How you feel about Saturday’s 33-27 victory at Air Force probably depends on your frame of reference.
In the context of the 2008 season, it was not a very good game for the Mids. It was a win, so it wasn’t a disaster; but that doesn’t mean that everyone played well. The Navy defense, so stout a week ago at Wake Forest, took a step backwards. Air Force was able to pile up 411 yards of offense, the most they’ve had against I-A competition this year. Navy was never able to contain the pitch man on the option, and the Falcons made more big plays in the passing game than they had in their other four games combined. It didn’t get any better on the offensive side of the ball. Navy’s 244 yards of total offense was the team’s lowest output since the 2006 Rutgers game, when Brian Hampton’s shin was involuntarily separated from his thigh. As expected, the offense sputtered under Jarod Bryant. Shun White was a non-factor in the running game other than his fumble, Tyree Barnes didn’t have a catch, and the Mids were outrushed 227-206. You could say that Navy was lucky to win this game.
Those of us who have been Navy fans all our lives might see things a little bit differently. There was a time when the idea of beating Air Force with half our offense tied behind our back was completely unfathomable. Air Force used to be so talented relative to Navy that only a flawless effort in every phase of the game would give the Mids a chance. Now, the tables have turned. Not only did Navy win with a watered-down offense, but they scored 33 points! For me, Navy’s victory on Saturday was nothing short of brilliant.
Before the game I said that as long as Jarod Bryant took care of the ball, Navy’s playmakers should carry the day. Early on, taking care of the ball appeared to be a lot easier said than done, as both Jarod and Shun White coughed up fumbles that were recovered by Air Force. But for the most part, the offense settled down and the plays started to come. Bryant himself turned in a 29-yard run to set up a field goal. Shun White pulled in a pass for 38 yards that set up another field goal. Matt Harmon kicked the field goals to finish those drives, plus two more. Greg Shinego and Blake Carter each blocked punts. Nate Frazier was an absolute nightmare. Nate completely owned the center all afternoon; there were at least three plays where he was in the backfield so fast that he nearly tackled the quarterback before he could hand the ball off. You don’t think those fumbled snaps were a fluke, do you? Nate was in the center’s head. That wasn’t an accident. The bottom line is that when all was said and done, Navy made more plays because they had the players that could.
I know that probably isn’t enough for some of you, especially when the offense looked so ineffective. Why didn’t Ivin Jasper open up the playbook a little more? Well, because he didn’t have to. Navy was the better team. The only way that Air Force would win this game is if the Mids turned the ball over. So why take the chance at opening up the playbook with a quarterback that we all know isn’t as comfortable with running the offense? Air Force never led by more than 3 points, and never led after halftime. Navy had a two-score lead in the 4th quarter. So why tempt fate? What would be the point? If it appeared that things might get out of hand, you probably would have seen things open up a bit more. But Coach Jasper never had to.
Calling plays in this offense, like most offenses, isn’t just a matter of picking out a bunch of awesome plays and sending them in. There’s a natural progression, where each play sets up other plays later in the series. The problem is that for the Navy offense, the play that almost everything else is based off of is the triple option. Without that, it’s hard to open up the playbook effectively. Sure, there were still things that could be done to mix things up a bit more, but Jarod fumbled three times even playing conservatively. He isn’t a particularly good passer, and he was having trouble pitching the ball. That’s the sort of stuff you’d have to do to open up the offense, and the more you put those things to the test, the more you flirt with disaster.
It wasn’t the prettiest game, but “pretty” is overrated. The bottom line is that despite last year’s expert analysis from their athletic director, Team Jesus Christ lost to Navy for the sixth straight year. Nobody has won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy yet, but at least we know where it isn’t going.
Some other thoughts:
— Air Force backup quarterback Tim Jefferson led the Falcons’ last scoring drive. He looked impressive… The same way Jarod Bryant looked impressive in the 4th quarter against Duke last year. It’s amazing what fresh legs can do against a tired defense. Those of you inclined to worry about everything Air Force may want to hold off on the whole “Oh noes he’s going to be awesome!!!” talk for a little while. I don’t want to be hearing about his impending Heisman Trophy the way I had to hear about Shaun Carney for four years.
— Hats off to the coaching staff for going after Air Force’s first punt. When you know that your offense isn’t going to have a good day, trying to make a play on special teams is a smart move. As for the second punt, that looked like more of an individual effort on Blake Carter’s part.
— Speaking of the second punt block… I’m not usually a fan of going for two points unless it’s truly necessary, but after Bobby Doyle recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown in the 4th quarter, Niumat really should have gone for the two-point conversion. With only ten minutes left in the game, a 13-point lead is no better than a 12-point lead; either way, the other team needs two touchdowns to win. But with a 14-point lead, two touchdowns most likely sends you to overtime. Maybe Niumat thought 10 minutes was enough time for Air Force to score a TD and two field goals?
— The stat sheet won’t reflect it, but Eric Kettani played a monster game. Almost every one of his 75 yards came after first contact. Take next Saturday off, Eric. You’ve earned it.
— Matt Harmon was 4 for 4 on field goals, including a 48-yarder as time expired in the first half and a 44-yarder into the wind. He is second in the country with 2.33 FGs per game, and his 93.3% accuracy leads all kickers with at least 10 attempts. He should get serious consideration for All-America honors.