For those who do not already know, I graduated from our fair academy in 1999. ’99 was the incredible shrinking class, dwindling to less than 900 by the time we graduated. In fact, an unusually high number of ’99ers were separated in the few weeks preceding graduation. The joke around the class back then was that graduation better get there soon, because at the rate things were going there wouldn’t be anyone left to graduate. I find myself feeling the same way now, as the beginning of another Navy football season is finally upon us after a slew of injuries in practice. Most offseasons tend to be pretty dull, but not this year. With coaching upheaval, ASO drama, and injuries galore in fall camp, the last 8 months have been a confusing and occasionally frustrating time. Usually people get fired up with the start of a new season, but this year it’s almost calming to finally be able put aside everything else and simply focus on one game and one opponent. And in week one, that opponent is Towson.
Any time Paul Johnson wanted to knock his Navy teams down a peg or two, he’d gather them up after practice and ask “how many of you were recruited by Maryland” or “how many of you were recruited by Duke” or whoever the opponent happened to be that week. Nobody would raise his hand. PJ’s point was to show the players that the teams Navy plays each week are usually more talented; and if you aren’t going to out-talent a team, you had better outwork them. Unfortunately for Coach Niumatalolo, it’s a motivational tool that isn’t available to him this week; Towson probably recruited several of Navy’s players, at least the ones from the Mid-Atlantic states. So perhaps motivation is the reason why Navy can beat Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, but lose to Delaware. Or why Navy can go 10-2 and finish at #24 in both polls, but struggle to put away Northeastern. Or why a one-point squeaker over UMass is sandwiched between victories over a Pac-10 team and a bowl-bound Conference USA team. Or maybe it’s because the talent level isn’t as different as we want to think. Either way, except for a 37-10 win over VMI in the 2003 opener, Navy hasn’t exactly played its best football against I-AA opponents.
That said, I don’t want to start going overboard Lou Holtz-style here. Towson is a work in progress, both as a football program and as a university. The school is growing, having been tasked by the state system in 2003 with expanding its enrollment to 25,000 students over 10 years. The plan to make that happen is called “TU 2010.” Part of the plan is to “develop a Towson ‘Brand’ to bring the Towson story to the external community,” and to “make the arts and athletics key components of campus life and use both as links to the external community.” Translation: fire up the football program! And they have. Towson (or Towson State back then) was once a Division III team that saw occasional success at that level, even advancing to the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in 1976. From 1979-1986, the team played in Division II, and was a playoff regular towards the end of their run at that level. In 1987 the team made the jump to I-AA. Towson was a member of the non-scholarship Patriot League from 1997-2003. They joined the cream of the I-AA crop, the A-10 (now CAA), in 2004. This will be their second season with the full compliment of 63 scholarships. The Tigers have had some modest success, too, with winning seasons in both 2005 and 2006. A lot of that success, though, came from a less-than-stellar non-conference schedule. And last year, when there wasn’t enough scholarship depth to make up for a rash of injuries, the team struggled to a 3-8 record.
Nevertheless, the theme for Towson football is growth, and their game at Navy is a big part of the plan. Those non-conference schedules are getting a jolt. This weekend’s contest at Navy will be the first game against a I-A opponent in Towson history. It’ll be the first of several, with games against Maryland, Northwestern, and Indiana on tap for the future. Towson will get some cash from these games, of course, but they’ll also help to raise the profile of the school. It’s a big deal, and Towson fans know it; they’re apparently coming by the busload. Good for them if they can pull it off. Good for us if they buy tickets and spend money! But enough of that namby-pamby, feel-good nonsense. There’s a football game to be played!
Towson is a good opening opponent for the Mids. Navy should win, but not before Towson puts them to the test on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Towson does exactly what Navy couldn’t handle last year: throw, throw, run a draw play, then throw some more. Towson’s entire offense ran for fewer yards (754) than either Kaipo or Eric Kettani last season; on the flip side, the Tigers threw 38 passes per game, including a Hawaii-like 60 attempts in the season finale against James Madison. This presents a tremendous opportunity for the Navy defense to show how far it has come since the nightmare of 2007. Navy couldn’t stop much of anything last year, but what it really, REALLY couldn’t stop was a controlled, short-yardage passing attack. Delaware, North Texas, Ball State… All of them utilize the same kind of spread-em-out-and-throw-it-around style that Towson does, and all of them moved the ball at will against Navy and their 119th-ranked pass efficiency defense. Towson doesn’t have the same talent as these schools (although they certainly played better defense than Navy did against Delaware), but schematically they are more or less identical. So it won’t take long to be able to tell if the defense has made the kind of improvement we think it has.
Towson is led by the QB-WR tandem of Sean Schaefer and Marcus Lee. Schaefer is a four-year starter who leads all active I-AA quarterbacks in career passing yards and will become the most prolific passer in Towson history barring injury. Schaefer completed 61% of his passes last year, but 19 were to the wrong team. Bad decisions come when pressure is applied, so it’s no surprise that where there are a lot of interceptions, there are a lot of sacks. Towson’s injury problems were particularly bad on the offensive line last year, and Schaefer went down 39 times. While they’re healthy now, Towson is still starting three sophomores up front. With the pass rush being the #1 problem on Navy’s defense last year, this could be a good chance for the defensive line to gain some confidence to start the season. Getting pressure on Schaefer might not mean that all of Navy’s problems are solved, but not getting pressure on the Towson signal caller could mean big trouble with Nate Davis waiting next Friday night.
Lee is a preseason all-conference selection after catching 66 passes for 680 yards in 2007. A prototypical posession receiver, the 6-2, 202 lb. Lee is remarkably consistent; he caught at least 5 passes in 8 of Towson’s 11 games last year, including three 9-catch games. He’s joined in Towson’s 3-receiver lineup by what has to be the biggest physical contrast of any receiving corps in college football. Tommy Breaux is a 6-8 forward on the Towson basketball team that gives Schaefer a huge physical mismatch with pretty much anyone, especially in red zone jump-ball situations. Healthy again after missing most of last season with a foot injury, Breaux is a fade pattern waiting to happen. At a lower altitude is the 5-9 Dave Newsom, a transfer from regular NAPS rival Nassau CC. Newsom turned heads at Towson’s spring game, catching 7 passes for 60 yards and two touchdowns. The three of them combine to form a receiving corps that gives opponents a little bit of everything to deal with.
The stereotypical college football team that likes to chuck the ball around as much as Towson does usually has a pretty lackluster defense. But that wasn’t the case here; Towson had a top 50 I-AA defense in 2007, and was top 30 in scoring defense. That performance earned defensive coordinator Bob Benson an associate head coaching job at the D-II Colorado School of Mines. Replacing Benson is former Yale assistant Jeff McDonald. McDonald is keeping Benson’s 3-4 scheme, which probably means Ivin Jasper will see a lot of odd-man fronts. This puts Ken Niumatalolo’s decision to move Ricky Moore to center in the spotlight right away. Moore, at 6-4, 295, is a lot bigger than Antron Harper or any other Navy center of the last few years. Niumat moved him from tackle to center specifically to handle odd-man fronts, where the nose guard is usually lined up directly over the center. He felt that Moore’s size would help neutralize the big interior linemen that Navy will face. That theory gets its first test on Saturday as Moore will line up opposite Yaky Ibia, Towson’s 6-2, 295-pound nose guard. Moore has reportedly struggled against Nate Frazier in practice and has been a focal point of the offense’s problems in fall camp. How he handles Ibia will be a good indicator of whether Moore is struggling, or if Nate is just that damn good.
The biggest question on offense, though, is at quarterback. Kaipo is reported to be making progress with his hamstring, but hasn’t practiced in pads in quite some time. Jarod Bryant has been getting all the snaps at QB with the 1st team offense and will probably start. Bad news? No. It isn’t good news, of course– I’m sure everyone here is well aware of my Kaipo-worship, and he is without a doubt the best quarterback on the roster. And everyone is also well aware of my criticism of Jarod in the past as not being as sharp in handling the offense. But that was then, and this is now. One of the patterns that we’ve seen over the last 6 years is the maturation of Navy quarterbacks between their junior and senior years. In 2002, Navy was a fumble factory. Fans were calling for Craig Candeto to be benched in favor of Aaron Polanco. Then Polanco got the start against UConn, and the offense laid an egg in a 38-0 loss. After Candeto graduated, fans wondered how Navy would replace him. But Polanco stepped up to deliver one of the most clutch seasons in Navy history in 2004. Then we had Brian Hampton, who received the exact same criticism as Bryant his sophomore and junior years– he just didn’t have a handle on the offense. But once it was his turn to start in 2006, he ran the offense just fine. It isn’t magic. It’s just the result of getting one more season of reps in practice. I’m confident that we’ll see the same thing in Jarod Bryant. He won’t be as good as Kaipo, but there’s no reason why he won’t be every bit as good as Candeto, Polanco, Owens, and Hampton. And that’s good enough. That said, we clearly want Kaipo back so both of them can get onto the field. But with the offense likely safe in Jarod’s hands, it isn’t worth risking Kaipo for the season by rushing him back for the first game.
A healthy Towson team is clearly better than last year’s 3-8 record. They aren’t the most talented team Navy will face this season, obviously, but they have a capable offense and a proven defense. They will put Navy’s 2007 weaknesses to the test right away. Close your books, sharpen those #2 pencils, and add whatever other test-taking cliche you can think of. It’s time to get started!