NOTRE DAME — Few scoff at or diminish the grand history and tradition of the games.
No one questions the discipline, patriotism and bravery of the players involved.
It’s not about the institution of the U.S. Naval Academy or U.S. Air Force Academy, it’s about football and football only. For that reason, Notre Dame has no need to play more than one academy per season, let alone play two of them in back-to-back weeks.
Injuries, directly related to the cut-block style of Navy and Air Force, came at an alarming rate and have been costly to the Irish.
Kona Schwenke, Notre Dame’s best defensive player on Saturday, Nov. 2, hurt a knee — out for Pittsburgh this week.
Ben Councell, who played huge outside linebacker minutes, wrecked a knee — out for the season.
Sheldon Day, who missed two games with an ankle injury, reinjured it — his status is questionable this week.
Ishaq Williams hurt a knee against Air Force.
“I can attribute (cut blocks) to Kona Schwenke’s injury. He got cut, and it caused that injury. I can contribute it to Ishaq Williams’ ACL. He was cut, and it caused that injury,” Kelly told the media Sunday. “And Sheldon Day, his reinjury, all of them contributed specifically to those.
“You know, it’s unfortunate. It’s the style of offense that the academies play. It is what it is.”
And what it is is troubling as Notre Dame tries to lick its many wounds for its BCS bowl game stretch run.
The Irish almost lost, but didn’t. The scenario isn’t new to the team or the fan base.
Right now, there’s no time — or reason — for Notre Dame to defend itself from the naysayers about how it let the Midshipmen option game run up and down the field in a 38-34 win. At 7-2 and with three games left to play, the Irish staff has to focus its attention on players — whoever may be healthy — for Pitt.
Critiquing and dissecting the level of play here or there — for now — is moot.
Kelly called the post-game locker room scene “a triage” as head trainer Rob Hunt evaluated the damage.
The defensive front is in shambles. Nose tackle Louis Nix, who missed the last two weeks with knee tendinitis, is expected back — hopefully at full strength.
When the Tyler Stocktons and Romeo Okwaras are on the field for game-deciding, fourth-quarter plays like in Saturday’s victory, you know the lineup is thin.
Notre Dame didn’t win, it survived — and barely at that — and the “next man in” choices are few.
“We are running out of next men. We’re at that point where from a defensive standpoint, and particularly the defensive line, we’re left with very few options,” Kelly said. “It becomes an issue now where we have to be very creative in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
It may mean more Isaac Rochell or Jarron Jones on the defensive line and more and more of Okwara and Kendall Moore at linebacker and or end.
“We’ll figure something out. We’ll get 11 guys out there,” Kelly said. “It’s just not going to be one of those things where we’re going to have the same group of guys out there all the time.”
As for Navy and Air Force?
The Middies are tentatively on ND schedules in the near future while the Falcons are not. Kelly said Sunday that the move — playing one academy team a season — makes sense.
“There is no question that as you look at our schedule moving forward, I don’t believe that both of them appear on our schedule for quite some time,” he said.
It’s about football, not tradition. For Notre Dame’s immediate future — and health — facing both Navy and Air Force and their cut blocks and triple-options schemes isn’t in its best interest.
Linebacker Dan Fox may have expressed it the best when he said, “They’re great, they’re so tough. I’m just happy they’re fighting for the U.S., they always came out and battled ... and I’m so happy I’ll never play them again.”
Precision football is as impressive as it is unconventional and frustrating to defend. But once a year is plenty.
Bill Beck is The Elkhart Truth sports editor. Contact him on Twitter @BillBeckTruth or email to firstname.lastname@example.org.