For a school so small, Navy is no stranger to big crowds and big games. Bowls, Army-Navy, and games against Notre Dame are annual events on the Navy schedule, as is the occasional contest against teams like Maryland, Stanford, and Pitt. Still, there are big crowds, and there are big crowds. Games at Ohio Stadium are most certainly the latter. Navy probably hasn’t played in front of a crowd as big as the 105,000 that showed up for Saturday’s game since the 1926 Army-Navy game, but if the Mids had felt any stage fright, they didn’t show it. Navy went toe-to-toe with #6 Ohio State on Saturday, but fell short, 31-27.
Half of me wants to feel giddy after seeing the Mids take the #6 team in the country down to the wire. Conventional wisdom said that Navy would have to play a perfect game to beat Ohio State, and maybe that’s still true. But if you were told before the game that Navy would be -2 in turnovers, would you think that they’d have a shot to tie the game with a little more than two minutes left? If you were told that Ohio State’s average starting field position for the game would be their own 42-yard line, would you think that Navy’s defense would have a chance? Ohio State made their fair share of mistakes as well– dropped passes, Jim Tressel’s Charlie Weatherbie moment, Pryor’s interception– but there was more to the closeness of the game than that. Navy belonged on that field, and they played like it.
On the other hand, the other half of me would like to remind you that it was, in fact, a loss. You might recall that Air Force took Tennessee to the brink in 2006 before falling, 31-30. You might also recall that Air Force stunk that year, finishing 4-8 and losing to both San Diego State (3-9) and UNLV (2-10). Now, I certainly don’t expect a 4-win season, but it just serves to demonstrate that there’s only so much you can take from one game. It was a long offseason, and a lot of energy was focused on preparing for this game. Now that it’s over, there’s a long season ahead. It will be very difficult to match the focus and intensity of the preparation that went into that first game.
Oh, but what a first game it was. It started out somewhat forebodingly, as what appeared to be a fairly obvous block in the back went uncalled and led to an Ohio State kickoff return all the way to the Navy 49. Navy’s defense spent spring and fall practice emphasizing the importance of getting off the field on third down, but the ensuing drive included conversions on 3rd & 8 and 3rd & 10 on the way to the game’s first touchdown. But the Mids answered with a touchdown of their own, driving 80 yards on 15 plays. It would be Navy’s only points of the half, with their remaining drives resulting in two punts and a fumble. Ohio State, on the other hand, was able to capitalize on good field position, and took a 20-7 lead into the break. The second half didn’t start out any better, as a rookie mistake from Gee Gee Greene and a dropped pitch by Marcus Curry forced the Mids to punt from the shadow of their own goal post. The Buckeyes had good field position after the punt, but self-destructed with penalties and punted themselves, again putting Navy on their own 1-yard line. This time the Mids responded, and they spent the next eight and a half minutes going 99 yards and scoring on a Ricky Dobbs pass to Marcus Curry.
Unfortunately, Navy’s next two posessions resulted in turnovers. The first was a tough fumble by Mario Washington as he was just fighting to keep posession as he went down. Ohio State was able to turn that into a touchdown and a 29-14 lead. The second turnover was an interception. The Buckeyes took posession and drove all the way to the Navy 14, and could have kicked a field goal to go up by three scores and put the game out of reach. For reasons unexplained, Jim Tressel did not elect to do so, and it cost him. After stopping Ohio State on 4th & 2, Ricky Dobbs connected with Marcus Curry, who ran past a gambling Ohio State DB and took the ball 85 yards for a touchdown. Then it was Ohio State’s turn to turn the ball over; Emmett Merchant picked off Terrelle Pryor and rambled down to the Ohio State 33. Three plays later, Ricky Dobbs trotted into the end zone, and the Mids were a two-point conversion away from tying the game. But Dobbs’ pass was intercepted and returned for two points the other way, and after a failed onside kick attempt, Ohio State ran out the clock.
If you hadn’t watched the game, maybe you’d think that Ohio State just called a vanilla game, hoping to avoid tipping their hand before their “real” opener this week against USC. That wasn’t the case. I wrote last week that I thought Tressel would keep the ball on the ground, hoping to avoid taking chances through the air in a game they should have (on paper) won easily. Boy, was I wrong. Ohio State came out throwing early and often, and with some success. Well, at least until Terrelle Pryor’s interception gave Navy a chance to tie the game, anyway. When the Buckeyes did elect to run the ball, Navy’s defense more than held their ground. It wasn’t until the second half, when they started running outside with the option, that Ohio State started to see any real success in the running game. Navy was able to put pressure on Pryor in the pash rush as well, but this is the one area where Ohio State’s physical superiority played a big factor. Usually Coach Green doesn’t like to blitz too much early in the game in order to keep from giving the offense a chance to adjust. He came after Pryor quite a bit on Saturday, though. Pryor was so friggin’ huge that he was able to shed off the blitzing linebackers and get the pass off. Without such a monster at quarterback, this might have been a much different game.
But schools like Ohio State can recruit monsters, which is how they got to be Ohio State in the first place. On to the video.
We’ll start with the number one question going into the game: the nose guard position. How would Jordan Stephens and Chase Burge do filling in for Nate Frazier? In a word, great.
You can see that the nose guards didn’t just absorb blocks; they made plays. If this is what we can expect every week, than this will be a very good defense indeed.
The nose guards weren’t the only playmakers on the defensive line:
I particularly like Nechak’s play, coming from five yards behind the line of scrimmage to tackle Terrelle Pryor from behind. While Ohio State had some holes to fill on the offensive line, they’re still Ohio State. The defensive line performed about as well as we could have hoped.
And then, of course, there was the offense. It appeared that the Ohio State game plan revolved around stopping the fullback. In doing so, they actually made it easier to run up the middle; of Navy’s 186 rushing yards, 153 came from the quarterback and the fullbacks. There are a couple of reasons for this. One thing Ohio State tried to do was bring the linebackers up to fill the A-gaps. You’d think that this would be a problem, but in reality the opposite is true. The fullback gets to the line of scrimmage so quickly in this offense that he’ll run right by the linebacker. That also means that once the fullback hits the line, he has a free path to the secondary. That’s exactly what happened on this next play; the guard actually whiffed on the block, but Alex Teich was already gone by the time the LB knew what happened:
Ohio State usually runs a 4-3 defense, but against the Mids they ran more of a 3-4 look, especially in the first half. They brought a linebacker up to the line of scrimmage on one side, and stood a defensive end in a 2-point stance on the other side. They liked to blitz them both, and it worked a couple times. The blitz on the backside caused Ricky’s fumble, for example. There is also the first play of this next video. Here, Ricky avoids the rush, but is brought down when the DT recovers from his cut block to make the play. On Navy’s first touchdown, Ohio State did the exact same thing, only this time, the tackle missed his block. Missing that block is actually what allowed Ricky to get lose up the middle; the DT was so committed to the fullback that Ricky ran right behind him.
When Ohio State lined up more in their traditional 4-3, they had their middle linebacker jump at the fullback’s first move towards the line of scrimmage. This made the fullback trap very effective; the LB would aim for one gap, but the FB cut back and hit another gap. It also set up Ricky’s second TD run. This wasn’t a midline option; this was just the usual short yardage play where the fullback acts as the lead blocker for the QB. But the MLB committed to the fullback, and the safety was following the tail motion slotback. There was nobody left to tackle Ricky as he marched up the middle.
A couple other tidbits…
Here’s the fine line between success and failure. Ricky had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage, but it wasn’t his fault. The tackle is supposed to cut his man to the ground to open a passing lane. Matt Molloy couldn’t do it the first time, but came through on his second try:
Kaipo was harshly criticized for throwing an interception on the same play in the 2007 Rutgers game, but it wasn’t his fault then, either.
We talked a little about how some option blocking schemes set up various pass patterns, and we could see that on Saturday. Here we have the triple option run to the weak side of the trips formation. We saw Georgia Tech run this play against Georgia with success, and it worked here too. Gary Myers blocked (angrily) the safety spying on Bobby Doyle, and the corner followed him before adjusting to make the tackle. On the very next play, Coach Jasper called play action, with Myers looking like he’s going to block the safety again, but instead continuing on his route:
It was incomplete, but it’s good to see how the gears turn.
There’s only so much you can take from one game. Nevertheless, there were a lot of good first impressions. The offensive line certainly wasn’t overwhelmed. Blake Carter and Ross Pospisil tackled very well, as did the team in general. The passing game was all that we hoped it would be; 3rd & long is no longer a death sentence. Perhaps most importantly, the defense responded after the first quarter to hold Ohio State to 3/12 on third down conversions, including 0/5 in the second half. There is a lot to build on here. And build they must. We get annoyed by the constant predictions of Navy’s demise year after year. Air Force is going to overtake Navy, they say. It’s games like this that will change that perception, but only if Navy goes on to a good season. Win, and this game becomes evidence that Navy is, in fact, a good football team. Lose, and Saturday’s effort falls into the dustbin of countless past “fluke” games in college football history.
Programming note: Believe it or not, I haven’t been to a home football game since the stadium was renovated. Bowl games, away games, spring games, and lacrosse games, yes. Home football, no. That is changing this week, as I’m headed up tomorrow. However, I don’t know what my schedule is going to be like, so don’t freak out if Louisiana Tech posts are kind of lacking this week. The world probably needs a break from my crap anyway.
Oh, and one more thing… I know I said I didn’t like the whole “don’t boo Navy” thing, but even I thought it was cool for both teams to run onto the field together.