After some of his Navy teams’ less-than-stellar performances, Paul Johnson used to say that things were never as good or as bad as they seemed during the game. It wasn’t until the coaches looked at film that they were able to diagnose the root cause of the team’s struggles, and maybe catch a few things they did right, too. After I watched Navy flounder through a 27-14 loss to Pittsburgh on Saturday, I was hoping that I would achieve similar enlightenment. It’s better to wait a couple of days to let the emotion die down and look at the game more objectively, right? So I popped in the DVD, sat in my La-Z-Boy, pressed play, and…
JOHNSON YOU DECEIVER WHY MUST YOU LIE. It turns out that sometimes things are every bit as bad as they seem. That’s unfortunate, because holy guacamole did things seem bad on Saturday. Statistically, the Pitt game ranks as one of the worst offensive performances of the last eight years. The Mids were held to only 218 total yards, with a mere 129 coming on the ground. The passing game was no better, with Ricky Dobbs going 6-for-22 and getting sacked six times. The loss drops Navy to 1-2.
Sometimes the worst part isn’t that you lose, it’s how you lose. I think we all knew that Pitt was going to be a challenging game, with little margin for error if the Mids if they wanted a chance to win. If you give it your best shot but the other guys are just better, there’s no shame in that. Hell, if you listened to some people after the Ohio State game you’d be surprised to discover that Navy didn’t actually win. But if you go out there and just suck eggs through cocktail straws… Well, that’s different. And with the bevy of mental mistakes unleashed by the Mids, I think it’s safe to say that the game ranked somewhere between “Subject of the Naval Safety Center Photo of the Week” and “Orb of Confusion” on the mental acuity scale. First, there were the special teams blunders: a missed 32-yard field goal from pretty darn close to the middle of the field, and Kyle Delahooke somehow misfiring on a punt and dropping the ball to the turf. Then, there were the penalties, including two false starts, a delay of game, and an illegal motion call when the team was attempting to run the hurry-up offense at the end of the first half. These aren’t mistakes of the “trying so hard to make a play that I went a little too far” variety. No, these are straight WTFers. And that’s just the easy stuff; once you start digging, it just gets more frustrating.
Part of the additional frustration comes from seeing that Coach Jasper had what looked like a pretty interesting game plan, if the Mids could have just executed it. You will recall that in last year’s game, Pitt used the middle linebacker to spy on the quarterback with great success, as the Mids consistently whiffed when trying to block him. They employed the same tactic this year, and Coach Jasper was ready for it. First, he ran out of twin WR sets for most of the game. This forced the Pitt defense to adjust their formation, shifting linebackers to the strong side of the field. The MLB was now lined up not in the middle of the formation, but more directly in front of the slotback assigned to block him and making him easier to get to. That was the other adjustment– using a slotback instead of a tackle to block the MLB. The thinking is that a more agile player might be harder for the MLB to sidestep. The playside tackle would instead block the backside linebacker’s inside-out pursuit.
It was screwed up from the beginning.
Let’s take a look. Here’s how the teams lined up on Navy’s second play:
You can see the quarterback’s keys; the dive key is the first down lineman outside of the B gap, and the pitch key is the first defender lined up outside of #1 and within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. In this case, the pitch key is lined up over the inside wide receiver. Since he’s supposed to be left unblocked, the WR tries to block the run support safety. The slotback attempts to block the charging middle linebacker. Both miss. Ricky pitches the ball before he gets clobbered, but when you pitch off of a defender other than the pitch key, you risk either getting the pitch batted down, or getting the slotback creamed. On this play, it was the latter:
The same thing happened later in the half; this time, the pitch was dangerously close to getting returned the wrong way. Luckily, it ended up being a big gain instead:
Coach Jasper tried to give the slotbacks the chance to block the middle linebacker, but miss after miss forced Navy’s offensive coordinator to change tactics. The adjustment he made was to run a double option, using the fullback instead of the slotback to take out the linebacker. That’s exactly what Alexander Teich did. Unfortunately, the offensive line couldn’t do the same, and this play was stuffed like the others.
Undaunted, Coach Jasper turned to the midline option. With the playside slotback taking a more direct route to the linebacker, he was able to make the block. When Ricky was able to make the correct read, it was an effective play. When Ricky missed the read… not so much.
The aggressiveness of the middle linebacker enabled Coach Jasper to try some other things, too. Navy’s biggest play of the day came on a trap option, with the fullback becoming the pitch man. The play clicked because of an absolute textbook block by Osei Asante as he pulls to take out the defensive end. The play was attempted a few more times, but the pulling guards weren’t able to connect on their assignments.
With the Mids unable to execute any adjustment Jasper tried to make, he decided to come out in the second half with the bread & butter, getting back to basics. Ricky still struggled to make the right read on the give key:
BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! The quarterback certainly wasn’t the only player missing his reads. Not giving up, Jasper dipped into last year’s game plan and tried the unbalanced line, with two tackles on the same side of the formation. In the first play, the tackle is supposed to block the middle linebacker. Instead, he ends up blocking the pitch key. The slotback runs right by the LB, since his assignment was to block the run support safety.
In the second play, we have a variation on the same theme. This time it’s the slotback that blocks the pitch key, while his assignment, the run support safety, blows up the play.
It was like this the whole game; a seemingly endless parade of mental miscues. At this point Coach Jasper decided to take his chances throwing the ball, which is a whole other ball of wax. Navy threw 22 passes in this game, but that stat is a tad misleading. The Mids only attempted four passes, including one sack, through the bulk of the first half. It wasn’t until they got the ball back about a minute before halftime that they really took to the air, with four more pass attempts (plus another sack) on that possession alone. Another 13 attempts came in the fourth quarter, as Coach Jasper attempted to climb out of a 3-score deficit. Contrary to what some people believe, with 17 of Ricky’s 22 pass attempts coming in hurry-up situations, the game plan was not to step onto Heinz Field and start chucking the ball left and right. That’s a good thing, too, considering that the offense has given up 8 sacks in the last two weeks. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
For all my bellyaching about the offense, I am yet again encouraged by the play of the defense. After games against three bowl teams from a year ago, including Ohio State and a Pitt team expected to contend for the Big East crown, Navy’s defense has given up a shade under 300 yards per game this season. That’s a 50 ypg improvement over the 2003 and 2004 defenses– which were the best since Buddy Green came to Annapolis– against far stronger competition. After the opening drive, Pitt’s average starting field position on their scoring drives was their own 43-yard line– including the field goals. When the Navy defense was given some room to work with, they came through. Dion Lewis, the latest Pitt running back to make waves as a freshman, was held to a mere 79 yards rushing after running for 190 a week earlier. Even more importantly, the renewed emphasis on third dows over the spring and fall practice periods appears to be paying off, as the Mids held Pitt to only 5 of 15 on third down conversions. Yes, the defense gave up some crucial pass plays, but that’s going to happen, especially against BCS-caliber teams. So far the defense is turning out to be everything we expected it to be, and maybe a little more.
(By the way, the new official Birddog’s Favorite Player is Blake Carter. If “Thou shalt not miss an open-field tackle” was one of the Ten Commandments, then Blake Carter would be Pope.)
If you think about it, though, the offense is turning out the way they were expected to as well. I think that after the performance against Ohio State, people forgot how green the offense really is. Now might be a good time to recalibrate your expectations. Ricky is starting as a junior at a position where most of his counterparts have been seniors. The exceptions were Craig Candeto in 2002, who spent half the season hearing calls from fans for Aaron Polanco to start; and, of course, Kaipo, who ran this offense in the womb. Ricky doesn’t have the same luxury of learning over time, and is himself surrounded by other young players. These guys are learning on the job; talented enough to nearly pull a gargantuan upset, but inexperienced enough to potentially turn any game into a stinker like we saw against Pitt. It isn’t time to panic; it’s just important to understand that there is a learning process here that has been compressed.