Let me begin by apologizing for not writing anything last week. I drove up to Washington on Tuesday, and didn’t have internet access for the rest of the week. It wouldn’t have mattered even if I did, as busy as I was. Busy, but in a good way. I had a fantastic time, which included meeting quite a few readers. If you weren’t one of them, please don’t hold it against me. The one thing I learned from this trip is that I don’t visit Annapolis nearly as often as I should; with any luck we’ll be able to meet up on my next expedition to the far reaches of the Mid-Atlantic. To those I did meet, thank you. It’s hard to imagine a better time than the one I had.
My itinerary for the week included attending practice on Wednesday and Thursday. I’m always amazed at the coordination and efficiency of a Navy football practice. I’m sure it’s the same with most any Division I team, but I don’t attend their practices, so I’ll continue to be awestruck at Navy’s. Other than marveling at the organization of it all, though, I really have no idea what in the hell I’m looking at. I mean, sure, I can see what plays are being practiced, but when I read posts on message boards saying “great practice today!” I think to myself, how can you tell? I never can. Is that assessment based on how much the coaches yell? Dropped balls? Missed tackles? I don’t know. Every practice looks good to me. Despite my woefully untrained eye, the one thing I was sure of was that there would be no hangover from the Ohio State game. The coaches would have none of that. There was a very “business as usual” atmosphere; the coaches were upbeat, but there was no tolerance for mistakes. Louisiana Tech might win, I thought, but not because Navy wasn’t going to give them their best effort.
Six minutes into Saturday’s game, there was little doubt left in my mind that I was a complete idiot. After Phillip Livas returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown, Louisiana Tech had a 14-0 lead before Navy even had a first down. The game had “letdown” written all over it. Fortunately, my judgement of the Navy coaches’ psychological prowess was eventually redeemed as the Mids scored on their next three possessions while completely stuffing the Bulldog offense, turning the 14-0 deficit into a 32-14 thumping before an underwhelming crowd of 29,102. Navy moves to 1-1 on the year, while Louisiana Tech fell to 0-2 heading into their home opener with Nicholls State.
(My hope is that the overcast skies and apparent threat of rain kept the crowds away. My fear is that the 3:30 start time might have something to do with it. We know how fickle Navy fans can be. I guess we’ll find out.)
There was plenty to take from this game, both good and bad. We’ll start with the good. The most encouraging thing was clearly the play of the defense. Of Louisiana Tech’s 167 yards of offense, 74 came on the first drive. That was a dominating defensive performance, led by Craig Schaefer’s two late sacks, Chase Burge’s two batted passes, and Tyler Simmons and Ross Pospisil clogging up a Tech running game that was held to a mere 11 yards (due mostly to the sacks). The emergence of Tyler Simmons is particularly encouraging for the future, with much of the rest of the linebacker depth chart set to graduate after this season. Tackling was solid for the second straight week, as the secondary limited Louisiana Tech’s ability to gain yards after the catch and held them to only 8.7 yards per completion. After two games, you have to feel good about the ability of the Navy defense to carry the team if they have to.
Fortunately, that wasn’t really the case on Saturday. After starting the game with a rare 3 & out, the offense went on to rush for 290 yards on the way to putting 32 points on the scoreboard. That, despite Louisiana Tech coming out with a pretty solid defensive game plan. Bulldog defensive coordinator Tommy Spangler spent a decade as an assistant at Georgia Southern, and it showed. You can tell the difference when a coach actually understands how the Navy offense works. Spangler’s plan wasn’t to try to match scheme “gimmicks.” Instead, he chose to keep things simple, but work on confusing the quarterback and the offensive line. Knowing that the line’s blocking assignments change depending on whether they’re facing an odd or an even front, Spangler had his front seven alternate between the two frequently before the snap. He also tried to make reads difficult for Ricky Dobbs, utilizing the cross charge. The cross charge, you’ll recall, is when the dive key plays the quarterback, but the pitch key takes the fullback instead of the pitch man. The quarterback sees that his first read is playing him, so he gives the ball to the fullback, not knowing that the pitch key will be waiting.
It only took one possession for Ricky and Coach Jasper to adjust. The correct read on the cross charge is to pitch the ball, which forces a down lineman to try to chase down a speedy A-back from behind. Louisiana Tech stuck with the cross charge for most of the game, which is why Marcus Curry and the other slots accounted for the majority of Navy’s rushing yardage.
With the defensive end taking himself outside on his own, Coach Jasper also called the midline triple. Notice how the playside tackle disengages the end and blocks the run support safety.
Eventually, Louisiana Tech was forced to try a different tactic, and used the backside safety to follow the tail motion. Coach Jasper countered by throwing the ball over the top, since the corner on that side of the field would have no safety help. This pass was called back by a (correct) holding penalty, but the message was sent:
The holding call was just one problem among many for the offensive line. Pass protection, which was a pleasant surprise against Ohio State, regressed a bit last week. Louisiana Tech had some legit talent up front, and some of those breakdowns in pass protection were the result of Mids just getting beat one-on-one. One of Louisiana Tech’s two sacks was the result of what appeared to be confusion on Navy’s part regarding their assignments. Whatever the reason, this is a problem. Ricky did have his second consecutive 100-yard passing day, but if the Mids are going to make use of the pass, they’re going to have to protect their quarterback.
One other thing I noticed was that the timing on toss sweeps seem to be off. Take a look at these plays. Look at where the playside tackle is lined up, and where the slotback ends up catching the toss. In both examples, the toss is caught inside the tackle box:
This shouldn’t be happening. The goal of the toss sweep is to get the ball to the edge of the defense as soon as possible. The closer the ball is tossed to the middle of the formation, the easier it is for the defense to read the play and catch up to it. Compare those tosses to two random ones from the past:
On these, the slot catches the toss almost two yards past where the tackle lined up. That’s especially apparent on Karlos Whittaker’s run, since the midfield logo provides a good reference point. The timing of the play is dependent on the snap count, so maybe Ricky is a little too quick on the trigger.
Coming into the game, Louisiana Tech was a bit of an enigma. Somehow they managed to lose to Army last year, but they still won 8 games, including the Independence Bowl. They’ve been picked as a dark horse challenger to unseat Boise State at the top of the WAC. It will be hard for them to shake off an 0-2 start, but they’ll get a win against Nicholls State before heading into the conference schedule. I wouldn’t be surprised if this win turns out to be better than originally thought at the end of the season.