The way Navy’s defense has played this year, one mistake by the offense has been enough to put a game out of reach. Three mistakes, and it’s sure to result in a blowout. After Navy’s offense gave up three turnovers on Saturday afternoon, that’s exactly what happened. A homecoming crowd of nearly 37,000 saw Kenny Moore catch 15 passes for 181 yards as Wake Forest thumped Navy, 44-24. The loss, which brought Navy’s record down to 4-3, was the result of poor play in all three phases of the game for the Mids. We’ll start with the offense.
Navy had rallied back from a 14-3 deficit to take a 17-14 lead after a Shun White touchdown run in the second quarter. Wake tied it up with a field goal on their next drive, and Navy took posession on their own 20 following the kickoff. It was at that point that everything pretty much went to hell. On the second play of the drive, Kaipo had barely turned around after carrying out his fake on a counter option when he was met by a blitzing Aaron Curry. The force of Curry’s accelerating 240-pound frame was delivered directly to Kaipo’s face, whipping the quarterback’s neck back and knocking him out of the game. Jarod Bryant stepped in and was promptly blindsided on the next play as he brought his arm back to pass, causing a fumble that was scooped up and returned for a Wake Forest touchdown.
I wrote earlier that the key to Navy’s first two losses this year was turnovers. The third loss was no exception; three Navy turnovers turned into 17 Wake Forest points. The normally sure-handed Eric Kettani fumbled on the Wake 24 as Navy was driving in the third quarter. Jarod Bryant fumbled a snap on the next drive, giving Wake Forest the ball at the Navy 39. And just like that, a game that looked like it was on its way to 34-31 turned into a 44-24 debacle.
Kaipo’s injury was the key play of the game. Navy had three scores on its first three posessions with Kaipo at the helm, but managed only one more (along with three turnovers) the rest of the way. The offense is just a more efficient machine with Kaipo in charge. That’s not a slap at Jarod Bryant as much as it is the reality of developing quarterbacks in this offense. Time and repetition mean everything, and Navy fans have been spoiled with a long line of senior quarterbacks ready to take over year after year. Kaipo isn’t a senior, but the experience that he already has in this offense is comparable to the experience that Navy’s previous senior signal callers have had. While Jarod is a classmate of Kaipo’s, he just doesn’t have the same foundation in the offense, and it shows.
Jarod gets a lot of praise for being a “decisive” runner; Scott Zolak wouldn’t stop using that word during the CSTV broadcast. People say that Jarod appears to be more confident cutting upfield. It’s an illusion. The reality is that Jarod looks decisive because he doesn’t make reads very well. Contrary to what you’re supposed to do when running the option, Jarod decides where he’s going to go with the ball before it’s snapped. If his pre-snap decision happens to take what the defense ends up giving him, then it looks like a “decisive read.” Unfortunately, for every “decisive read,” there’s a play that gets stuffed because the ball went to the wrong option. Paul Johnson recognizes this and does his best to call plays where Jarod can succeed. Think back to Jarod’s biggest plays this season. How many were on predetermined carries? The comeback against Duke was engineered using QB draws. Yesterday, the big plays on the opening drive of the second half came on the midline option, which is the easiest read for the quarterback to make (he only has one key). But you can only draw from that well so many times. Calling these plays can give a defense a different look for a drive or two at the end of the game, but defenses will be able to adjust if they have a whole half to do so. And that’s exactly what Wake Forest did.
It isn’t just in the option game that Jarod is deciding where to go before the snap; he did it in the passing game as well. On two occasions Jarod threw to a double-covered slotback on a wheel route when there was a receiver running wide open on a post pattern over the middle. Jarod never made the progression to his secondary receiver. In fairness, getting hit from behind in the second quarter probably didn’t make Jarod comfortable standing and looking for too long. Nevertheless, those became missed opportunities.
We’ve seen these kinds of struggles from non-senior quarterbacks under Paul Johnson before. Craig Candeto was far more effective in 2003 than he was the previous year. Aaron Polanco looked shaky in his one start in 2002 before stepping in two years later and leading Navy to a 10-2 record. Brian Hampton had a lot of the same problems with pre-determining ballcarriers and receivers before he took over the offense in 2006 and led them to 400 rushing yards in his first game. Jarod is progressing the same way that his predecessors did, but Kaipo’s injury compressed that timeline.
Turnovers were only the beginning of Navy’s problems. Defensively, nobody could stop Kenny Moore. Nobody could get to Riley Skinner, either. As a result, Wake Forest was 10 for 14 on 3rd down conversions. Four of those conversions came on passes to Moore. For the second week in a row Navy’s defense was able to stop the run once in a while on first and second down, only to give up a first down on 3rd and long. Navy had a chance to stop Wake Forest on each of its first three scoring drives, putting the Deacs in 3rd & 6 or more 4 times. Combine the 17 points scored on those drives with the 17 points that Wake scored off of Navy turnovers, and you account for nearly all of their scoring in the game.
The run defense has been inconsistent all year, but in the last couple of games they’ve been able to make a play here and there. Irv Spencer had a season-high 3 tackles for a loss this week. But when those plays set up a 3rd & long, the complete lack of a pass rush gives opposing quarterbacks all the time in the world to make a play, both through the air and with their legs. Navy has never exactly been a sack factory, but averaging less than one sack every two games is insanely low even by Navy standards. It’s especially disappointing given the high hopes that Navy fans had for Nate Frazier and Andy Lark. Physically, they remind you of Babatunde Akingbemi. Yet they haven’t looked like him on the field. Or have they? Akingbemi’s 2004 season was a thing of beauty, but he wasn’t nearly as effective as a junior in 2003. Having a big body is one thing; learning to use it is another. Akingbemi didn’t become a good nose guard until he refined his technique. I suspect the same can be said for Nate and Andy; they really aren’t that far removed from playing games in high school or prep school where they could get away with just overpowering their opponents with sheer physical superiority. That doesn’t fly in Division I football. Like Jarod Bryant, they are probably both a year away from being truly effective. Unfortunately, that doesn’t do this year’s defense much good.
Something else that isn’t doing the Navy defense much good is Navy’s special teams– or more specifically, the kick return coverage. Between Navy’s turnovers and Kevin Marion’s kickoff returns, Wake Forest enjoyed excellent field position all afternoon. That set the defense up for failure. In fact, the defense actually played reasonably well when they didn’t start a drive with their backs against the wall. Wake Forest had 10 drives in the game. Five of those drives started on their own 40 yard line or better. One of those drives was at the end of the game as Jim Grobe ran out the clock. The other four resulted in 28 points. Wake Forest had 5 drives where they had to drive 70 yards or more, and those 5 drives yielded only 9 points. When they were given some field to work with, the defense did its job. It’s hard to believe when you see 44 points on the scoreboard, but the defense was actually a little bit better this week. Not good by any stretch of the imagination… But better.
That’s a mighty thin silver lining, though. It was an ugly game, and Navy can’t afford to have many more like it.