Toward the end of last year as it became apparent that Navy would face Wake Forest in the Eaglebank Bowl, I kind of got the feeling that the Demon Deacons didn’t mind the matchup. There were plenty of stories in Washington and Annapolis newspapers about Navy’s efforts to avoid a rematch, even analyzing what recourse the school might have available under the terms of the bowl contract. Not so on the Wake side; everything out of Winston-Salem seemed to indicate that the Deacs were just happy to be there. That’s usually the case with rematches; the team that lost the first game always wants that shot at redemption. After Wake Forest fell to Navy at home last September, there’s no doubt that Jim Grobe’s squad was looking for exactly that. The Deacs, after all, won the ACC in 2006, finished 9-4 with a Meineke Car Care Bowl win in 2007, and came into their contest with Navy at 3-0 and ranked #16 in both polls, having taken out Florida State the week before. After struggling throughout most of its history, the program had every reason to now consider itself a regular ACC contender and top 25 team. So when Navy walked out of Groves Stadium with a win, it wasn’t just a setback to Wake; it was an embarrassment. Forget that Navy is a perennial bowl team that just beat Rutgers the week before. Serious contenders for the ACC crown aren’t supposed to lose to service academies, right? Riley Skinner apparently doesn’t think so, which is why “It’s tough to take losing to this team two years in a row.”
Wake Forest did win the rematch at RFK, 29-19. Whether they got the redemption they were seeking, though, is a matter for some debate. Navy was ahead for most of the game, and took a 19-14 lead into the 4th quarter; while Wake was the better team that day, they were not so much better as to demonstrate that the result of the first contest was a fluke. So when I read John Feinstein’s comments describing Saturday’s 13-10 Navy victory over Wake as “about one step short of miraculous,” I’m not completely sure I agree.
He’s right in a macro sense. Every once in a while we’ll see a Keenan Little-type of guy that has an offer to Wake Forest, but chooses Navy for the Aerospace Engineering. That isn’t exactly the norm, though; Navy doesn’t beat Wake Forest for very many recruits. Results over the years have reflected this, as Saturday’s win is only Navy’s third in ten tries against Wake Forest since 1991. With three starters out due to injury, including the team’s two leading rushers, history certainly did not favor the Mids. It doesn’t hurt to be reminded of this, if for no other reason than to help us savor the win that much more. On the other hand, in the limited scope of the Ken Niumatalolo era, the win becomes less of a miracle and more of an affirmation of what we already know: that Navy is a good football team.
A homecoming crowd of 31,907 passed through the gates of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but only a handful remained after the monsoon started in the second quarter. Those that did witnessed yet another tremendous defensive performance. Buddy Green’s crew held Wake Forest to 308 total yards and allowed the Deacs to enter Navy territory only three times. A lot of people seem mystified that Wake was so dedicated to running the ball, but I’m not sure why. I guess it depends on your point of view. Wake fans see the game plan in the context of this season, where Riley Skinner had a string of 4 consecutive games of 280+ yards passing before being shut down against Clemson. If Skinner is the strength of this offense, they say, then why didn’t offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke use him more? Well, because running the ball is what worked the last time. The biggest difference between Navy and Wake Forest’s first and second meetings in 2008 was Lobotzke’s shift to the ground game in the Eaglebank Bowl. The Deacs ran for 239 yards while throwing only 11 passes that day, as opposed to 43 yards rushing and 40 passes in the first meeting.
There is a template for stopping Riley Skinner. Don’t blitz; rush 3 or 4 guys, leaving one or two LBs/linemen back to cover anything that might sneak out of the backfield. Focus on covering shorter routes, and force Skinner to make a bad throw downfield. That was the plan that Buddy used in the first game, and it led to four interceptions. That’s what Clemson did to Wake Forest two weeks ago. And that’s what Navy did on Saturday:
The difference for Navy this year is that the defense is that much better against the run, thanks mostly to its veteran linebacking corps. Tony Haberer and Ross Pospisil led the charge, registering 8 tackles apiece. One could argue that the weather played a large factor as well, but if that’s the case it just makes Buddy’s game plan even better. Cover the passes that Skinner could make, don’t worry as much about the passes that the wind will knock down, and don’t leave yourself vulnerable to screen passes by blitzing. I’m sure it was frustrating for some people to watch since it seemed like Skinner had all day to throw, but there’s no arguing with results; the Wake Forest senior completed only 13 of 25 passes for 173 yards.
Navy’s offense didn’t appear to be in for a much better day, with Ricky Dobbs, Marcus Curry, and Mike Schupp all missing the game due to injury. The story of the game was supposed to be how well Kriss Proctor filled in for Ricky, but by the time the final whistle blew, Vince Murray had stolen the show. The sophomore junior fullback is a completely different player now than he was a month ago, keeping his pads down and his head up, reading the defense, and hitting the holes his blockers create for him. Murray finished the game with 27 carries for a career-best 173 yards. The offensive line also deserves a great deal of credit. Boo Robinson is one of the best defensive tackles in the country, and at 6-2, 295, he is projected to go as high as the fourth round of next year’s NFL draft. He was a non-factor in this game, as was fellow senior DT John Russell, thanks to Curtis Bass, David Hong, and Osei Asante.
One play that Murray was able to take particular advantage of was the FB trap. Usually the trap play has been run using twirl motion, but over the last few weeks Coach Jasper has run it using counter option motion.
The blocking is the same; all that has changed is the motion in the backfield. It’s been very successful. I’m not sure why the switch was made, although I have my guesses. The counter option isn’t always the most graceful of plays. It’s designed to get the ball to the perimeter, but the quarterback frequently finds himself forced back inside by linebackers that diagnose the play and aren’t fooled by the counter motion. Take a look at the first play in the video. By running the FB trap using this motion, the fullback can take advantage of the space vacated by overzealous middle linebackers. By forcing the linebacker to respect the possibility of a fullback dive, it’s eventually going to make the counter option itself more effective. In the meantime, the middle of the field has become Vince Murray’s playground.
Not to be overlooked is the welcome return of Alex Teich. Alex ripped off a 31-yard run of his own, although it was clear that he wasn’t close to running at full speed yet. Teich is already averaging 5 yards per carry for the year. As he gets healthier, Navy’s fullback tandem will be even tougher to stop.
Defensively, I was a little surprised at how Wake Forest lined up. The Deacs put four men on the line of scrimmage, with three linebackers. They almost always rotated the linebackers so that they cheated to one side of the formation. This created a numbers advantage to the opposite side, and the Mids spent most of the game running away from the cheating LB:
Sometimes it was two linemen in the count, sometimes it was a lineman and the cornerback– but always a numbers advantage. It’s not like the Wake Forest staff is unaware of how the option works; half of them came from the Air Force Academy. The only reason I can think of why they’d line up this way is that by doing so, they’d know which way the play is going to be run, giving their linebackers a head start before the play even began. I *think* this is how they lined up in the Eaglebank Bowl, but I couldn’t really tell– the television camera angle at RFK was very shallow. Regardless, without last year’s stars it wasn’t terribly effective, as the Mids pounded out 338 yards on the ground.
The Wake secondary spent most of the game in a cover 2 or cover 4, with nobody stepping up to show run support. There were a few exceptions, though, where one of the defensive backs would enter the count. When that happened, Kriss just audibled and ran the play the opposite way.
On the first play, check out the block that Jeff Battipaglia threw to spring Kriss. I suppose the best way to maintain a block is to make a guy have to climb over you. Awesome. On the second play, notice that both the corner and safety from the same side of the field are stepping up in run support. For all the talk of how much the weather might have limited Wake’s offense, it did just as much damage to Navy’s. The wide receiver is completely uncovered on that play, but the Wake staff apparently didn’t feel like Navy was ever going to put the ball in the air. And they ultimately didn’t, even though they tried to.
So if the defensive game plan was so crummy, why didn’t the Mids score more points? For starters, with two teams determined to run the ball, the clock didn’t stop much. This was a very quick game. Navy only had 10 possessions. Throw out the drives focused on running out the clock at the end of each half, and that’s 8 possessions. Navy scored on three of them, and would have scored on a fourth if it wasn’t for Proctor’s fumble inside the Wake 5. The other 4 drives ended with a bad chop block penalty, sacks, or the occasional missed read by Proctor (not that there were too many of them).
Navy is now 6-2, the team’s best start since 2004. One more win, and the Texas Bowl is secured.
— I’m having a hard time deciding which was more awesome: Joe Buckley’s 50-yarder, or the 41-yarder into the wind?
— Someone at CBS College Sports is listening. They did a MUCH better job with the camera work this week, avoiding the unnecessary zoom in favor of getting all 22 players into the shot as much as possible. Hope = restored. Now, about the “red zone” graphic…
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