It isn’t time to panic yet. Well, except for EagleBank Bowl officials. You guys can panic, but only because your business is at stake.
Duke took down the Mids, 41-31, on a steamy Saturday afternoon in Durham. Thaddeus Lewis and Eron Riley picked up where they left off last year, hooking up for three touchdowns. Lewis finished with 317 passing yards, 137 of those going to Riley. Tyree Barnes led Navy with 113 receiving yards, most of which came on a 68-yard throwback screen pass that went for a touchdown. Shun White ran for 112 yards and a touchdown of his own.
The game started out well enough. Not surprisingly, Duke marched down the field and scored on their first posession of the game. But even though they scored, it was clear that Navy’s defense was playing a LOT better than it had against Towson and Ball State. Instead of receivers parking themselves between zones and catching passes without a Mid close enough to spit a watermelon seed on him, these passes were actually… contested. Occasionally Duke would try to run the ball… and they couldn’t. They ran wide receiver screens… and they weren’t automatic touchdowns. Blue Devils that carried the ball… were tackled. Were we seeing things? Was this Navy?
Yessir, that was Navy. The justifiably maligned Midshipmen defense displayed what every coach, fan, and player prays for– improvement. And while the Mids did falter on that opening drive, that would be the only touchdown they would give up in the half. Yes, third down was still a problem. And yes, they did give up a pair of field goals. But trading field goals for touchdowns is the formula that has worked for Navy for five years now; don’t give up the big play, then tighten up in the red zone. The Navy defense appeared to have returned to the form that we had been accustomed to.
And for a while, the offense did too. We finally saw Kaipo take his first snaps of the season. He was rusty at first. Obviously not comfortable pushing the limits of his injured hamstring, Kaipo lacked the explosive first step he would otherwise use to catapult himself down the field. This led to an errant pitch on one play, but the more snaps he took, the more comfortable Kaipo appeared. In fact, his longest run of the day was a 10-yard plow up the middle of the field on a midline option, where he broke a couple of tackles and picked up a first down. Unfortunately, the weather and Kaipo’s lack of conditioning after being out for six weeks finally did him in, and the long-striding Hawaiian left the game due to heat exhaustion. But for a while, the Navy offense actually looked like the Navy offense again, and the Mids went into halftime with a 24-20 lead.
Oh how I wish I could just end right there, since the second half was a much different story. The offense disappeared after halftime; other than Barnes’ touchdown catch and run, Navy could only muster 62 yards. That’s pretty incredible. With two three and outs and an inexcusable turnover on downs (more on that later) to open the third quarter, the offense didn’t give the defense very much field position to work with. The defense rose to the challenge after the first 3 & out, forcing a Duke punt. But that punt was downed at the Navy 1-yard line, and after the offense again failed to pick up a first down, Kyle Delahooke’s punt only went 29 yards. Stopping a drive that started on the Navy 38 was a little too much to ask for, and Duke punched it in for 6 to take the lead for good. With the offense sputtering, the Navy defense spent a lot of time on the field and just got worn out. Duke’s average starting field position on their three TD drives in the second half was the Navy 42. Any defense, not just Navy’s, would have a hard time keeping teams out of the end zone when put in that position.
So maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I actually feel a little optimistic after this game. With Kaipo in the game, the offense played the way we need it to. And the defense looked like a whole new unit out there. We don’t have much wiggle room in the rest of the schedule– we’ll probably have to win a game we aren’t “supposed” to. And the defense will have to keep up the improvement. And we’ll all be anxiously awaiting word on Kaipo and Eric Kettani’s conditions. For one half, we saw a little bit of what this team is capable of, and that’s good. But right now we’re walking on the wrong side of a very fine line.
Some stream-of-consciousness thoughts on the game:
— At 1:13 left in the second quarter, Coach Niumat gave the defense a tremendous compliment. With Duke facing 3rd and 9 from their own 14 yard line, he called timeout. He called timeout. In college, 1:13 is plenty of time to march an offense into at least field goal range. Given Navy’s unfortunate habit of giving up big plays on 3rd down, that could have led to disaster. But it didn’t. The defense came through and forced an incomplete pass. That forced Duke to punt. Mario Washington returned it into Duke territory, and Jarod Bryant led the offense in for a go-ahead touchdown before the half. The defense earned Niumat’s trust, and it led to points…
— …which makes the decision to go for the first down on 4th & 1 from our own 38 all the more confounding. Duke had just taken the lead when a combination of bad starting field position and a bad punt gave them the ball at the Navy 38. When Jarod Bryant was stopped for no gain, Navy’s defense had their backs against the wall again. I could understand going for it if this was one of those back-and-forth games where one drive without a touchdown meant certain doom. But it wasn’t, and Niumat’s confidence in his defense in the second quarter demonstrated that. Why he wouldn’t punt there to give his defense some better field position, I have no idea. It was an unnecessarily desperate move.
— Before I pile onto Kyle Delahooke too much, his 46-yard rocket in the first quarter did force the returner to backpedal and fumble. Punting certainly hasn’t been a problem this year.
— There’s no question that the playbook shrinks when Jarod Bryant is in the game. The problem isn’t his execution of the plays that are called, it’s just that those plays don’t work anymore. Remember when Kaipo came in for Brian Hampton after his injury in the 2006 Rutgers game? Rutgers blitzed their linebackers on every play. Well, that’s pretty much what Duke did in the second half, and it overwhelmed the offensive line. Jarod was effective in relief last year because he was a change of pace. But now he’s the main event. That means he’s on a lot of film, and it’s apparent that the book is out on him. Ball State was prepared for the Navy offense. Duke was prepared for the Jarod Bryant offense. It doesn’t take Knute Rockne to see that JB carried the ball 31 times against Ball State, so you should probably key in on him.
Navy’s one second half touchdown came on a long pass play, not on a sustained drive. The offense just couldn’t put any effective plays together.
— There is no question that Shun White is a special player. That said, it’s time to stop forcing the ball to him. Shun had 15 carries against Duke. This came after he got 13 carries against Ball State and 19 carries against Towson. We all knew what the deal was against Towson. But now, it’s a pattern. The strength of this offense does not lie in the ability of one playmaker to move the ball. The strength of this offense lies in the defense not knowing who will get the ball. You undermine that strength when you give the defense someone to key in on. Shun’s 13 carries against Duke are more than double what the rest of the slotbacks have gotten in the last two games combined. Why? Shun’s good, but are the other slots not? They certainly look effective on those rare opportunities. A lot of Zerbin Singleton’s success last year came because defenses were more concerned about Reggie. Well, now they’re keying on Shun.
Shun is the best home run threat. But singles and doubles can keep a rally going, too.