I can’t take much more of this. Someone mentioned on the Navy Sports Magazine Show last night that Navy has become the most exciting team in football. That’s probably good for ratings, but not so good for my health. Watching the game on Wednesday night, I felt nauseous and light-headed. My arms fell asleep, too; I think that was from locking my elbows and clenching my chair for 4 hours. I’m so wrapped up in Navy football that it’s actually physically affecting me. Sometimes I think I really need to re-examine my priorities.
Then Rashawn King makes a clutch play, and I think, “Nah.”
Navy got their first overtime win in school history on Wednesday night, holding on to beat Pitt 48-45. The Navy offense fell 3 yards short of another 500-yard performance, cranking out 331 yards on the ground and adding 166 yards through the air on 9-for-14 passing. The defense continued to struggle, giving up 418 yards and 45 points to a Pitt offense that had been miserable through 5 games. But like they had done against Air Force and Duke, the defense made plays when they had to at the end of the game.
It would be nice if the defense made those kinds of plays in the second or third quarter rather than waiting until the fourth quarter, or in this case, the second overtime. The hole that has been burning in my stomach since August 31, which I have now named The Nate Frazier Memorial Ulcer, might then be a bit smaller.
Actually, the most frustrating thing about this game was that the defense was able to make some plays, but still couldn’t get off the field. On Pitt’s first scoring drive, Navy had the Panthers in a 3rd and 12 from their own 35 after Chris Kuhar-Pitters batted down a Pat Bostick pass at the line of scrimmage. But Pitt RB LeSean McCoy, who would go on to run for 165 yards and three touchdowns, was able to pick up 11 yards on the next play to set up 4th and 1. Pitt converted easily. Later in the same drive, Navy had an opportunity to hold Pitt to a field goal after stuffing McCoy on 1st and 2nd down and forcing 3rd and 10. On that play, Irv Spencer came in unblocked on a blitz from the offense’s right side, forcing Bostick to have to throw to his safety valve, TE Nate Byham. Byham appeared to be stopped 6 yards short of the first down, but Ketric Buffin and Jesse Iwuji both were unable to bring him down, and Byham broke free for 10 extra yards to give Pitt a first and goal.
Navy’s special teams didn’t do the defense any favors, either. On Pitt’s next drive, Navy held Pitt to what should have been a 3 & out. But since Pitt started its drive from the Navy 44 yard line after a 45-yard kickoff return, head coach Dave Wannstedt didn’t have to think twice about going for it on 4th & 2. Pitt picked up the first down and went on to score. That wasn’t the only time that a kickoff return put the Navy defense in a bad position. In the 3rd quarter, another 45-yard kickoff return put Pitt in Navy territory again to start their drive. Navy was able to hold Pitt to a field goal. If that drive had started at, say, the Pitt 30, could that field goal have been a punt instead? Finally, after Wyatt Middleton made a tremendous tackle to stop Pitt WR Oderick Turner on 3rd down in the first overtime, Nate Frazier made what almost became the most inexcusable offsides penalty in history. All’s well that ends well I suppose, but I didn’t have a very good feeling about things ending well at the time.
For all of the problems that the Navy defense has– and great googly moogly there are a lot– effort and heart aren’t among them. Honestly, I thought that Navy was toast after Frazier’s penalty. I thought that it would just be too deflating. But thanks to Rashawn King, with an assist to some baffling play calling by Dave Wannstedt, Navy’s defense came through in the end. Unless there’s some kind of miracle, though, we aren’t always going to be so fortunate.
I was a little disappointed in Buddy Green’s game plan. In the week leading up to the game, Paul Johnson had mentioned that he expected Pitt to throw to the flat a lot since Navy has had so much trouble defending it lately. That’s exactly what Pitt did. Bostick averaged less than 10 yards per completion, going 20-28 for 191 yards. Since the coaches knew what was coming, I wish they would have put more of a priority on defending it. I understand that our usual gameplan is to defend the deep ball and prevent the big play. It’s a smart philosophy, but there are situations where I think we would be better served by adjusting it. Wednesday night was one of those situations. Playing against a freshman quarterback, I thought that Navy should have taken away the easy throws underneath and forced Bostick to throw the deep ball. All those easy completions just built up Bostick’s confidence. The one time he did try to go deep, it was intercepted. The deep ball is just a tougher play to make, and forcing a freshman to make those plays would put some pressure on him and maybe cause a mistake or two. This won’t be Navy’s last game against a freshman quarterback, so maybe the coaches will try it later in the season. Like I’ve said before, it isn’t like things can get much worse on defense.
On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine things getting much better on offense. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, despite his rather harsh self-evaluation (“For me personally, I played a terrible game”), was tremendous. Kaipo had yet another 100 yard rushing game, running for 122 yards and a TD. He added 166 yards and 2 TDs through the air, but it isn’t the statistical dominance that is so impressive to me. It’s his mastery of the offense. Kaipo says he missed a lot of reads– and after watching the game again I noticed a few more than I did on Wednesday– but for every read he missed, he made a great play. My favorite was Navy’s second touchdown of the night– Kaipo’s first TD pass. Navy ran that same play against Rutgers, except with Reggie coming from the other side of the formation. That night, the play ended in one of Rutgers’ three INTs. On Wednesday, Kaipo threw to a leaping Reggie Campbell once again, only this time his pass was perfectly placed above the reaching arms of the defensive back and into the hands of an airborne Campbell. Affirmation, baby.
Speaking of Rutgers, I really thought that Pitt was going to come out with the same defensive gameplan that the Scarlet Knights did against Navy back in week two. My rationale was that I thought there might have been some film sharing between the two Big East programs. After Wannstedt challenged Pat Bostick to score 28 points, it sort of reinforced my theory since Navy scored 24 in Piscataway. Man, was I ever wrong. Rutgers attacked like mad, while Pitt was content to play a far more passive game. I should’ve known after Wannstedt said of Navy before the game, “If they can keep the ball for eight minutes and run 15 plays, I’ll be the happiest guy in the world. That’s how you defeat this offense, you make them earn every yard and eliminate the big plays.” Bill Wagner reacted to that comment on his blog: “With all due respect, I think Pittsburgh will be in big trouble tonight if Navy puts together eight-minute, 15-play drives. I have watched this team run the triple-option the past five years and I can assure you the Midshipmen almost always win when they mount those types of long, clock-grinding drives.” Wagner 1, Wannstedt 0. Navy ended up having 5 drives of 10 plays or more. Maybe Wannstedt would have had better luck with that strategy last year. This year, Kaipo is seasoned enough that he isn’t going to make very many mistakes without being forced.
One of the most entertaining things about watching a Paul Johnson-coached offense is seeing the constant adjustments over the course of a game. Against Pittsburgh, the offense relied heavily on two particular plays that we’ve seen only sparingly through the first 5 games: the FB trap, and the counter option.
The Panthers’ sit-back-and-wait style made the FB trap a no-brainer. There are several different reads that the read key can present to the quarterback on a triple option play. One of them is called a “squat.” Squatting means that the player that the QB is reading doesn’t commit to either the fullback or the quarterback. Instead, as the quarterback is reading the defender, he’s reading the quarterback right back; he reacts to whatever the quarterback decides to do with the ball. That’s when Paul Johnson calls the fullback trap. On the trap play, the offense shows an option look, sending the slotback into tail motion and sending the fullback to mesh with the quarterback. The read key sees the option look and squats like he had been doing on the other option plays. But this isn’t an option play, and when he sees the give to the fullback and moves to make the tackle, he gets smacked by a pulling guard and the fullback runs free.
Paul Johnson talks a lot about the importance of establishing the fullback. The reason he says that is because when the fullback is effective, it sets up other elements of the offense. One of those elements is the counter option. The more effective the fullback is in the triple option, the more the backside 5-technique (DL lined up on the outside shoulder of the tackle) is tempted to cheat inside to stop him. When Coach Monken notices that happening from his bird’s eye view in the press box, he passes that to Coach Johnson, who then calls a counter option play. The play starts with the playside slotback going into tail motion in order to give the defense the look that the play is going in the opposite direction. The playside 5-technique cheats inside to stop what he thinks will be a fullback dive. By cheating inside, he becomes easier for the pulling guard to seal off from the outside. At the snap, the motion slotback reverses direction, the backside guard pulls to block the cheating 5-technique, and the quarterback fakes to the fullback before pivoting and reversing direction himself. The 5-technique would have had responsibility for the C gap, but he’s being blocked– leaving the perimeter open. That’s what happened on Navy’s longest run of the night, Kaipo’s 37-yard counter option keeper in the 3rd quarter.
The offense is doing great things, but isn’t perfect. Navy had a chance to break the game open at the end of the third quarter following Rashawn King’s interception. Up 35-31, Navy could have stretched the lead to two scores; instead, they turned the ball over on downs when a Greg Veteto fake punt attempt fell short. Capitalizing on turnovers has been a weakness for the offense this year. Navy’s defense has forced 8 turnovers, but the offense has only scored 6 points off of them all year. The defense’s struggles make it even more important for the offense to capitalize when they do make a play.
But, like Paul Johnson said after the Duke game, it’s easier to work on those problems after a win. And what a win it was. Yes, Pitt has problems, but even flawed BCS teams are still BCS teams. This was definitely a case of Navy winning a game that it wasn’t supposed to, at least on paper. It feels good. Now they have to do it all over again next week.
— If there’s one play that Kaipo seems to be struggling with, it’s the quarterback draw. Paul Johnson has a couple of different QB draw plays that he likes to call, but his favorite is the fake rollout & reverse back the other way– the play that set up the winning drive against Air Force in 2004. Aaron Polanco and Lamar Owens were both very good at running this play. The difference between how they would run it and how Kaipo runs it is footwork. Kaipo rolls out, stops, plants his feet, and changes direction. Polanco and Owens didn’t do that. They would roll out, but instead of planting their feet, they’d make a big loop and circle back in the other direction. Looping back instead of stopping allowed them to maintain some forward momentum, which is something that would be particularly beneficial to Kaipo since he needs a little time to get his long strides churning at full speed.
— Down 38-35 with just under 5 minutes left in the game, Paul Johnson faced a 4th & 3 from the Pitt 19. I thought he would go for it, since it didn’t seem likely that Navy would get the ball back if they kicked a field goal and gave the ball back to Pitt. Johnson opted for the field goal, and the Navy defense held on Pitt’s ensuing drive. I suppose that this is why Paul Johnson is a well-paid football coach, and I am just a random blogger on the innurnets.
Birddog Game Balls
— Reggie Campbell: Reggie had three TDs on Wednesday, but that isn’t why he’s getting a game ball. Reggie’s getting a game ball for his kickoff returns. After the game, Dave Wannstedt said, “Our field position didn’t give us much of a chance. With a game like this, the plan is to make them go 80, 90 yards and we didn’t get that done.” They didn’t get it done because of Reggie Campbell. Reggie had two returns, one for 30 yards and one for 60. Pitt tried to kick the ball away from him, and they ended up kicking it out of bounds twice– letting Navy start at the 35. Field position means everything in football, and Reggie Campbell set the offense up for success.
— Tyree Barnes: Navy didn’t score on either of the drives on which Tyree had a catch, and that’s too bad. His three receptions shouldn’t be overlooked. He set up Navy’s field goal attempt at the end of the first half on a 37-yard catch with a defensive back draped all over him. It should have been called defensive pass interference. He also had a great catch on Navy’s last drive in regulation, stretching to get his toes down on a sideline reception.
— The offensive line. Every friggin’ one of them. I’ll write more about that this week.
— The mid at the game who made the “I Hate Touchdowns From Pitt” sign. Best sign ever.