You’re not alone, Navy fans.
The Mids are out to an unfortunate 1-2 start, but they might not be the most disappointed team in Saturday’s game. No, Rutgers can just as easily make that claim. With losses to Fresno State and North Carolina to begin the season, Rutgers is off to an 0-2 start for the first time since 2002. For a team that’s coming off of its third consecutive bowl game and seeking consistency as an annual contender in the Big East, that’s no good. After an offseason full of controversy over just how Greg Schiano is being paid, and how their stadium additions are being funded, two losses by a combined score of 68-19 just adds insult to injury and keeps the bad vibes a-rollin’.
Rutgers got to those three straight bowl games following a simple formula. Run Ray Rice behind a talented offensive line. Use play action and throw to tight end Clark Harris or one of their sure-handed wide receivers. Play aggressive defense with speed at every position, including Eric Foster at defensive tackle. But the stalwarts of the past have moved on. Ray Rice is gone, as are some of the mainstays of the line that blocked for him. The wide receiver talent is still there with Tiquan Underwood and Kenny Britt, but Mike Teel has already thrown five interceptions this year. The once-swarming defense has given up an average of 181 rushing yards through two games, and their opponents are averaging 17 yards per completion. Something is amiss. Maybe it’s the competition. Fresno State is a good team, and North Carolina is probably on the rise under Butch Davis. Sure, but Rutgers should still be winning games like this, shouldn’t they? The wins of the past few years had to have helped on the recruiting trail, right? Of course. There’s no question that Rutgers has talent. Yet for whatever reason, it hasn’t come together yet.
Ah, but here comes Navy, the cure for what ails a slumping team. Well, a slumping offense, anyway. Going back to last year, several teams that had their share of offensive struggles found a way to get back on track against the Mids. Duke scored less than 20 points in 8 of its 12 games last year. Against Navy, they scored 43. Pitt scored 13, 14, and 14 points in the three weeks leading up to the Navy game, where they scored 45. Notre Dame was averaging 10 points per game before scoring 28 in regulation against Navy, and ending up with 44 after overtime. There’s no doubt that Rutgers coaches know this, and will be looking to get back to fundamentals.
But what, exactly, are those fundamentals? With Rice, Rutgers was running right at you. They tried the same with Kordell Young against Fresno State, but managed only 106 yards rushing. When the redshirt sophomore sat out against UNC with a sore knee, Schiano and offensive coordinator John McNulty opted to spread out a bit. That resulted in Teel and Jabu Lovelace combining for four interceptions. The offense is still trying to find something it does well. Given recent history, where Rutgers has been able to do pretty much whatever it wanted to on offense against Navy, and also given that Young is expected to return, my guess is that Schiano’s crew will try to get the running game back on track once again.
That would actually be good news for the Mids. While Thaddeus Lewis had another career day passing against Navy last week, the Mids’ defense looked surprisingly stout against the run. Third and long has been the achilles’ heel of the Navy defense, but with Teel’s accuracy problems, it might not be as bad this week. That’s if Navy can match its defensive performance against the run from last week on first and second down, which is far from a given. But it’s something, and having a little optimism about Navy’s defense is a nice feeling.
Offensively, Rutgers has always been one of the most frustrating games for me to watch every year. For all his supposed defensive genius, Greg Schiano doesn’t play a very good scheme against the Navy spread option. Rutgers is one of the few teams that actually likes to mix in straight man-to-man against the Mids:
Usually you pray that the defense plays man-to-man. By putting someone in motion, you can create a man advantage on the side the player motions away from. The only other team Navy plays that uses much man defense is Delaware. You usually see a couple plays in those games that you don’t see too much of the rest of the season. Here’s an example– the fullback option– from the 2004 game with the Blue Hens:
The motion slotback basically takes the run support safety in motion with him. When the backside guard pulls and blocks the defensive end, it leaves one person to cover both the quarterback and the fullback. The end result? A highlight.
Another play that man defense sets up is the quick pass to the wide receiver. When the slotback goes in motion and takes the safety with him, it leaves cornerback lined up on the receiver without any help behind him. One move, and the receiver can pick up a lot of yards:
The reverse can also work well against a man defense.
But the frustrating thing is that against Rutgers the last few years, none of this really mattered. The Scarlet Knights have done such a good job shedding blocks, and have gotten so much penetration into the backfield, that the offense has never had a chance to really get on track. For all the talk about lining up against huge defensive lines every week, it’s been Rutgers’ smaller, faster linemen that have given Navy the most trouble over the years. That makes this week all about execution for Navy, and unfortunately, that hasn’t really been a strength of the offense so far. But with Kaipo, Kettani, White, and tackle Andrew McGinn all expecting to finally be on the field together for the first time this year, maybe this is the game where the offense finally breaks out. It can’t come at a better time.
To achieve a sixth-straight winning record, Navy is going to need a win over a team it isn’t supposed to beat. No time like the present.