OK, so the NIU game was a week ago, and now it’s Army week. You’ve probably moved on from last Tuesday night’s win, focusing instead on things like Army and bowl games and whatnot. Well, not me. Not having written anything about the NIU game eats at my conscience like termites gnawing away at a dead tree. So before we let this game fade into <mike> bolivian </tyson>, let’s take one last look.
I wasn’t overcome with joy to see that ESPN moved the game to ESPN Classic, but whoever it was in Bristol that suggested the move is probably getting a lot of high-fives around the office. If you aren’t a Navy fan, that game was b-o-r-i-n-g, especially when compared to Ball State’s quest for perfection. But if you are a Navy fan– and why the hell else would you be subjecting yourself to this crummy blog– then few things were as beautiful as the Mids’ 16-0 shutout of the Huskies. It was the prototypical Navy football game, with long drives on offense to shorten the game and a bend-but-don’t-break defense that prevented the big play and tightened up when it had to. The shutout was Navy’s first since 2004, and came at a time when the defense could really use it.
Before the game I wrote that this was a good opportunity for Navy’s defense to develop some consistency. They haven’t been able to string together back-to-back solid performances since the Rutgers & Wake Forest games back in September. The defense played well against Notre Dame, but the team still came up short. After such a letdown, you get concerned with how the team will respond. Not this week. Ross Pospisil once again led the team in tackles against NIU; after recording 20 in last year’s game, he followed it up with 12 more this year. The defense gave up some yards here & there, but they improved as the game wore on thanks to some shrewd adjustments by Buddy Green.
One of the best moves Buddy made led to Emmett Merchant’s interception. Early in the game, NIU had been using a particular pass play with some success:
In the first play, NIU is lined up with trips to the left. The inside receiver runs a route to the flat. The two other receivers on that side of the formation run downfield. Ram Vela is the linebacker responsible for covering the flat, but he gets caught up defending the other two receivers. In essence, there are two defenders covering the receiver who ran the hook pattern, and nobody covering the flat. NIU completes the pass to the open receiver for a nice gain.
In the second play, we have a variation on the same theme. Instead of trips receivers, though, there are twin receivers and a tight end on one side of the formation. Slightly different formation, but NIU runs basically the same play out of it. The tight end runs to the flat, while the two wide receivers draw the linebacker (this time Jeff Deliz) downfield. Another wide open play, and another nice gain.
Both of those were in the first half. In the third quarter, NIU ran the exact same play as the first example; trips to the left, inside receiver running to the flat, with a buttonhook and a corner route to draw the linebacker away. Only this time, Buddy baited NIU’s quarterback. Deliz covered the buttonhook, giving the QB the same look he had on the first play. Probably thinking the same receiver would be open again, the QB threw the ball. But this time, Emmett Merchant jumped the route to the flat from his safety position and intercepted the pass.
A great adjustment by Buddy, and great execution by the Mids. The maturation of the defense is a sight to behold.
But even the first shutout in four years couldn’t make the defense the biggest story in this game. No, it’s all about the quarterbacks with you people, and all eyes were on Ricky Dobbs as he made his first start. And Ricky played pretty well. You’re probably thinking, “duh.” He had 124 yards and a touchdown! Of course he played well! But like we’ve said before, sometimes stats tell you less about how well you did, and more about what you did. That’s definitely the case here. Ricky and Eric Kettani combined for 44 of Navy’s 54 carries, and 216 of the Mids’ 262 rushing yards. With numbers like that, you might think that Ivin Jasper called a lot of midline option. You’d be right. You might also think that Ivin called so many midline plays in order to keep things conservative for his young quarterback. There, you’d be wrong. The midline was actually an adjustment by Ivin to what NIU’s defense was doing.
First, let’s look at a triple option play from early in the game. You’ll recall from previous game reviews the “cross charge,” a stunt where the linebacker takes the B-back while the defensive end takes the quarterback. Jarod Bryant struggled with that read. Northern Illinois did the same thing here, and to his credit, Ricky was able to read it and pitch the ball for a nice little 6-yard gain:
Now, take another look at the defensive end. He doesn’t actually attack the quarterback. Instead, he takes a really deep step upfield and waits for the quarterback to come to him. By doing this, he hopes to accomplish one of two things. The first would be to confuse the quarterback, causing him to hesitate and making it easier to tee off on him. The second would be to step in and bat down the pitch. This is the same defense that East Carolina used against the Mids back in the 2006 opener, and you may recall that they did so with a little bit of success. The Mids lost two fumbles that day when Brian Hampton’s pitches were swatted away by ECU defenders. PJ’s adjustment, as he explained it, was to “play the game in the phone booth.” That meant running between the tackles, and that meant a heavy dose of the midline.
Coach Jasper, seeing the same defense that ECU ran, made the same adjustment that PJ did back then.
By using the midline, you allow the DE to more or less take himself out of the play when he steps so deep into the backfield. As a fringe benefit, he also becomes an easy assignment for the tackle to block. The quarterback then options off of the DT instead. The playside A-back runs inside of the tackle and becomes a lead blocker for the quarterback. If the playside linebacker follows the A-back to the middle of the field, it means a nice gain for the quarterback (which you can see on the second play).
Ricky wasn’t perfect. But outside of the fumbles– which hopefully can just be attributed to jitters– he played a good game. Things certainly didn’t get worse with him in there, although it should be noted that Ricky was aided by a Northern Illinois defense that kept things pretty simple for him throughout the game. He’ll see something different from Army if he plays.
One thing from the game that I didn’t understand was the clock management at the end of the second quarter. The Mids got the ball on their own 13 yard line with about a minute and a half to play. At that point, if Coach Niumat didn’t want to put his first-time starter at quarterback in a position to give up a turnover deep in his own territory, I completely understand– especially when you’re already up 9-0. But three plays into the drive, the Mids were almost to the 40 yard line with :32 left on the clock. At that point I figured it might not be a bad idea to call timeout and take a couple of shots downfield to see if maybe we could set up Matt Harmon for a field goal. Navy did indeed call timeout. It was 2nd & 2 coming out of the TO; a perfect chance to throw deep. If it’s incomplete, it stops the clock, and you still have the opportunity to pick up the first down (which also stops the clock) running the ball on the next play. But that’s not what the Mids did; instead, they ran for the first down right away. OK, not what I would have done, but they still picked up the first down and were able to spike the ball to stop the clock. They still had enough time to throw a pass or two, right? That’s not what they did though; the next play was a handoff to Kettani, and Navy let the clock run out.
I don’t agree with not trying to score there. It was clear that possessions were at a premium in that game, so I felt that you had to make the most of the ones you got. Coach Niumat obviously felt differently, and I don’t mind deferring to his judgment. I’m sure that his decision was impacted in part by having already burned two timeouts on the first drive. But if you’re going to run out the clock, why call your last timeout? Why bother to spike the ball? Kind of confusing.
But that’s one small quibble in an otherwise outstanding game. Playing in a phone booth won’t get you many highlights, but it was the perfect adjustment in a game like this. It wasn’t the most spectacular game to watch, but a shutout coupled with long, grinding offensive drives is a perfect recipe for a Navy win. With the 6th consecutive winning season secured, it’s one less thing to be concerned about heading into the biggest game of the year.