Those are the heights and weights of the Duke offensive line. While they might not be the biggest in the country, they’re still big; plenty big enough to be a problem for the Navy defense. But that’s the story every week, isn’t it? Ten of the twelve teams on Navy’s schedule are virtually guaranteed to be bigger than the Mids each year, and even Army and Air Force have outweighed the Mids up front the last couple of years. Heck, Duke was bigger than Navy last year when Navy rushed for 435 yards and held Duke to only 113. Well, that was last year. Overcoming weight disadvantages with last year’s players is no guarantee that it will happen again with this year’s. Indeed, through three games, it hasn’t.
There are a lot of things that an offense can do schematically to overcome a size disadvantage. Navy’s A-backs are smaller than the average Division I-A running back, but they very rarely have to run between the tackles. In Paul Johnson’s offense, they get the ball in space to take advantage of their speed. Navy’s offensive linemen are also generally smaller than their counterparts on other teams. The Navy offense doesn’t ask the same things from its linemen, though. Rather than engage defensive linemen one on one, larger defensive tackles are frequently double-teamed while a defensive end goes unblocked as the quarterback’s give key. Most schools like tall offensive linemen, particularly tackles, because they can take bigger backward strides in pass protection to counter the speed of defensive ends and linebackers. At Navy, shorter offensive linemen are better suited for the cut-blocking that the triple option requires.
On the other side of the ball, though, there isn’t much you can do. If an offense wants to run the ball down your throat, there isn’t a scheme that will make up for a 235 lb. DE taking on a 310 lb. tackle. There are only so many ways a defense can line up. Since no scheme will solve this, the only way to limit the damage is through individual effort and sound fundamentals. Therein lies the problem.
As I have posted in earlier entries, effort and fundamentals haven’t exactly been the calling cards of the Navy defense this year. Well, fundamentals anyway. From what my untrained eye could tell, the effort level was better against Ball State than it was against Rutgers. At the very least, Coach Johnson hasn’t complained about effort in his press briefings so far this week. Fundamentals, on the other hand, are still being widely discussed. As was pointed out after the Ball State game, the defense has problems lining up correctly. All the effort in the world can’t make up for missed assignments. Missed assignments also compound the size disadvantage. Even if you’re getting pushed around, if you’re minding your gaps you’ll be in a position to make a tackle. It might be three yards downfield, but you’ll be there. When you line up incorrectly, not only will nobody be in the right spot to make the tackle, but the hole that the running back will have to run through will be huge. In a 3-4 defense, the linebackers are the playmakers. The defensive line’s job is to absorb blocks, leaving linebackers free to move from sideline to sideline. When you line up incorrectly, it leaves offensive linemen free to put a block on a linebacker who otherwise could have made a play.
After watching film of Ball State nearly doubling their season rushing total against Navy, first-year Duke offensive coordinator Peter Vaas has to be excited. Navy seems to be the cure for what ails opposing running games. Ball State was no rushing juggernaut coming into the Navy game, but 262 yards later their running game was back on track. The Duke coaching staff has to see this game as an opportunity to jumpstart their own ground game, which is in far worse shape than Ball State’s. Duke’s leading rusher, Justin Boyle, averages less than three yards per carry and has only 66 yards through 3 games. Their second-leading rusher, fullback (and Army transfer) Tielor Robinson, averages a more respectable 3.7 yards per carry. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, he’s also out for the year. The Navy game is an opportunity for the Duke offense to gain some momentum and confidence in running the ball going into the meat of their ACC schedule.
At least, that’s what Paul Johnson is expecting from Duke on Saturday. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis is developing into a really good player for the Blue Devils, but that isn’t the coach’s focus this week. “I hope we can limit them running the ball. For us to be successful we have to limit the rushing yards,” he said on Tuesday. “If they come in and pass for what they are passing for we can live with that. We have to limit the rushing yards.”
In other words, Navy’s defense can’t have a repeat of the Ball State game.
Since Navy coaches expect that Duke will have a similar offensive gameplan to Ball State, how do they prevent a similar result? The word of the week at practice has been “simplification.” What exactly does that entail? According to Sandra McKee this morning, Buddy Green has cut the number of defensive plays in half in order to give his young defense fewer assignments to remember. It seems to be working. If the defense is as athletic as Coach Johnson said at the beginning of the year, then just getting lined up correctly should be enough to allow them to make a few plays. Of course, having fewer plays in the defensive gameplan means that the Duke offense has fewer things to think about, but it’s probably best to deal with that issue when we come to it. It isn’t like the defense can get that much worse at this point.
Like Navy, Duke has a bit of a rebuilding effort this year on defense with only two seniors expected to start. Unlike Navy, some leaders have emerged on that defense. Michael Tauiliili is no surprise. Duke’s leading tackler the last two seasons, Tauiliili has picked up right where he left off. After missing Duke’s opener against Connecticut due to suspension, the junior middle linebacker returned to force turnovers in each of the last two games, including an interception on the second play of Duke’s win over Northwestern. Tauiliili was just as rangy against Navy last year, registering 13 tackles. While his performance is no surprise, Vincent Rey’s is. A sophomore who lines up at weakside linebacker, Rey is third in the ACC in tackles. He had 17 against Connecticut alone. Rey had 11 last week against Northwestern to go along with 4 pass breakups and two tackles for a loss, earning him ACC Player of the Week honors. Patrick Bailey plays a hybrid DE/LB position and is also in the ACC’s top 10 in tackles. With the emergence of Rey and the consistency of Tauiliili added on to the talent of preseason Lindy’s and Athlon All-ACC pick Vince Oghobaase, Duke has a better defense than people think.
Last year, the Duke game was where Navy fans got their first real look at Kaipo’s potential. He had is first career 100-yard rushing game and threw his first career touchdown pass while leading the offense to 435 rushing yards and 38 points. With that performance, chances are that Duke will line up differently this year. No matter how they line up, the key matchup will be Antron Harper against the 6’6″, 310-lb. Oghobaase. Antron hasn’t been 100% healthy yet this year, and he’s going to need everything his injured ankles can give him to move that mountain of a DT. The fullbacks also had a big game against Duke in 2006, with Adam Ballard running for 104 yards. Now that the offense finally established the FB last week, I don’t think they want to lose that momentum.
The importance of this game can’t be overstated. The confidence gained or lost from winning or losing will have a huge impact in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy battle next week. Win, and Navy is back on track. Lose, and you’re 1-3 with doubt creeping in and a likely 3-1 Air Force team coming to town. We hear Paul Johnson say all the time that the most important game of the season is the next one. This week, that couldn’t be more true.
— Navy better have solved its kicking issues after last week. Duke has already blocked three kicks this season: an extra point against UConn plus a punt and a field goal at Virginia (the latter coming from, once again, Vincent Rey). Duke’s special teams superlatives extend to kickoffs, where Jabari Marshall leads the ACC in return average at 28.5 yards (including a 94-yard TD vs. UConn). Duke kickoff coverage is #1 in the nation, allowing only 14.36 yards per return. Navy has also done well on kick coverage so far, ranking 8th nationally at 16.23 yards per return.
— And you thought Juicy Juice was bad… At some point during the game, you just know that Duke NG Ayanga Okpokowuruk will tackle Navy QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. Thoughts and prayers go out to Bob Socci, Pete Medhurst, and their families.