Usually when a I-A team and a I-AA team meet on the football field, it’s the I-AA team that plays the “no respect” card. Not this week, as Delaware receiver Aaron Love decided to channel his inner Shaun Carney:
“Athletically, I think we’re just as good as Navy, if not better,” junior wide receiver Aaron Love said. “We shouldn’t have any problem winning this game.”
There are those who would say that this isn’t arrogance; it’s just confidence. Or perhaps, unbeknownst to the rest of us, Mr. Love is some kind of expert talent evaluator. But really? “Shouldn’t have any problem?” Can you imagine if it was a Navy player who said that? The Delaware media would erupt, and Chuck Atwater would spontaneously combust. There would be an uproar on both sides of the Chesapeake, with no end to the “respect” talk. Now it isn’t as if Navy is without reproach or that Delaware is without talent, but that isn’t the point. There are people who say that bulletin board material doesn’t make a difference once the game is underway, and that’s probably true. Where it makes a difference is in the week of practice before the game. If Delaware thought that they were catching Navy at a good time, in a week sandwiched between the defending ACC champion and the annual clash with Notre Dame, they can forget that now. I’m guessing that lack of focus isn’t a problem for Paul Johnson’s team this week.
(As a side note, it seems that part of the mantra of Delaware fans is that Paul Johnson is a jerk. I find it funny that they’ll say so in one breath, then defend Love’s comments in the next breath. )
But that’s enough message board nonsense for now. On to the game.
Scheduling Rhode Island seems to be a trendy thing to do for some of Navy’s opponents lately. Connecticut did it last year, and Army squeaked by URI earlier this season. The Rams are coached by Tim Stowers, who took over as Georgia Southern’s offensive coordinator when Paul Johnson left for Hawaii and was relieved by Paul Johnson as GSU’s head coach after the 1996 season. Under Stowers, Rhode Island runs a spread option offense that is similar to Paul Johnson’s. Playing against the Rams gives coaches a an extra week to prepare for Navy’s offense– in theory, anyway. In reality, all it really does is put their defensive game plan on film for Johnson to pick apart. UConn experienced this last year, as PJ noticed that the Huskies seemed to have figured out Rhody’s audibles. On Navy’s first play against UConn, PJ had the offense look like Brian Hampton had called a run audible before the ball was snapped. Johnson called a play-action pass, though, and Reggie Campbell got behind the defense for a 77-yard touchdown reception. That was the beginning of a long day for UConn, as Navy rolled up 605 yards of offense.
Obviously, the Rhode Island scheduling strategy didn’t work. This year, Delaware has played URI, although they did so because they’re in the same conference, not because they wanted to get ready for Navy. Whatever the reason, I was excited about the prospects of PJ breaking down that film– until he revealed earlier this week that he didn’t even have tape of that game. Bummer. Without it, the best film to use to prepare for this game is probably the Navy-Delaware game from 2004. So let’s take a look at that game.
On offense, Delaware came out with 4-5 wide receivers on almost every play. Sonny Riccio threw 50 passes as the Blue Hens attempted to nickel & dime their way past Navy’s defense. There weren’t many throws downfield; Riccio’s 30-for-50 passing performance resulted in only 255 yards. There also wasn’t much running, as they rushed for only 59 yards on the day.
Delaware will still try to nickel and dime their way down the field, but this year’s squad has a whole new element: Omar Cuff. Cuff played in that 2004 game as a freshman, but had only 5 carries. It was his second game as a running back. He began 2004 as a defensive back, but was switched to RB halfway through the season. That move paid some large dividends for the Blue Hens, as he had 4 100- yard games over the second half of the season including a 170-yard performance in the playoffs against William and Mary. Cuff showed that his performance was no fluke, following up that freshman campaign by being named a third-team All-American his sophomore year. After missing four games last year due to an ankle sprain, Cuff has regained his All-American form, having already rushed for 863 yards and 20(!) touchdowns through seven games. He had 200 yards in the Blue Hens’ last game vs. Northeastern, and was the talk of the college football world in Week 1 following a 244-yard, 6 TD performance at William and Mary.
Schematically, Delaware’s offense matches up very well against the Navy defense. Navy plays soft to prevent the big play, but Delaware doesn’t try to throw deep very often. Our friend Mr. Love leads the team with 32 catches for 442 yards, but his longest reception of the year is only 27 yards. Quarterback Joe Flacco is bigger and more accurate than Sonny Riccio. If you think that Navy can sit back and wait for the Blue Hens to make a mistake, think again; Flacco completes 73% of his passes and has thrown only 3 interceptions, while Cuff fumbles at a rate of 1 out of every 100 touches. Delaware’s offense isn’t going to beat themselves and will be content to throw the short pass all day long. Not coincidentally, they are ranked 5th in I-AA in total offense. And while it’s true that Delaware’s impressive statistics have come against a schedule that doesn’t exactly take your breath away, I wouldn’t put too much stock in that. If Navy had been able to stop anyone up to this point, I might take some solace in Delaware’s opposition. Delaware might be untested, but Navy hasn’t shown the ability to test anyone themselves. With yet another freshman looking like he’s going to get some more playing time this week (Emmett Merchant), it’s Navy’s defense that is going to get the test.
Things look a little better for Navy on the other side of the ball. Kaipo was able to shake off his neck injury and has been practicing all week, so the offense should be healthy. Having Kaipo back is good news for a team that’s about to face I-AA’s 8th-ranked run defense. But what’s the story behind that lofty ranking? We’ve said it before; statistics are as much a factor of who you’ve played as they are of how you’ve played. I’m not referring to Delaware’s strength of schedule, either. Teams that play Navy tend to see their pass defense ranking vault up the charts. That isn’t because our opponents play good pass defense; it’s because Navy doesn’t pass. The same can be said of Delaware’s opponents so far this season. The highest ranked rushing offense that Delaware has faced is Rhode Island’s, which is ranked #12 in that category and racks up 242 yards per game. While Delaware did hold the Rams to 187 yards on the ground, that isn’t necessarily a big accomplishment. Rhode Island isn’t very good. For an apples to apples comparison, let’s look at Rhody’s game vs. Army. The Woops have the 88th-ranked run defense in I-A, and they held Rhode Island even fewer rushing yards than Delaware– 158. Outside of Rhode Island, the Blue Hens have faced rushing offenses ranked only 59, 72, 78, 89, and 108 in I-AA. Even West Chester, Delaware’s annual Division II opponent, is only ranked 61st in D-II rushing offense. Delaware’s rushing defense looks more impressive than it really is because they play teams that don’t run.
But maybe we should give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume for a minute that Delaware’s run defense isn’t overrated; let’s say that it is merely untested. Even if that is the case, defending more conventional rushing offenses is not the same as defending the triple option– Paul Johnson’s offense in particular. That 2004 game is the perfect example of this. If you disregard their game against Navy that year, Delaware gave up only 96 rushing yards per game. That would have been good for 5th in I-AA. It didn’t mean much against Navy, who ran for 346 yards against Delaware that year and dropped the Blue Hens all the way to #20 in run defense. A bad rushing defense is usually going to have a tough time with Navy. A good one, though, isn’t guaranteed to do much better.
In 2004, Delaware’s defense lined up with a 5-man front. The two middle linebackers also played close to the line of scrimmage, meaning that seven players were geared toward stopping the fullback dive play. The secondary played straight man-to-man, with each safety taking a slotback. Both safeties played fairly deep, but as soon as one of them read that it was going to be a running play, he would come crashing down on the slotback at full speed to close the gap.
It didn’t work too well. With so many people committed to stopping the dive and a secondary focused on the pitch man, there really wasn’t anyone left to stop the quarterback. Not surprisingly, Aaron Polanco ran for 3 TDs that day. The one-on-one coverage opened up the passing game too, as Polanco was 8 of 11 through the air with yet another touchdown.
Actually, man-to-man coverage creates several opportunities in this offense. When the slotback goes into tail motion, he takes the safety with him. The most obvious play that opens up is the quick throw to the wide receiver in the flat. When the slotback takes the safety with him to the other side of the formation, it leaves a wide receiver one-on-one with a corner, who now has no safety help. If the receiver can make the first man miss, he stands to have a lot of room to run. Seven of Polanco’s eight completions went to wide receivers. Man-to-man defense also opens up the reverse. The corner who was covering the pitch wide receiver can be picked off by a slotback. With both safeties on the same side of the formation thanks to tail motion, nobody is left to stay home on what the defense thought would be the backside of the play. Jason Tomlinson ran one for 32 yards. Finally, Delaware’s defensive alignment also left the fullback option wide open. Kyle Eckel ran for 143 yards, with the bulk of that yardage coming outside the tackles. If Delaware lines up the same way they did in 2004, there’s no teling how many yards Navy will pile up this week.
So it looks like another high-scoring game yet again. The faint of heart– and those who like defense– should probably skip this one.