There’s a game in a week?
Sure enough. Time, tide, formation, and bowl games wait for no one, and my $500 plane tickets aren’t refundable. It only felt like the world stopped turning when Paul Johnson left. In reality, we’re one week away from the end of another great Navy football season.
When most schools hire a new football coach, fans usually have to wait 9 months or so to get to see him in action. Navy fans don’t even have to wait two weeks. Well, sort of. He might be the new coach, but Ken Niumatalolo’s theme at practice this week has been not to fix what isn’t broken. And with a week left in the season, it would certainly seem like a bad time to reinvent the wheel. If Niumat has changes in mind about how he’s going to run things, it will likely be spring before we see them.
The team’s routine won’t change, but that doesn’t mean everything will be business as usual when Navy takes on Utah in the third Poinsettia Bowl. Ivin Jasper will be putting together his first gameplan as Navy’s offensive coordinator, and will be calling his first game. It’s a real “X” factor. I was talking to my father on the phone last night, and as upset as he was over Paul Johnson’s departure, he was just as upset that Johnson wouldn’t be coaching in San Diego. I’m sure he isn’t the only Navy fan to feel that way. It isn’t how I feel, though. I’m excited to see what Jasper puts together. I’m glad we have what might be a sneak preview of next year. When Ken Niumatalolo was named head coach, I was selfishly excited because I figured I could take a look at Navy games from ’97 and ’98 and compare those offenses to Johnson’s Navy offenses to see if there might be some subtle differences. That way I’d have all sorts of neat things to write about. But with Jasper at the controls, I don’t have anything with which to compare the last few years’ worth of offenses. (WANTED: Film of the 1998 Indiana State Sycamores football season. Seriously.) Coach Johnson used to say that bowl games should be fun. Some coaches treat them like a second spring practice, while PJ viewed them as rewards. You could tell in the way he coached those games that he liked to have a little bit of fun himself, putting plays in the game plan that looked straight out of the playground. There was Air McCoy in the Aloha Bowl, slotback passes in the Emerald Bowl, the Reggie Campbell show in the first Poinsettia Bowl, and Kaipo lining up at wide receiver in the stack formation in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Does Ivin Jasper have something similar up his sleeve? Or will he prefer to keep things simple? Against a defense that is in the top 10 nationally in stopping 3rd down conversions (28.8%), it might be wiser to come out of the gates a little bit like we did against Northern Illinois and concentrate on creating 3rd & short for our offense.
Whatever Jasper pulls out of his hat, Utah seems to think they’re ready for it. And why wouldn’t they? The Utes have a top 15 defense, are ranked 3rd in the nation in scoring defense (15.5 ppg), and have surrendered an average of only 7.5 points over their last 4 games. Utah’s defense had four defenders make All-Mountain West first or second team, with senior defensive end Martail Burnett leading the way. Burnett ranks in the top 5 in the Mountain West in both sacks (7) and tackles for loss (14). His partner at the other DE position, Paul Kruger, registered 53 tackles on his way to being named a second-team Freshman All-American by the Sporting News.
Yet despite the accolades and lofty rankings, Air Force still managed to run for 334 yards on Utah. And they did it by running the same offense that they ran last year– with a heavy dose of triple option. What gives? Maybe not as much as the statistics would suggest. Air Force only put together one really long scoring drive in that game. On their first touchdown, they started their drive at midfield. Their second touchdown was on a 3-play drive set up by a 53-yard Shaun Carney run. Perhaps the loss early in the game of DT Gabe Long, described in the team’s media notes as Utah’s “best run defender,” was too much to overcome. It’s hard to imagine one player making that much of a difference, but maybe he could have helped to prevent Carney’s long run. Either way, I don’t take much solace in Air Force’s performance against Utah. In case you’re wondering, Long is being called questionable for the Poinsettia Bowl after getting hurt again against BYU.
On the other side of the ball, it’s the story of two teams that have been born again hard. Navy’s defense, rocked by injuries, shook off a string of miserable games to put together their best performances of the year against Northern Illinois and Army. Similarly hurt by the injury bug, Utah has won 7 of their last 8 games thanks in large part to an offense that has found some consistency after being shut out at UNLV. The Ute offense struggled to find its identity after quarterback Brian Johnson went down in the season opener at Oregon State with a shoulder injury. Since he returned to the starting lineup, Utah is 7-1 with their lone loss coming in the regular season finale versus Brigham Young. The injury has limited Johnson’s big-play ability, as he doesn’t have nearly the same arm strength that he used to. To compensate, Utah has turned into an efficient, ball-control offense. Johnson has completed 65% of his passes for over 1,600 yards. In the last 8 games, Johnson has averaged 17-26 passing for 178 yards per game. Efficient, if unspectacular. With limited arm strength, Johnson threw for only 9 touchdowns over the same span, and hasn’t completed a pass for over 30 yards since the San Diego State game back on October 13. The wide receivers’ loss, though, has been the running back’s gain. San Diego’s own Darrell Mack (6-0, 219) has averaged 113 rushing yards per game since Johnson’s return. He had a run of 5 straight 100-yard games, and would have had 6 if he had more carries in Utah’s 50-0 atom bomb on Wyoming (Mack had 14 carries for 97 yards). He runs behind a very good offensive line, anchored by all-conference selections Robert Conley and Zane Beadles, plus talented center Kyle Gunther. Efficient quarterback + big, fast running back + big, talented offensive line… Sounds like the formula for a lot of bad games for the Navy defense this year. We’ll see just how much they’ve improved.
Navy has had quite a bit of success against the Mountain West conference lately. The Mids have defeated the MWC runners-up in 3 of the last 4 years (New Mexico 2004, Colorado State 2005, Air Force 2007). But this will be Navy’s first game in that stretch against one of the conference’s “big three” of BYU, TCU, and Utah. After a bad start, Utah is back on track and playing the way people thought they would at the beginning of the year. A win here, and Ken Niumatalolo’s debut would be as impressive as any game in the post-Weatherbie era of Navy football.
Poinsettia Bowl coverage: My flight leaves for San Diego tomorrow morning. Depending on my internet connection, I’ll be posting about the stuff I’m doing all week, including the basketball game and the pregame luncheon. I’ll be posting about all the fun I’m having to try to convince you people to go to the next bowl game. Remember, Navy is attractive to bowl games because we have sold a lot of tickets over the last 5 years. When that dries up, so will the bowl games!
One question answered: Ken Niumatalolo has made his first outside hire to his staff, naming Cal Poly offensive cordinator Joe DuPaix as the new slotbacks coach. DuPaix installed a Navy-ish type of spread option offense last year for the Mustangs that was the most prolific in I-AA, averaging 487 yards per game. DuPaix comes on the recommendation of Poly head coach Rich Ellerson, who knows Niumat from the time they both spent at Hawaii. Welcome aboard, coach. (WANTED: Film of the 2007 Cal Poly Mustangs football season.)