The transcript of Paul Johnson’s Monday press conference says a lot, but there are some things that aren’t conveyed in print. A clearly agitated PJ held his practice Q&A with reporters amidst a backdrop of whistles and screaming assistant coaches conducting conditioning drills. Coach Johnson noted that he saw a whopping 62 efforts in the film of the Rutgers game. An “effort,” for the purposes of player evaluation at Navy, is a play by an individual where a coach determines that the player doesn’t go at full speed from snap to the whistle. To give you a feel for how bad a 62-effort game is, PJ says that by the end of last year the number of efforts per game was in the single digits. Compounding the problem in PJ’s mind was that this performance came against a top 25 team, which one would think would be a huge motivator. Apparently, that wasn’t the case. Not in PJ’s eyes, anyway, and he conducted his practice accordingly. It isn’t a very good time to be a Navy football player; Paul Johnson has a way of delivering a message very effectively.
Knowing this, Navy fans are probably expecting a much better performance from the Mids on Saturday. That might happen, but Navy isn’t playing in a vacuum. They have a good football team waiting for them.
Remember at the end of the trial in the movie A Time to Kill, when Jake Brigance asks the jury members to close their eyes while he tells them a story? I’m going to do the same here, only you have to keep your eyes open because you need them to read. OK, that didn’t come off as well as I thought it would… Bah, screw it. Just pretend that you’re closing your eyes. Pretend that while your eyes are closed, I tell you about a football team. This football team is coming off of a 38-16 win against a conference opponent. They average nearly 400 yards of offense per game, including 250 through the air. They have yet to turn the ball over after two games. They are in the top 25 in total defense, giving up only 279 yards per game thus far. This team features a quarterback who is on the watch lists for both major quarterback awards, was named by The Sporting News as his conference’s preseason player of the year, and has thrown for 5 TDs and no INTs over his first two games. The team also features a wide receiver who had 210 all-purpose yards and 2 TDs in his last game. This team’s TE stands at 6-6, is on the Mackey Award watch list, and was named by The Sporting News as the 10th best TE in the nation. Can you see this team? Can you? Now this is the part where you open your eyes in shock and confusion when I tell you that this team is Ball State.
Yes, Ball State. Of course, you already knew that, since they’re next on the schedule and named at the top of this post. But you get my point. If this team was called anything other than Ball State, they’d be fairly highly regarded right now. As Navy fans, I think most of us understand that it’s tough to shake off perception after losing for so long. We know we’ve become a pretty good team, though, and we expect to win each week. Ball State fans are starting to feel the same way. And why wouldn’t they? They won 3 out of their last 4 games to end the 2006 season, with the loss coming in a very close game at Michigan. The Cardinals had a hiccup against Miami (OH) after a 56-yard punt return set up Miami’s winning TD with 17 seconds left, but they dominated Eastern Michigan. They certainly expect to be one of the better teams in the MAC this year, and have high hopes of becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since they won the conference in 1996.
I don’t want to play up statistics too much, because we all know that statistics are as much an indicator of who you’ve played as they are of how you’ve played. Anyone can cherry-pick stats to reassure themselves of their team’s greatness. Air Force fans do it all the time. But while numbers never tell the whole story, the stats I mentioned certainly don’t do anything to dismiss the observation that regardless of how good Miami and Eastern Michigan are, Ball State is playing some pretty good football right now .
On the flip side, Navy is hurting, especially defensively. Let’s pull out the ol’ stat book again. When I previewed Rutgers, I said that Buffalo “might be the worst team in I-A.” This is a team that has gone 3-20 over the last two years, so if they aren’t the worst they’re at least in the conversation. Coincidentally, Buffalo has also played the same two teams that Navy has this year in Rutgers and Temple. So how does Navy stack up to Buffalo statistically? In total defense:
61 Buffalo 352.00 ypg
69 Navy 374.50
Buffalo has given up 22 fewer yards per game. A scoring defense comparison doesn’t yield a better result:
56 Buffalo 22.5 ppg
89 Navy 30.0
That’s Buffalo, people. I don’t mean to disparage Turner Gill’s team. My point is that this is a Buffalo team that is undergoing a MAJOR rebuilding effort. At Navy, we like to think that we have advanced past that point. After two games, though, the defense hasn’t played like it, and they’re playing a Ball State team that is more than capable of taking full advantage. But that’s not all…
Q: What do you get when you take a struggling defense and remove both the team captain and the best linebacker for the rest of the season?
A: Problems. Big problems.
PJ dropped a bomb in is press briefing yesterday, and Bill Wagner reported it on his blog. Jeff Deliz and Clint Sovie are both going under the knife today and are out for the year. Now a young defense trying to turn things around has to do so without its two biggest leaders. Are you concerned yet? You should be. This is a huge game for the Navy defense. It isn’t surprising that they struggled against Rutgers and their bona fide Heisman candidate. If they turn around and struggle against Ball State though, then it starts to look like a pattern. A young squad without its leaders can lose confidence quickly, and before you know it things start spiraling downward. PJ has said that this defense has the athletic ability to be successful. Now they have to get it done between the ears.
Ball State runs to keep defenses honest. Their bread and butter is a passing game led by quarterback Nate Davis. Once again, the fate of the Navy defense is going to be determined up front. Can anyone break through the offensive line to apply some pressure? Ball State has only given up 3 sacks in their two games, but Miami and EMU were able to get enough pressure on Davis that he’s only completed 51% of his passes. If Navy can do the same, then they should have a chance to win. But with Ball State RB MiQuale Lewis averaging almost 20 yards a catch, you don’t want to have to send in too many to generate that pressure; it would leave the defense susceptible to the screen. Sometimes it seems that nothing kills Navy quite like screen passes.
Now let’s take a trip in the way-back machine and think about the 2005 Navy season. Lamar Owens struggled over the first half of the season in the passing game. After a loss to Rutgers in which Lamar threw two interceptions and was sacked 5 times, a frustrated Paul Johnson was asked how he could solve this problem. PJ replied that he would simply not throw the ball anymore, which drew some chuckles from those of us who read the transcripts from his press briefings. But PJ was serious. The next week, Navy attempted only 3 passes while rushing for 418 yards in a 49-21 rout of Tulane. Today, we have another loss to Rutgers after throwing three interceptions, and an exasperated PJ wondering why he even calls pass plays. Sound familiar? I think the game plan on offense will be a lot like that Tulane game: back to basics. Ball State was ranked 103rd in rushing defense a year ago. By the end of this game they’ll know if they’ve turned that around or not.
This is a huge game for both teams. Ball State wants to avoid a 1-2 start with games on the road at Nebraska, at Illinois, and at Indiana all left to play on their schedule. Navy is finally playing in front of the Brigade and needs to make a statement to themselves that they can bounce back after a performance that Coach Johnson called “embarrassing.” Questions get answered Saturday night.
— I’d like to give a quick tip of the cap to the “Voice of the Cardinals,” Morry Mannies. This is his 52nd year calling games for Ball State. That is about as awesome as it gets.