).

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Black Knights offense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Army’s 2010 opponents excluding VMI).

2010 Army Offensive Efficiency
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency48184171
4th down efficiency75644.444
Red zone appearances/game4.4293.662
Red zone efficiency91983.670
Red zone TD efficiency77.2563.673
2010 Army Total Offense
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game314127.664
Touchdowns/game3.9413.563
Plays/game68.45267.353
Yards/game354.677371.760
1st downs/game19.56619.154
Yards/play5.2815.564
2010 Army Rushing Offense
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game58.1138.575
Yards/game272.88162.168
Yards/attempt4.7364.266
Fumbles9751034
Attempts/fumble64.62744.240
TFL allowed/game495.480
1st downs/game14.788.664
Touchdowns/game3.351.975
2010 Army Passing Offense
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game10.312028.842
Completions/game5.711916.741
Yards/game81.8120209.656
Yards/attempt7.9327.367
Yards/completion14.4912.670
Interceptions11966
Attempts/interception10314365
Sacks allowed/game0.411.682
Attempts/sack allowed25.82819.778
1st downs/game4.21199.353
Touchdowns/game0.51201.554
Completion %55.3935853
Pass efficiency136.132130.967

Defense

The Black Knights defense is led by co-defensive coordinators Payam Saadat and Chris Smeland. Saadat came with Ellerson from Cal Poly and coaches the linebackers while Smeland works with the safeties and is familiar with the double-eagle scheme—he used it as the defensive coordinator at Utah State, Louisville and Michigan State.

As with all 3-4 defenses, the most important position unit is the linebackers, and Army’s corps is led by senior Stephen Anderson and junior Steven Erzinger. Anderson and Erzinger are active players with excellent pursuit abilities and are the top two tacklers on the team. Rounding out the unit is Jarrett Mackey and Chad Littlejohn who have combined for 62 stops.

Anderson and Erzinger may headline the linebacker position, but the leader of the defense is end Josh McNary. Last year McNary finished fourth in the country in sacks (12.5) and third in tackles for a loss (22.5), and his production this year hasn’t been much different. The senior currently ranks 43rd with 12 tackles for a loss and 11th with 9.5 sacks. McNary is joined up front by Mike Gann and Marcus Hilton who have combined for 51 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, and four sacks.

Donovan Travis and Donnie Dixon are the two best players in the secondary. The two have totaled 95 tackles, Dixon ranks fourth on the team with 5.5 tackles for a loss, and Travis has notched a team-high four interceptions and eight pass breakups. Josh Jackson, Richard King, and Jordan Trimble fill out the remaining spots in the backend of the defense.

Statistically, the defense grades out pretty well in several metrics including third down efficiency (38th ranked), yards (30) and first downs (26) per game, as well as multiple passing categories highlighted by yards per game (22), first downs per game (15), and completion percentage (25). But the Black Knights do struggle against the run allowing 140.4 rushing yards per game (45) at a clip of 4.3 yards per carry (72). As such, opponents’ preferred method of attacking Army’s defense has been running the ball.

See the tables below for an in-depth look at the 2010 Black Knights defense (the Opponent Average and Opponent Average Rank columns refer to Army’s 2010 opponents excluding VMI).

2010 Army Defensive Efficiency
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
3rd down efficiency37.23837.877
4th down efficiency52.96648.668
Red zone appearances/game2.8233.472
Red zone efficiency8910581.764
Red zone TD efficiency82.112056.275
2010 Army Total Defense
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Points/game24.45625.871
Touchdowns/game3.4653.271
Plays/game58.6367.464
Yards/game32930368.668
1st downs/game17.62619.169
Yards/play5.6715.568
2010 Army Rushing Defense
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game32.41437.758
Yards/game140.445156.269
Yards/attempt4.372469
Fumbles1212861
Attempts/fumble48.4614966
TFL/game5.4756.375
1st downs/game8.3648.667
Touchdowns/game1.6671.665
2010 Army Passing Defense
StatisticArmyArmy RankOpponent AverageOpponent Average Rank
Attempts/game26.21829.765
Completions/game14.51017.268
Yards/game188.622212.470
Yards/attempt7.2727.363
Yards/completion1310012.953
Interceptions1048952
Attempts/interception26.23833.966
Sacks/game2.2442.372
Attempts/sack11.92615.171
1st downs/game7.7159.172
Touchdowns/game1.7811.472
Completion %55.32557.178
Pass efficiency129.671128.768

Adding It All Up

The Black Knights offense applies pressure via all three facets of the triple-option, but Hassin is the cog that makes it work. The fullback is a workhorse and opens up the rest of the offense for Steelman and the slot backs. Army isn’t as precise in their execution as Navy, but if the defensive scheme isn’t better than it was against the Midshipmen, they won’t have to be.

Defensively, several areas appear solid, but the Black Knights have been the beneficiary of a ball control offense and weak competition. Army’s offense ranks third in time of possession (34:05), limits possession opportunities of their opponents, and minimizes the exposure of the defense (only 58.6 defensive snaps per game). Additionally, excluding Hawaii and Air Force, Army’s average opponent offensive rankings in scoring, yards per game, and yards per play are 83.9, 82.4 and 83.3 respectively.

Keys to Winning

Offense

  1. Continue to grind it out like last week. The Black Knights have allowed 33 scoring drives vs.77 non-scoring possessions. The primary difference has been their ability (or inability) to stop the run. Army’s opponents have been markedly more run-heavy on scoring drives averaging 6.2 yards per carry with a 60/40 run/pass split while gaining only 4.1 yards per rush attempt at a 46.7/53.3 clip on non-scoring possessions. Quarterback Tommy Rees is inexperienced, McNary and company rank 26th in attempts per sack, and Notre Dame is still missing multiple receiving targets to injury. Running the ball early and often will manage the game and help the young Irish signal caller.
  2. Ball protection is essential. The Irish have struggled with ball protection and given up plenty of points as a result. Army forces better than two turnovers per game and have turned 22 takeaways into 104 points. Expressed differently, the Black Knights average a touchdown and a field goal off turnovers each game. Against a ball control team that minimizes possessions and scores off takeaways, Notre Dame cannot afford turnovers.
  3. Capitalize early. No option offense plays well when behind. The Irish have received the opening kickoff in every game this season, and a touchdown on the first possession would be a good start to building a lead and forcing Shields to call more passes than he’s comfortable with.

Defense

  1. Don’t read, don’t react, just attack. The biggest mistake in the defensive game plan against Navy was a passive approach. Defending the triple-option isn’t about waiting, it is about collapsing on the ball. The Irish must attack the fullback and take away the first option, attack the quarterback to take away the second option, and force the pitch. At each juncture the defense forces a quick decision—an opportunity for Steelman to be wrong and/or make a mistake. Additionally, this strings out the play and allows more time for the Irish to react, run and pursue—something that utilizes the athletic advantage of Notre Dame’s personnel.
  2. First down is the key. Army runs the ball effectively, but Steelman isn’t a polished passer and the Black Knights cannot afford to get behind the chains. The primary reason Army excels on third down is because of their situational play. Shields calls a run on 85.4 percent of first downs and the Black Knights average 4.3 yards per carry. This leads to manageable third downs—over 42 percent have been short yardage situations that Steelman and company convert at a 74.6 percent rate. When faced with third and long, however, Army has only moved the chains 26.5 percent of the time. Moreover, Army averages 6.3 yards per first down rush on their scoring drives and only 3.8 yards per first down carry on non-scoring possessions. If Diaco can minimize running gains on first down and force long distance third downs, the advantage tilts heavily towards the Irish defense.
  3. Option defense 101: stop the fullback. Hassin is a bruising runner that gets tough yards but it is the ancillary benefits that make him such a big piece of the offense. Take away the dive and the other parts of the triple-option become much less effective.

Prediction

Similar to the Utes, Army hasn’t played strong competition. Their six wins are over less than mediocre opponents and the Black Knights defense has benefited from poor offensive competition. The Irish have a significant talent advantage, the defensive play has improved tremendously since the woeful outing against Navy, and the offense has enough weapons to build a lead and get Army’s offense out of its comfort zone.

Still, Ellerson isn’t afraid to take risks, and his game plan will probably include some trick plays and risky decisions. The matchups favor Notre Dame but the offense is still missing too many key pieces to put together a dominant performance. If the Irish commit self-inflicted mistakes or turn the ball over with any frequency, they could certainly lose this game.

Notre Dame 27, Army 17

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