I don’t know if I’m ready for football to start. Sure, the offseason can be a dismal time for the unimaginative blogger; it’s a bit of a struggle find something interesting write about in that vast expanse between actual, you know, games. But at least during the offseason I have the time to think of these things at my own leisure. Sadly (for me), that isn’t so once the season begins. Now there’s all kinds of stuff to write about, but I can’t take three lazy, glorious weeks to write it. You people are so demanding. There isn’t even a bye week this season until the end of November! Friggin’ Hawaii road games… Hopefully my performance at the paying job so far this year has been stellar, because the next four months are going to be spent averaging things right back down to mediocre. Time, tide, formation, and Ohio State wait for no one. It’s football season again.
Just in case you haven’t heard, the first team on Navy’s schedule is indeed Ohio State. Yes, THAT Ohio State. I’m not sure it’s possible to come up with a more dissimilar opponent for the Mids. Ohio State is a BCS state school with more than 50,000 students; the Naval Academy is an independent, 4,000-student military school. Ohio Stadium can hold almost three times the population of Annapolis. Ohio State has won at least a share of the Big Ten for 4 straight years and comes into the game ranked #6 in both polls, a ranking that Navy hasn’t achieved since 1963. Coach Johnson used to joke about how Navy can’t just roll their helmets onto the field and expect to win… Ohio State, however, usually can. It is, by any measure, a mismatch, and you may recall that I was not overcome with joy when this game was originally scheduled. Some were giddy to see how the Mids will measure up with the BCS elite; having just lost to Delaware, that wasn’t exactly a question I was dying to know the answer to.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not selling the Mids short. Navy is a justifiably proud program that has seen plenty of success over the last six years, including 6-straight bowl games, victories over Vanderbilt, Stanford, Notre Dame, Rutgers, and Wake Forest, and a top-25 finish in 2004. One hell of a good football team will occupy the visitor’s sideline in Columbus on Saturday, even if this year’s edition still has to prove itself. It’s not that I never want to play someone like Ohio State; it’s just that one would prefer the game happened in the context of a schedule that is conducive to the team meeting its goals for the year. There were alterations made to the schedule after the Ohio State game was announced– you can decide for yourself if those changes had the desired effect. But with eight bowl teams, including games on the road at Ohio State, at Pitt, at Notre Dame, and at Hawaii, this is easily the toughest Navy schedule we’ve seen in the Johnson/Niumatalolo years. Throw in the fact that the Mids will need seven wins to become bowl eligible, and it is clear that there is no margin for error if the team intends to meet the standard of the previous six seasons.
Now that I’ve said all that, allow me to point out that it’s completely moot. Whatever trepidation I might have felt when the game was originally scheduled disappeared when it was revealed that Ohio State is paying the Naval Academy $1.4 million to play this game. Cash is tight right now for athletic departments across the country; budgets are being cut, media guides are being discontinued, bus trips are replacing flights to games on the road, etc. In this environment, it would be borderline irresponsible not to play Ohio State. They’re basically paying NAAA the equivalent of a berth in the Music City Bowl. And so, the stage is set.
Navy and Ohio State last met almost three decades ago, in the 1981 Liberty Bowl. Navy was a 14-point underdog in that game. I know this because the broadcast team wouldn’t shut up about it for most of the second half. “Navy is a 14-point underdog, but only trails 17-13 at the half… Navy returned the blocked punt for a touchdown! Now the 14-point underdog has a 3-point lead!… We have a special guest in the booth with us, Woody Hayes. Coach, did you like when your team was a 14-point favorite? Why no, Tom, I think I’d rather be a 14-point underdog…” You might not be able to tell by the 31-28 final score, but the story of the game was defense and special teams. Ohio State was led by record-setting quarterback and Big Ten MVP Art Schlichter, who was held to only 4-12 passing in the first half. Navy fared no better, as Ohio State capitalized on a blocked punt and a Marco Pagnanelli fumble to take a 17-13 lead into the break. The Mids blocked a punt of their own and returned it for a TD and the lead in the third quarter, but it was short-lived; a botched punt by Steve Fehr gave Ohio State a short field, and the Buckeyes took the lead for good on Schlichter’s second TD pass of the night. Navy put together a 97-yard touchdown drive in the closing minutes, but couldn’t recover an onside kick to get one last hail mary shot at the end zone.
(Coincidentally, Navy played Michigan earlier in the year to roughly similar results. After falling behind 14-0, the Mids fought back to 14-6 at halftime. Michigan scored first in the third quarter, but Navy went on a 94-yard scoring drive of their own. Fehr added a field goal to make it 21-16 with 8:52 left to play. Navy would end up getting the ball back with a chance to win, but Pagnanelli overthrew a wide-open Troy Mitchell in the end zone on the Mids’ last scoring threat of the game. 1981 was a weird year; Navy finished 7-4-1, beating Boston College, Syracuse, and Georgia Tech, but losing to Yale and tying Army.)
The game was a turning point of sorts for both programs. Ohio State won a share of the Big Ten title that year, but Earle Bruce fired most of his defensive staff afterwards. Included among those let go was Steve Szabo, USNA ’65, and Nick Saban, who at the time was the Buckeyes’ secondary coach. It would be fun to think that Navy caused Nick Saban to be fired, but in reality his fate was probably sealed a month earlier when Ohio State lost their shot at a Rose Bowl by giving up a second-half comeback to Minnesota (a game frequently shown on the Big Ten Network, by the way). Saban, ironically, would be hired the next season by Gary Tranquill at Navy. I hear he’s done OK for himself since then. Szabo has too, actually; he won a Super Bowl ring in 2003 with the Patriots, and is now the linebackers coach at Eastern Michigan. For Navy, of course, the Liberty Bowl was George Welsh’s last game; an event from which the program has only recently recovered. The nerves of most old fans, however, probably never will.
Nothing quite so program-altering would appear to be on the line in this year’s game. That could change, perhaps, if Navy manages to pull off the unthinkable. There doesn’t seem to be much worry about that, though. Ohio State’s coaches and players are saying all the right things, naturally, but it pretty much ends there. The general tone surrounding Saturday’s matchup, at least in the media, seems to be about how the game is an inconvenience in Ohio State’s preparation for USC. You’ll see warnings from Jim Tressel himself about how his team can’t overlook Navy, but he’s saying that because most people already have. None of this really bothers me. Ohio State fans have been looking forward to the rematch with USC for a year; they’ve probably been looking forward to the Navy game for all of about 5 days. It’s completely understandable. The one thing that does annoy me a little, though, is the whole “don’t boo Navy” phenomenon that’s been making its way around the internet. I know, I know, I must be one cynical grouch to have a problem with that. But let’s say that Navy and USC’s roles were reversed. Let’s say that USC was the underdog tune-up game, and Navy was the #4-ranked team that thumped the Buckeyes the year before. Would people still be calling for all the same love & hugs for a team they saw as a threat to actually win? I doubt it. This is just a new manifestation of the same “we love you for your service, now go out and take your beating” patronizing I’ve hated for years. If Ohio State fans feel they’re going to win, that’s fine. Can you blame them? There will be players on the sideline that hadn’t even been born the last time Ohio State lost to a non-BCS-conference team. Just don’t ask me to be grateful for the proverbial pat on the head.
But enough of my bellyaching. It’s football season, not Miss Manners season!
While the Mids and the Buckeyes did square off in Memphis 28 years ago, it is a game played in elsewhere in Tennessee 18 years later that offers a little bit of insight into this year’s matchup. Before Jim Tressel became the head coach at Ohio State, he roamed the sidelines at Youngstown State, and in 1999 he led the Penguins to Chattanooga and a spot in the I-AA championship game. His opponent was none other than Paul Johnson and Georgia Southern, in all of their spread option glory. So how did the future Buckeye fare in his first go-round with this offense? It wasn’t exactly his finest hour. Georgia Southern frog-stomped Youngstown State, 59-24.
If defensive gameplans were TV shows, then Youngstown State’s would be Homeboys In Outer Space. It was less of a defense, and more of an attempt to put Einstein’s definition of insanity to the test. It started out normal enough; it was basically the old wishbone defense we talked about this summer, with a safety spying the tail motion slotback. That safety became the playside A-back’s blocking assignment, which left nobody covering the pitch man:
Overpursuit of the tail motion also left the middle of the field wide open. Once Greg Hill got past the linebackers, there was nobody to stop him.
That lasted for about a quarter. After that, Youngstown State stopped mirroring the tail motion, but couldn’t figure out what else to do. The other element of their game plan appeared to be for the defensive end to squat. Squatting, you’ll remember, means that the give key doesn’t immediately commit to either the quarterback or the fullback. Instead, he tries to read the quarterback as the quarterback reads him. You might also remember that squatting leaves the defense vulnerable to the fullback trap and the trap option. So when the safety stopped spying the pitch man, that’s what Johnson called– FOR THE REST OF THE GAME.
Youngstown State’s coaches never adjusted, so Johnson just kept running the same three plays over and over again until he had 59 points on the scoreboard. Adrian Peterson ended up setting a I-AA championship game record with 247 yards rushing. Obviously, none of this means that we’re going to see the same thing tomorrow. It’s a different offensive coordinator on Navy’s side, a different defensive coordinator on Ohio State’s side, and if Jim Tressel took anything away from that shellacking it would be the knowledge of what never to try again against the spread option. Besides, Youngstown State, as the tournament’s #9 seed, was already an underdog to #2 Georgia Southern; the talent gap will swing just a tiny bit more in Tressel’s favor this time around. What we can take from this game, though, is that even a coach as successful as Jim Tressel didn’t know what the hell to do with this offense. Navy has plenty of obstacles to overcome on Saturday, but that doesn’t mean they won’t present a few of their own, too.
So if the YSU-GSU game is an example of one plan we definitely won’t see, what will we see? My guess– and it’s just a guess– is that we’ll see the ol’ “pinch the OT and free up the MLB” defense, with the defensive end concentrating less on tackling the ballcarrier and more on preventing the playside tackle from blocking the middle linebacker.
Including Notre Dame, Navy faced five BCS teams last year. Three of them– Duke, Pitt, and Notre Dame– employed this tactic. Two of them– Rutgers and Wake Forest– did not. Notice what else each group’s members have in common. This appears to be the successful BCS team’s defense of choice, and it presents a few challenges for the Mids. Obviously it makes life difficult for the tackles, and the fact that Navy’s bookends were sophomores last year made them easy targets for opposing defensive coordinators. Hopefully, with one more season of experience under their belts, Jeff Battipaglia and Matt Molloy are ready for it. Even if that isn’t what Ohio State does, you know we’ll see it at some point. The offensive line in general is going to face a real manhood test this week. If Georgia Tech’s offensive line can get blown up by LSU, then imagine how tough it is for Navy to match up with Ohio State.
Another challenge that this defense presents is to the quarterback. If the tackles aren’t able to block the MLB, then he’s going to come after the quarterback on the option. For an experienced quarterback like Kaipo, that isn’t really a problem; he can see what the defense is trying to do and adjust accordingly. Younger quarterbacks tend to struggle with it a bit more because they’re usually so focused on their pitch key that they never see the middle linebacker coming. It’s one of those growing pains that comes from building an option quarterback. If the players have a hard time dealing with it, then expect to see adjustments to bring some blocking help, like the unbalanced line. Assuming this is Ohio State’s plan, that is. Since 2005, the Buckeye defense has given up 21 or fewer points 40 times, the most in I-A; no matter what the scheme, you know they’ll be physically tough. (There’s a joke about Big Ten offenses to be made here, but I will refrain.)
On the other side of the ball, the alpha and omega of the Buckeye offense is quarterback and super-recruit, Terrelle Pryor. Pryor is the kind of player where even if a defense does everything right on a play, he can still make positive things happen. If Terrelle Pryor was one of the X-Men, his superhero name would be BUCKO and his mutant power would be being really, really good at football. He did have one weakness last year, though; like most freshmen, he threw his fair share of interceptions. The easiest way for Goliath to lose to David is through turnovers, and while I’m sure that Pryor has made progress between his freshmen and sophomore years, I don’t think that Jim Tressel will be compelled to test those waters in week one. It looks like a two-RB system will be taking the place of departed running back Beanie Wells, and I’m sure that the Ohio State coaches want to get the ball to both of them. The Buckeyes’ likely emphasis on running the ball is another manhood test, this time for a Navy defensive line that has heard nothing but doom and gloom since the departure of Nate Frazier.
What better formula for an upset is there than having a senior-laden defense coupled with a quirky offense? Hey, there’s only one way to find out. Even if the Mids come up short, though, playing Ohio State is a great opportunity. It’s a huge payday, and you know the players can’t wait to take the field in front of 100,000+. It is, however, only one game. Whatever the result on Saturday, hopefully the team isn’t so invested in Ohio State that they don’t have anything left in the tank for the rest of the season.