In the poll question for the week, I asked what you thought was Navy’s biggest win since 2003. It was a stupid way to phrase the question, since the tear-jerking, now-I-can-die-in-peace awesomeness that was the ’07 Notre Dame game was sure to be the clear winner. I mean, really… How many other games over the last five years left you sobbing with joy? (Don’t act like you didn’t). That said, even if I rephrased the question to “what was the most important Navy win since 2003,” most of you would probably still say Notre Dame. I disagree; I think there’s an important distinction between “big” and important.” In my opinion, the most important win for the Navy program since Paul Johnson was hired was the 28-25 win over #25 Air Force in 2003.
I’m sure that seems like a stretch to some of you. After all, it’s a year later and you probably still feel a bit of disbelief over Navy finally being free from the yoke of that abominable losing streak. I sure do. But try to take emotion out of the equation for a minute. The pool of potential recruits for service academies is very small. As a result, all three schools compete with each other for the same kids. Being top dog amongst the three is a huge advantage. Now think back to 2003. Air Force was ranked 25th in the coaches’ poll coming into that game after a 24-10 win over BYU the previous week had moved them to 5-0. The Falcons hadn’t had a losing record in 10 years, and hadn’t lost to Navy since Paul Johnson’s first stint in Annapolis. They were clearly the dominant service academy football program, and for the most part won any head-to-head recruiting battle they had with Navy and Army. Shaun Carney might have been the only recruit classless enough to actually tell his Naval Academy hosts that they’d never beat Air Force, but there’s no way that he was the only one who was thinking that way. Why wouldn’t they? The track record spoke for itself. Fisher DeBerry was a legend, and when he “sent a message” by trying to run up the score in Air Force’s 48-7 win over Navy a year earlier, he was sending it to recruits as much as he was to Paul Johnson and the Navy team. The message? That nothing had changed. Air Force was still Air Force, and Navy was still Navy. Recruits had to rely on faith when Navy coaches told them better times were ahead. Air Force coaches had something a little more tangible– the Commander in Chief’s Trophy.
All that changed in 2003. Craig Candeto punched in a 2-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, and Navy never trailed for the rest of the game. The 28-25 Navy win was a watershed moment for both programs. From that point on, recruits didn’t have to take Paul Johnson’s word for it; they knew he could beat Air Force. Navy would go on to win six of its last eight games that season and earn a berth in the Houston Bowl, the first of five straight bowl games for the Mids. Air Force would move in the opposite direction, losing four of its next six to finish 7-5 and out of the bowl picture after that 5-0 start. It would be Fisher DeBerry’s last winning season at Air Force, as the veteran coach retired in 2006 after limping to a 4-8 record. For those four years from 2003-2006, Navy enjoyed the “seeing is believing” recruiting boost that Air Force once owned, resulting in the talented roster that you see today.
In a strange way, history is repeating itself. Given that Navy has won five straight games in the series, it’s a bit odd that it’s Ken Niumatalolo who seemingly has something to prove. Troy Calhoun lost to Navy in his first shot against the Mids, but he did lead Air Force to a 9-4 record in 2007. It was enough for various media members to proclaim the resurgence of Air Force football and hail Troy Calhoun as the real deal. Niumatalolo, however, hasn’t received the benefit of the doubt. The media consensus is that Navy just isn’t as good without Paul Johnson, even though most of those making that claim either A) almost certainly haven’t even seen Navy this year, or B) never gave Navy any credit even with Paul Johnson. Air Force was just held to 53 yards rushing against Utah while Navy is coming off of back-to-back wins over BCS opponents, including what was the highest-ranked team in the ACC; but Navy still opened the week as a 6-point underdog. For some reason, the media seems eager to hand the service academy crown back to Air Force, which makes this game as crucial to the Navy program as the 2003 game was. Recruits read the newspaper, too. Winning this game would make Coach Niumat’s job a lot easier by helping to maintain momentum on the recruiting trail.
That makes it a particularly bad time for him to lose his starting quarterback. While not an absolute certainty, Kaipo’s hamstring is probably going to keep him on the sideline once again, and Jarod Bryant will get the call to start his third game of the season. It’s been a rough season for Jarod so far. In the second quarter at Wake Forest, Jarod relieved Kaipo for the second time in three weeks. And just like in the Duke game, the offense screeched to a halt… at first. Unlike in the loss to the Blue Devils, the offense recovered a bit in the fourth quarter. First there was a toss sweep to Bobby Doyle that went for 39 yards and finally moved Navy away from their own endzone. The next drive produced a 57-yard run by Eric Kettani that set up the game-clinching touchdown. Neither were option plays, but the Doyle run was a result of an audible called by Bryant at the line of scrimmage. The Mids were lined up in the same unbalanced line that we saw against Rutgers. Jarod saw a numbers advantage on the short side of the field and changed the direction of the play. It was a good check by the highly-scrutinized signal-caller, and something that Coach Niumatalolo says should give him some confidence heading into this week.
Maybe it will. But what difference does “confidence” really make? The knock on Jarod was never his ability to read a defense at the line of scrimmage. It was his option reads after the snap. Confidence in what you’re doing is important, but does it help a quarterback identify and react to a mesh charge or a squat any better? It’s debatable. On one hand, you certainly don’t want to hesitate or second-guess what you’re doing. There’s no time to think; everything has to be a quick reaction to what you see. On the other hand, it’s just as easy to be confidently wrong. A fast reaction that gets yourself drilled in the backfield doesn’t do any good either. That seems to be what happens to Jarod. The most frustrating thing about all this is that we’ve seen Jarod make the right reads before. When Kaipo injured his knee in last year’s Ball State game, Jarod played the entire second half. At first, Paul Johnson called a lot of plays that were predetermined carries, especially the toss sweep. But as the half progressed, Coach Johnson starting mixing more of the triple option in. And Jarod did fine. Hell, by leading Navy on a comeback and putting the team in position to win the game at the end, you could even say it was better than just “fine.” So what happened? Why was Jarod able to run the triple against Ball State last year, but not since? Part of it is that Ball State didn’t exactly do anything to make things hard for Jarod; they gave him the same read almost every time. But perhaps another part of the problem comes from confidence that was lost somewhere along the way. Or maybe I’m just reaching. As I type this, I keep telling myself that talking so much about something as generic as “confidence” sounds trite. Then again, a little confidence has worked wonders for the defense the last couple of weeks. Do I let myself feel as optimistic about the offense?
Maybe. With Jarod Bryant at quarterback, the triple option hasn’t been available. That’s the one play that everything else in the offense feeds off of. The coaches say that they call plays differently because Jarod’s a better inside runner, but that’s because they don’t want to throw the poor guy under the bus. Think about it– they didn’t move him to slotback because of his ability to run between the tackles. I’m sure the coaches would love to see Jarod get to the edge, but he just hasn’t been able to read his way there. So the question is how effective Jarod will be, and whether the coaches will be forced to put him back into a protective playcalling bubble. If he can put it together, he will have a lot going for him. First and foremost is the re-emergence of Eric Kettani the last two weeks. Wake Forest paid a lot of attention to Shun White; so much so that Eric had some gaping holes to run through. With 300 yards in his last two games, Eric has shown that he is healthy enough that defenses need to respect the middle of the field. That helps to open things back up for Shun. Bobby Doyle’s big run last week is good news, too. Coach Jasper should be a bit more confident that his other slots should be able to make a play. At the very least, it’s one more thing to make a defense hesitate from keying too much on Shun.
Something else to to watch during the game is the matchup of the Navy offensive line with the front seven of Air Force. When Ken Niumatalolo was asked before the season why he moved Ricky Moore to center, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Air Force.” Air Force runs a base 3-4 defense. Against Navy, they like to move the two outside linebackers to the line of scrimmage to present a 5-man front. The odd front means that the nose guard is usually lined up directly on top of the center. Ricky Moore is bigger than other recent Navy centers, and the idea is that a bigger center will help open up more room for the fullback by moving that nose guard. If it works, that’s even better news for Kettani.
For Air Force, it’s the second straight year where they’ve started out 3-1 when logic would have convinced you before the season that they’d be a lot worse. But just like the beginning of last year, their defense is carrying the team, and they do it by being extremely aggressive. Through four games, the Air Force defense has compiled 16 sacks while forcing 12 turnovers. Jake Paulson leads the charge with seven of those sacks, while linebacker Ken Lamendola averages nine tackles per game. But the dirty little secret about the Air Force team is that this year, their defense is so aggressive because they have to be. If they didn’t force so many turnovers, Air Force might never score. It’s true that Air Force is sixth in the nation in rushing with nearly 282 yards per game. But that includes the 433 yards racked up against the notorious Southern Utah juggernaut. Since then, they’ve only averaged 231 yards per game. Sure, you could say the same thing about Navy and Towson, but trust me– this is different. Even with the backup quarterback taking the majority of their snaps, Navy is 33rd in the country in total offense. Air Force is 85th. So far, the Air Force offense has twice been held to only 12 first downs and less than 300 total yards. Against Utah, they had only 53 yards rushing. 53! Quarterback Shea Smith averages one interception in every ten passes, and was 0-for-7 passing against Houston– a game where Air Force was outgained by 154 yards. Air Force likes to feature a runner in each game; there was at least one 100-yard runner in each of their nine wins last year. But in 2008, they don’t have anyone they can rely on. Before the season there was a lot of hoopla about cornerback Reggie Rembert playing both ways this year. Air Force fans will tell you that it’s because he’s just that damn good, but the reality is that such things wouldn’t even be considered if there was enough speed and talent on the offensive side of the ball to begin with. The Falcons could get a boost this week with the return of Ty Paffett, who was out after offseason back surgery. Paffett plays the hybrid WR/RB “Z-receiver” that Chad Hall played last year, but it’s unclear just how effective he can be in his first game back.
If Kaipo was healthy, this game wouldn’t even be close, especially now that Navy’s defense has been reborn. Navy should still win, but it’s a much different game with Jarod Bryant at the helm. The Air Force defense is going to come after him hard. The game will be won or lost on Jarod’s ability to handle it. Hopefully, Jarod understands that he shouldn’t feel any pressure to make a big play. There is nothing wrong with punting and letting your defense win a field-position battle. If he can do that– and hold onto the ball– then Navy should get enough big plays from their more talented skill-position players to come out on top.