Nov. 9, 2016
By John Heisler
Notre Dame. Army.
Mention those two programs in the context of college football and the association conjures up visions of West Point in 1913, the original Yankee Stadium in the 1940s and finally new Yankee Stadium in 2010.
These two old foes have met only twice since 1998—and the game Saturday comes at a different locale in San Antonio as part of the Shamrock Series, Notre Dame’s annual off-site home game.
But none of that history will mean much at the Alamodome as the Irish take a second straight shot at defensing the triple option—this time against a Black Knight team that ranks second nationally in rushing (320.6 yards per game) as well as sixth in total defense (286.4 yards).
This is the second time around in the Shamrock Series both for San Antonio and for Army.
Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series debut came in 2009 when the Irish defeated Washington State at the Alamodome. Then, a year later, Army and Notre Dame squared off at the new Yankee Stadium in the 2010 edition of the Shamrock Series in the first football game played at that venue.
Here are questions Irish and Black Knight fans will be asking in advance of the game Saturday on NBC:
Can Notre Dame slow down the Army run game?
This is a Black Knight rushing attack that has produced (this season) 537 yards against Lafayette, 424 versus UTEP, 396 against Buffalo and 348 versus Rice. Maybe the Irish defensive staff can take some notes from Air Force--the Falcons limited Army to a season-low 144 ground yards last Saturday at West Point. Jeff Monken’s unit runs the ball 84.5 percent of the time—and the Black Knights have not completed more than seven passes in any game this fall. Just last Saturday the Irish faced a Navy team averaging 296.6 rushing yards per game and allowed the Mids 320.
How good is the Black Knight defense?
Army ranks sixth nationally in total defense (286.4 yards) and 13th in scoring defense (18.1 points). Notre Dame averages 29.9 points per game—and the only Black Knight opponents to reach that level were North Texas (a 35-18 winner over Army) and Air Force (a 31-12 winner). Those two games are Army’s last two home outings. Army has limited six of its nine foes to 123 rushing yards or fewer—though North Texas and Air Force changed that equation with 202 and 249 yards, respectively. The Black Knights stand fifth nationally in passing yards allowed per game and 18th in team pass efficiency defense. Only two teams in the country have allowed fewer first downs than Army. Away from home this year the Black Knights permit 15.2 points per game. Says Monken, “We have to try to keep the ball away from them. That's what Navy did last week. Notre Dame only had six possessions in the game. They have big people, talented people and they are a great bunch of football players. Their record is not a reflection of what kind of team they are and what they're capable of. Sometimes things don't go your way and you find yourself like they are, but they're an outstanding team. They're going to give us every challenge imaginable. The 300-pounders on the offensive line isn't something new, we face that pretty often. The big offensive line is one challenge, and the rest of the guys on the team present several other challenges for us.”
Isn’t it four-down territory almost all the time?
Navy in Jacksonville converted four times (of five attempts) on fourth down against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Army has been successful 15 times on fourth down so far in 2016 (28 attempts). Notre Dame, on the other hand, has converted eight of its own 15 tries on fourth down this fall, while stopping nine of 19 opponent attempts. Army has had 11 different players account for at least one rushing TD in 2016 (compared to four for the Irish).
Can the Irish get their defense off the field?
A week ago, in an extremely limited possession contest, Notre Dame could never force Navy to punt—and the second half featured almost a two-to-one margin in possession time (in favor of the Mids). This time Army comes in ranking third in the country in possession time at 35:05 per contest. So a key for the Irish defense will be third-down (and fourth-down) success. Says Irish coach Brian Kelly, “Let's start with third down. Obviously we have to focus on third down. We gotta get off the field (on defense)--we had a number of third-down situations (against Navy) where we didn't get off the field. And we gotta stay on the field on third down. And so those right there are extremely important. In the red zone we can't settle for field goals, we've gotta score touchdowns. So those two right there probably stand out for me. Let's say it is a six-possession game, we can still win the football game if we get off the field on third down and we're more efficient in the red zone.”
Will Notre Dame be able to contain quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw?
A week after Navy quarterback Will Worth managed 175 rushing yards against the Irish, Notre Dame now deals with yet another major threat at that position in Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw. A 5-11, 196-pound junior from Chicago, Bradshaw has run the ball 15 more times than any other Army player and boasts an even 600 net yards. He produced 100-plus-yard rushing days against Buffalo and Lafayette and had another 90 yards against North Texas. In seven of Army’s nine games he has attempted eight or fewer passes (his high for completions is seven against North Texas). Says Kelly, “I think the quarterback probably defines the personality of that triple option. Bradshaw wants to get on the edge. He's quick, he's elusive. But you're still defending triple option. You still have to defend the fullback--you still have to defend the quarterback at the edge and then the pitch, and then what their desire is relative to throwing the football, what their appetite is. Is it something that they're willing to potentially get behind the chains on first down or are they going to save it for when they absolutely have to throw the football? They'll throw it on first down and take their chances of being behind the chains. So that's just a different offensive philosophy, and I think the quarterback defines a little bit of the differences.”
What’s the future of the Shamrock Series?
With the opening of the new version of Notre Dame Stadium, with the football-related portions of the Campus Crossroads project completed for 2017, Notre Dame will play seven home games next fall in its revamped home venue. So future Shamrock Series events are to be determined.
Will recent history hold?
Notre Dame owns a current 14-game win streak against Army. That dates back to a 14-2 Black Knight win in 1958 at Notre Dame Stadium. Says Monken, "When people play Notre Dame, it gets the attention of the guys lining up in the opposite uniform. It certainly does for us. Notre Dame is one of the great programs in college football. To have a chance to play them is a big deal for everybody. It certainly is for our team. Notre Dame gets everybody's very best shot, and it's certainly a feather in the cap of anyone who can pull off a victory over the Irish."
How will the Irish fare this month against the toughest stretch of their schedule?
Notre Dame’s four November opponents own a combined 24-11 record (.685)—with Navy at 6-2, Army 5-4, Virginia Tech 7-2 and USC 6-3. The remaining Irish schedule rates as the 15th most difficult in the nation at .640 (16-9 versus FBS opponents).
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler follows the Irish football scene for Fighting Irish Media. Look for his Sunday Brunch piece, an inside recap of what happens against Army as Brian Kelly’s squad continues its 2016 season.