I don’t like Air Force. I think that Fisher DeBerry was a hall-of-fame coach, but also a hall-of-fame jerk. I think that Shaun Carney was unbelievably arrogant and disrespectful after telling a reporter before last year’s Air Force-Army game how the Falcons were going to run up the score on the Black Knights. It warms my heart to think that Air Force is 0-for-Carney against Navy after he had the nerve to tell Navy coaches and players on his Annapolis recruiting trip that he was choosing Air Force because he didn’t think that Navy could beat them. When I was at USNA, the team that my football player friends said had talked the most trash was Air Force by far. Shoot, even their friggin’ Drum and Bugle Corps threw such a tantrum one year after losing to Navy that they actually tossed their 2nd place trophy into the Chesapeake (the best part of that story is that members of the Coast Guard D&B, in true Coast Guard fashion, dove in and recovered the trophy). While Army and Navy seem to embrace their common bond (even if it’s strained occasionally), Air Force from day one chose to eschew that in favor of the typical “hate” rivalries in college football. Oh, Air Force fans will act offended at that idea and say things like “we wear a uniform too,” but that’s just a show. When push comes to shove and their coach tries to run up the score against Navy to “send a message,” the uniform doesn’t seem to matter much to them anymore. When that same coach publicly ridicules both Army and Navy on media day by talking about their “new way to count to ten: 0-1, 0-2, 0-3…”, well that’s just fine with them. Some Air Force fans think that anything that comes out of the school is “classy” no matter what, simply because they’re Air Force. It doesn’t work that way. This all sounds more like Steve Spurrier vs. Phil Fulmer than Army vs. Navy. If that’s the type of rivalry they wanted, they certainly succeded in getting it.
I tell you these things not because I want to turn this post into an Air Force hate-fest, but rather in the interest of full disclosure. I’m an opinionated guy and I obviously talk about things from a Navy point of view, but I still try to maintain some level of objectivity when looking at each game from week to week. Air Force fans won’t believe it, but it is in fact possible to take an objective look at something and reach the conclusion that Air Force might not be perfect. Of course, I’m not a zoomiphile. Therefore, if I write something that isn’t in line with Air Force being the greatest team ever, you can feel free to dismiss it as the biased clack of a zoomie hater. My feelings won’t be hurt if you think so.
Anyway, on to the game.
First, the unavoidable, glaring reality: Air Force is 3-1.
Their supposedly revamped offense is 114th in the nation in passing, 98th in scoring, and 80th overall. Shaun Carney, who fans and media hailed for his passing efficiency the last two years, is 87th in that category so far this year with three INTs and only two TDs. The Falcon offensive line gives up one sack for every 10 passing attempts.
But Air Force is 3-1.
Air Force has defeated a MEAC team, a Utah squad without its two best offensive players, and a TCU team that not only gave the Air Force game away, but could only manage 7 offensive points the following week against an SMU team ranked 108th in total defense.
Yeah, but Air Force is 3-1.
Troy Calhoun is a rookie head coach. Their offensive coordinator left for Arkansas just a few weeks before the season began. The coaching staff is one of the youngest in the country and includes the defensive coordinator of Navy’s 1-win 2000 team.
Nevertheless, Air Force is 3-1.
It boggles the mind, given all the reasons why they should be worse. I’ll be the first to admit that I thought Air Force would be 1-3 at this point. Maybe they got lucky. Maybe (ok, definitely) Utah and TCU were very overrated. Or maybe their players just find a way to win. At the end of the day, does it matter? Not as long as they get the W, and Air Force is now halfway to bowl eligibility. Navy’s job on Saturday is to ensure that Air Force’s status in that regard doesn’t change for at least another week.
Obviously, it’s a big game. The first goal of the Navy football program each year is to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. It’s the closest thing to a conference championship that we have (and hopefully ever will have). The three service academies are the most unique schools in Division I. While every game is important, the games against Army and Air Force are the only real apples to apples comparisons on the schedule. These are the schools we measure ourselves against.
Paul Johnson knows what this game means. “It’s a big game. There is no sense in ducking that. It’s a big game.”
Adam Ballard knows what this game means. “I’d rather get hit with a baseball bat repeatedly than lose that trophy to Air Force.”
Yet the enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be shared on the other side. Air Force coaches and players are going out of their way to talk about how the Navy game isn’t as important to them as it used to be. According to Chad Hall, “Navy’s just another team on our schedule.” That appears to be the approved talking point for Air Force players this week, as Shaun Carney sounds pretty much the same. “When it comes down to it, it means a lot to the seniors to try to get an opportunity to go to Washington,” he told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “And other than that, it’s just a game on the schedule.” Even if someone says that it is in fact a big game, the comment is quickly followed with another about how important winning the Mountain West and getting to a bowl game are, too. The CIC Trophy has to be put into perspective, after all.
What a letdown. Fisher DeBerry was much more entertaining, with his fake Heisman campaigns, backhanded compliments, ring fetish, and rambling about his “lost dog.” It’s almost sad to see Air Force players de-emphasize the CIC Trophy so much, even if it’s probably only an act. It’s ironic too, considering that the trophy itself was an Air Force creation meant to integrate USAFA into the spirit of the Army-Navy rivalry. So much for that idea. If you’ve ever wondered why the Air Force game will never be anything like Army-Navy, their players are telling you all you need to know.
Regardless of Team Jesus Christ’s priorities, there’s an interesting game shaping up. Not only strength vs. strength, but weakness vs. weakness. We shall begin with the latter, that being the Air Force offense vs. the Navy defense.
There was a lot of speculation about what the Air Force offense would look like under Troy Calhoun. When he first took the reins of the Air Force program from Fisher DeBerry, Calhoun had a very different vision for how the offense should look. The offense would rely less on the option and instead feature a tailback who would get 20 or so carries per game. Calhoun also wanted to have more of a run-pass balance, presumably to take advantage of Shaun Carney’s accuracy. As time went on and Calhoun became more familiar with his players, he seemed to back away from that vision and favor the option a bit more. According to Paul Johnson, what he’s seeing on film is not much of a departure from what Air Force did last year. “It’s still the same kids. They are doing a lot of the same stuff,” he told Bill Wagner on Monday. “It isn’t a radical change; they are just doing it from different formations.”
Maybe not a radical change, but whatever changes they did make haven’t really worked. Air Force is still ranked in the bottom 5 in I-A in passing. That’s nothing new. What is new is that unlike years past, they aren’t ranked in the top 10 in rushing. The Air Force offense of old was always good for 250-280 rushing yards per game. So far this year, they’re averaging 223. I suppose that you can achieve “balance” by just driving rushing production down to be as low as your passing numbers, but I don’t think that’s what Troy Calhoun had in mind. Ironically, Air Force’s best offensive showing this year came against Utah, where the offense lined up the same way they did for the last 20 years and ran for 330+ yards.
The problem isn’t necessarily one of scheme. The Air Force offense just hasn’t executed very well. On the somewhat rare occasion when they did execute, their coaches had them in position to make a play. Air Force’s offense was absolutely horrible against TCU, but two huge plays in the 4th quarter resurrected them. They obviously have some big-play ability. What they’ve been lacking is the ability to make those plays with any kind of consistency, especially through the air.
Air Force’s passing problems have caught a few people by surprise. Many people regarded Shaun Carney very highly as a passer and thought that the new offense would take better advantage of his throwing ability. But why did so many think that Carney was so good? His rise through the Air Force record book is one reason, although it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that a quarterback who started for four years would have accumulated higher career numbers than most. The other reason was because of his pass efficiency rating. In 2006, Shaun Carney had a pass efficiency rating of 157.5, which would have been good for 11th in the country if he was eligible (Carney didn’t have the minimum of 15 attempts per game). In the new offense, that rating has plunged to 111.8. And that’s where statistics can lead you astray; sometimes they tell you more about what you’re doing than how well you’re doing it. This is the case with Carney. Pass effieciency is all about bang for the buck. In an option offense, a good portion of the passing is done with play-action to catch defenses sleeping, leading to wide-open receivers running for daylight. These passes are completed for big gains, and often touchdowns. That’s what drives the pass efficiency numbers. It’s no different with Navy’s offense. In 2005, Lamar Owens’ 144.2 rating would have been good enough to rank him in the top 20 in that category. I don’t think anybody would have considered him a top passer that year, though. Lamar was simply good enough to do what his particular offense asked him to do. The same can be said of Carney, only now he’s being asked to do something different. Passing is a lot harder when defenses are expecting it.
Air Force might be struggling on offense, but they aren’t exactly taking on the Monsters of the Midway this week. As you are well aware by now, Navy’s defense has had problems of its own. Some people take comfort in knowing that the Air Force offense isn’t nearly as big as the offenses that Navy has faced this year. I am not one of those people. While it’s true that Navy has faced some big teams this year, physical differences aren’t the source of Navy’s problems. Navy’s problems come from a lack of discipline and experience. You don’t have to be 320 pounds to move a defensive lineman out of the way if that DL is running the wrong way to begin with. Schematically, Air Force naturally employs a lot of fakes, misdirection, and play-action. Those things, plus the occasional trick play, will mean big trouble for a defense that plays as sloppily as Navy has this year. Air Force will have open plays. The question is whether or not they can execute them.
For all of the talk about Air Force’s offense, the biggest surprise has actually been their defense– but for the opposite reason. Air Force is giving up a respectable 333 yards per game, including less than 100 per game on the ground. They are ranked in the top 20 in scoring defense. Now it’s true that they’ve faced a few struggling offenses, but it isn’t like Duke was lighting up anyone’s scoreboard before they played Navy. Air Force’s defense is playing good football, and they’re doing it using an attacking style that many people (including myself) thought would leave them exposed to the big play. It hasn’t really happened yet, thanks in large part to a veteran linebacking corps led by Drew Fowler and John Rabold. Air Force already has 9 sacks this year and gives up less than three yards per carry.
With the pressure that Air Force is sure to bring to the line of scrimmage to stop the option, Kaipo could have to replicate his passing performance from last week. It’s kind of funny that Kaipo’s 217 yards passing last week in Paul Johnson’s “one-dimensional” offense is more than any game that Shaun Carney has had this year in his new “balanced” offense. Chances are that Air Force defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is going to make him have to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. Or maybe it’s more accurate that DeRuyter is going to make the offensive line prove that it wasn’t a fluke. Either way, the pressure is coming. Navy’s offensive fate rests on the team’s ability to handle it and Paul Johnson’s ability to adjust to it. The latter is a no-brainer. I feel a little bit better about the former after watching the offense last week.
Shaun Carney went to the Air Force Academy because he said that Navy would never beat them. Since then, Navy has never lost to them. Carney has one more chance to do what he went to Air Force to do. For Navy, it’s time to finish karma’s job.