GAME WEEK: AIR FORCE

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.

The statement play of a statement game.

The statement play of a statement game.

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.

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31 Responses

  1. Great post, Mike. I’m a bit less versed on the X’s and O’s of the triple, and to some degree I need to take your word for it that the major difference between Kaipo and Jarod is the ability to make reads, particularly those made after the snap.
    A major difference in my mind, though, is simple ball protection. I haven’t looked at the stats, but Jarod seems to give it up a bit more than Kaipo. A zero-fumble day for JB could be the difference.

  2. One of the long line of half-written, get-to-it-eventually posts I’m working on is a list of the reads that a defense can present to a quarterback. It takes a while to find good video examples of each.

  3. Excellent post. The AF defense has three additional advantages this week. They are coming off a bye week; their knowledge of the option helps their scout team provide more realistic practice sessions; they are playing at home. As with most of our games, we have to bring our best. I strongly agree that turnovers could be the most important factor. (Look at Wake’s last two games.)

  4. A measure of a good team is how they handle adversity. It would be nice if everyone was 100% and it was a home game and Reggie Campbell was still a slot back and Mahoney came back for one more year and Eckel or Ballard could back-up at fullback and ……..but this is FOOTBALL! With the way this team is gelling and the way this defense played against Wake and Rutgers…..I believe that WE WILL WIN!

  5. Gellen!”, Go Navy, Beat army… and air force!

  6. This sets up as the biggest game. A win puts Navy @ 4-2 and in commanding position for 6th straight CIC & a bowl bid. We need JB to play well. He was inept in leading the Offense vs Duke & the 3rd quarter & most of the 4th vs WF.He did a good job last year and was solid vs Towson and Ball State early in year as a starter. Hopefully the last TD drive and getting all the reps will have him sharp. AF is a well coached team but I don’t think they can handle Big Nate. As long as Navy moves the ball, avoid turnovers and wins field position battle we’ll be OK. I don’t see AF scoring that much against Navy’s D.

  7. Let’s hope so. I just see AF being much tougher than I’d like to believe.

  8. Another incisive piece, Mike. Well done. Two things. First, this Navy team has a lot of character as well as ability. Character might not win games, but it sure can keep you from losing. Second, it’s purely a hunch, but I believe Coach N and company have something up their sleeve. Just a hunch. Navy wins.

  9. If JB moves the ball the way he did against Ball State, we win. He led the team to 23 points in that one; I believe 23 points will be enough to win this one.

    Our D is playing better than it was against BSU, and there is no way AF’s Offense is anything close to BSU’s.

  10. I think AF has a better D than BSU.

  11. good piece Phat.

  12. Great work Mike. One thing that interests me is whether or not the altitude will effect how Niumatalolo handles his personnel. Against Duke he seemed to really be trying to keep people fresh in that heat. Does he go to the same concept here, or does he stick to Shun, Eric, and Jarod on offense? I may be wrong about this, but I can’t remember PJ ever going to extremes to try to keep people fresh in CS during the 2004 and 2006 matchups. Does the altitude even matter for a team like Navy?

  13. PJ used to make a point of NOT doing anything special for the altitude. He said that the more time you think about it, the more it’ll affect you.

  14. how about the fantastic Gazette writing on behalf of air farce?

    “Navy has struggled to five victories over Air Force”

    “I believed much of Navy’s might departed along with Johnson.”

    “Johnson translated innocent remarks by Air Force players into scorching insults.”

    “The Falcons, in Johnson’s fantasy world, talked endless trash about their archrivals. This wasn’t true, but truth didn’t matter.”

    what a homer

  15. These are the same people that let Fisher DeBerry talk for years. They aren’t going to call them on it.

  16. oh i know…it’s just funny the difference in “journalism” between these hosers and people like wags, the WaPo, etc

  17. Great job, Mike! Thanks. I especially share your concern about JB at qb for the AF game. I think this is
    the biggest concern of all the Navy players going into
    the game tomorrow–but no one is verbalizing it!
    I haven’t seen AF play this year yet, but I see 4 keys to
    the game for Navy. 1) JB has to have a great read game; 2) Moore must key the offensive line against
    their ng; 30 Frazier must play like he did last week; and
    4) Navy must not let Smith consistently pass against
    them.
    I do not believe AF can hold both S. White and E. Kettani under 100 yds. One of them will go off. But I
    can’t help but wonder how JB will do…

  18. One final thought. It is very insulting to the Navy coaches and players that AF is favored by 6 points. That should fire Navy up like crazy! Again, Navy gets no respect!

  19. RusGoNavy,

    If you are right about the players concerns relating to JB then we are in trouble. I do not believe it though.

    Also, if the players are concerned about JB’s ability to produce then the spread makes sense.

    Notwithstanding the above, I thought the spread was questionable but, maybe not. I say that because I do believe that JB, as a senior and captain, will produce.

  20. Does anyone have footage of the most awesome pass block in Navy history? I’m talking about during the 2003 Navy/Air Force game when a Navy player whose name I cannot remember used what looked like a white boxing glove of a bandage to knock down a key pass. I was a firstie at the time and I know I will remember that play for the rest of my life. I think it was in ESPN’s top plays of the week.

  21. You are definitely right on about the ’03 AF game. That is the game that changed everything for this program. The ND game was for historic value and the Wake game should have eliminated the doubts that this team was going through after the start of the season. This game will be won by line play. The O line can’t afford to miss blocks and the D line line needs to penetrate and allow the LB’s to stuff the run. Too much blame sometimes on JB and his reads, but when you look up and defenders are in your face, it’s hard to do anything.

  22. For “mikeh809”: Pretty sure it Linebacker Mahoney who broke up that pass at the goal line in ’03 game against AF.

  23. Navy’ 72, … It wasn’t Mahoney … but his name escapes me @ the moment. I do remember he was playing w/ a cast on his hand though.

    JB must execute & play solidly today –> Everything else will take carte of itself for the Big Blue.

    BEAT AIR FORCE!!!

  24. It was Bobby McLarin and his “Club.”

  25. Now that I think of it, they named a sandwich in Dahlgren after that play. I believe it was the Bobby Mac sub. Good stuff.

  26. Ivin Jasper has no creativity with his play calling when JB is in the game. He needs to mix it up and call plays that JB can execute, or put Ricky Dobbs in the game…..

  27. The way that Air Force is overplaying the run, Paul Johnson would be calling play action and passes to keep them in check.

  28. This is the worst offensive play calling that I have ever seen. Completely predictable…..

  29. Thank goodness for our defense!!!! More productive than offense…

  30. Non Illegitimus Carborundum–You couldn’t be more correct!!!!! Excellent comments/insights!!!!!
    During the game, I kept expecting JB to go outside more and often pitch the ball to S. White. Can you believe White only had 3 carries the whole game?!
    You are right. Paul Johnson would have mixed in a few more passes during the game. Navy was extremely predictable with Kettani and JB up the middle! My concerns that I already stated above in reference to JB were somewhat confirmed. But I agree with you that Ivin Jasper called a lously game, at least more often than not.
    I also thought that S. White’s fumble and JB’s fumble after his long run were both mental errors that should not have happened from veteran players. When they were getting very close to being tackled, common sense and experience should have reminded them inside to put both hands on the ball and protect it! But they didn’t.
    This could have been a tremendous game for JB in silencing a lot of people from saying “Navy is better with Kaipo in there.” The fumble after one of his runs and the overthrown pass to a wide-open Tyree Barnes (a sure TD) could have made this day a day Navy fans would have remembered about him forever. But give AF a lot of credit. The extra week gave them a lot of time to prepare for Navy.
    So JB really wasn’t bad. I think MUCH of what he had to go through was bad play calling by I. Jasper and a very prepared AF defense. The fumble and overthrown pass could have greatly helped Navy, that’s all. Besides, other Navy players made mistakes too. Moore’s holding call that stopped one drive,…
    Most of all, all the Navy players found a way to win, and that is a tremendous tribute to all of them!

  31. are you freaking kidding me? you call bitching and moaning insight

    you new fans suck

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