Game Week: Rutgers

The Cleveland Clinic has this to say about the condition known as dissociative amnesia:

Dissociative amnesia occurs when a person blocks out certain information, usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving him or her unable to remember important personal information. With this disorder, the degree of memory loss goes beyond normal forgetfulness and includes gaps in memory for long periods of time or of memories involving the traumatic event.

Because of this affliction, some of you might not remember that Navy actually played Rutgers last year. The 34-0 thumping at the hands of the Scarlet Knights could certainly be classified as a “traumatic event.” Brian Hampton almost lost his leg, Rutgers blocked two punts, and their defense held the Navy offense to only 113 yards rushing. Navy crossed midfield once, getting all the way to the Rutgers 41 in the second quarter. Navy’s longest running play was 20 yards, and it came from a linebacker on a fake punt. So, to state the obvious, Navy’s offense had a bad day. It was clear that after Brian Hampton was hurt, the offense had the life knocked out of it. Nobody knows if Navy would have won the game if Brian was able to play, but I think it’s safe to say that Navy would have at least played a whole lot better. Greg Schiano’s defensive gameplan at that point was to simply blitz the living hell out of Kaipo, and it worked pretty well on the wide-eyed sophomore backup.

Lost in the abject misery of that game is that Navy’s defense actually played pretty well. They held Ray Rice to less than 100 yards rushing and forced three turnovers. Yes, Rutgers scored 34 points, but that was in large part because they got tremendous field position from a lack of Navy offense and two blocked punts. Rutgers scored six times, but the average length of their scoring drives was only 37 yards. Their average starting field position in the game was their own 49 yard line. The Navy defense held Rutgers to 10 points in the first half, but by the end of the game was just worn out from being on the field so much.

The largest crowd in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium history turned out to see last year’s game. I’m not sure how many will show up on Friday, but with the demand for Rutgers tickets lately I’m sure the crowd will also be large, loud, and lively. The game that crowd will see, though, will be a lot different than last year’s Category 5 suck storm.

Ray Rice is good.If you watched Rutgers’ game against Buffalo, you might not agree with me. Yes, Buffalo might be the worst team in I-A, but there was no denying that Rutgers looked good anyway. Ray Rice picked up where he left off last year, running for 184 yards and three touchdowns. Easily the best running back Navy will face this year, Rice looked like the poster boy for a “Don’t let arm tackles happen to you” campaign. As dominant as he was, though, Rice didn’t have the most impressive game. That honor belonged to wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, who did his best Lance Alworth imitation by rolling up 221 receiving yards on 9 catches– in the first half. Underwood had 10 of QB Mike Teel’s 16 completions. Teel has made tremendous progress himself. The junior was a different player over the last three games of 2006. Over the first ten games of the year, Teel threw for 7 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing only 52% of his passes. Against Syracuse, West Virginia, and Kansas State, he completed 65% of his passes with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. After throwing for another 328 yards against Buffalo, it looks like Mike Teel hasn’t lost a step from his impressive Texas Bowl performance.

The one thing that struck me about the Rutgers passing game against Buffalo was that out of Teel’s 16 completions, none were to a tight end and only two went to Ray Rice out of the backfield. That’s not the Rutgers offense we’ve seen the last few years with TE Clark Harris and FB Brian Leonard. Navy’s defensive gameplan against Rutgers back then was simple: stop the run, and prevent the long pass play. They did a decent job of both. The problem in those games, though, was that having the defensive backs sit back and prevent the long ball meant that linebackers were often left responsible to cover Harris and Leonard one-on-one underneath. Those two guys were a tough matchup for any linebacker, not just Navy’s, and it showed; Leonard had over 100 all-purpose yards in the 2005 game, while Harris had 5 catches for 63 yards last year. It isn’t always a good idea to read too much into one game, but it seemed that Rutgers’ offense was a lot different against Buffalo without those two players.

Navy’s gameplan this year will be the same. Without Harris and Leonard, the defense actually matches up better against Rutgers in 2007 than in years past. However, matchups don’t mean a thing without execution. Navy missed 28 tackles against Temple. A performance like that against Rutgers will turn the game into a Ray Rice for Heisman infomercial. Was that the real Navy defense we saw last week, or can their mistakes be corrected? If the Navy defense is to have any chance at all in this game, it has to be the latter. Stopping Rice is one key. The other is putting pressure on Mike Teel. Teel showed over the last three games of 2006 that he can’t be counted on to make mistakes on his own anymore. Not coincidentally, Teel wasn’t sacked in any of those games either. Navy’s defense needs to force Teel into making bad decisions; given enough time, Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt will get themselves open.

It’s a tall order, and I’m not completely sure it’s one that Navy will be able to fill. I think Navy’s defense will improve on last week’s effort, but Ray Rice will make you pay for even a few missed tackles. And while the defensive line looked pretty good against an underrated Temple offensive line, Navy lost its best pass-rushing linebacker in recent memory to graduation. Who’s going to fill that role? That question wasn’t answered last week. It’ll have to be if Navy expects to keep the Rutgers offense in check.

On defense, Rutgers has a reputation for being fast and aggressive. They lived up to that reputation against Buffalo. They might have lived up to it a little too well; their aggression bordered on recklessness, as demonstrated by the defense’s four offside penalties. Recklessness might be something you can get away with against Buffalo, but if Rutgers plays that way against a Paul Johnson offense it will be eaten alive. The key to defending option plays is discipline; one missed assignment, and a 3 yard gain becomes a 30 yard gain. Last year, Schiano was able to blitz just about everyone to overwhelm the quarterback. That won’t work this year. Whatever progress Mike Teel has made since the last game, Kaipo has improved even more. The deer in the headlights look is gone, and PJ will be able to exploit the holes left by blitzing linebackers.

PJ’s challenge this week is how to use Rutgers’ speed and aggressiveness against them. That means a lot of counter option plays, play-action passing, and draws, plays that we didn’t really see against Temple. Expect also to see PJ dip into the ol’ bag of tricks, with at least one reverse. If PJ really feels like digging into the playbook, we might also see some screen passes.

Greg Schiano has always made a priority of stopping the fullback against Navy. I suspect that he does this because as long as he can stop the run up the middle, he can rely on the speed of his linebackers and secondary to react, get outside, and limit the damage on the perimeter. The way to beat this is to get the ball to the perimeter faster than defenders can get there. PJ does that by using toss sweeps and quick passes to A-backs and wide recievers. Once the defense adjusts to these plays, PJ can then use toss sweep motion to open up holes for the fullback inside.

Speaking of opening up holes, the offensive line faces a unique challenge this week. For once, Navy won’t be outsized. What the Rutgers d-line lacks in size, though, they more than make up for in speed. DT Eric Foster is only 265 pounds, but he’s some of the fastest 265 pounds you’ll ever see. Quickness is also the strength of the Navy offensive line, and the interior linemen will need it to keep Foster in check. With Antron Harper moving to center, I think they’ll be able to do it. But the challenge doesn’t end there. The biggest problem with a fast defensive line is that if the option is slow to develop, the backside DE can track down the quarterback from behind. It’s a problem we’ve had for years with Notre Dame. The backside tackle’s responsibility is usually just to chip the DE and move on to a linebacker. If the option moves at the speed it’s supposed to, that isn’t a problem. Any hitch in the execution, though, and a fast DE will make you pay. Rutgers does that as well as anybody.

So, will Navy be up to it? Offensively, I think they will. After getting shut down against Connecticut in 2002, Huskies coach Randy Edsall made some comments that hinted that he thought he “solved” Paul Johnson’s offense. PJ never forgets that sort of thing, and he lit up the scoreboard the next time Navy and UConn met. While Greg Schiano hasn’t said anything close to that, the media certainly has. That’s enough to motivate PJ. There’s nothing more exciting than a Paul Johnson gameplan when he has a little extra motivation. On the flip side, the defense has a lot to deal with. I think that they will improve over last week, but the kind of improvement they’d need to shut down Ray Rice is a pretty big jump for one week. I think that the game is going to be a shootout.

The New York media loves hyperbole. Anything good is portrayed as the OMG BEST EVER!!!, while anything that isn’t up to par is treated as a disaster. Rutgers is a solid football team. As such, the local media has them slotted somewhere between LSU and the St. Louis Rams. They aren’t that good. They are the best team on Navy’s schedule, though, and it’s going to take a great game for Navy to beat them.

A great game, but by no means an impossible game.

See you tomorrow!

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5 Responses

  1. “Category 5 Suck Storm”…That’s as perfect a description as I’ve ever seen.

  2. Great analysis of the potential backside DE problem. Perfect opportunity for the screen.

  3. 1-Stop Rice (give him his 17 freakin yards and get that hoopla over with)
    2-Pressure Teel- Force him to beat us.
    3-Throw at least 15 passes- of course complete an acceptable amount too.
    4-Tire out the mammoth line (it will be hot and humid and shouldnt we be able to wear them down as much as they could us-speed vs power?).
    5-Be in the game or lead into the 4th quarter.
    Yeah its easy to lay it out and we know our guys will lay it all out on the field too- but even as hard as it is to figure-really they were not that much better than us when we played them.
    I dont think you will see more than a few hundred or so Navy fans there so the emotion will be from the field-not the stands.
    Maybe Rutgers is overconfident?
    Maybe jittery if they get hit hard early.
    Hang in there and see if we can locate a “glass jaw”…
    Come on man its still Rutgers.

  4. I’m sure Rutgers fans think, “Come on man its still Navy.”

  5. Phat,
    I enjoyed your column about tonight’s game. You definitely make some legetimate points.
    I’m on pins and needles until kickoff.
    this is a big one.
    -Edgar

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