If you’ve been reading this lousy blog long enough… I apologize. Really. For everything. But in the time you’ve subjected yourself to this horrible place, you might have noticed that I don’t have much use for the national media, at least when it comes to Navy sports. I don’t watch Sportscenter, rarely catch more than the last 15 minutes or so of Gameday before the noon games start, and read next to nothing from the sports page of most national newspapers, save for the occasional column. The reason for my disdain is that each and every one of you reading this right now know more about Navy football than anyone from ESPN or whatever other national clearinghouse from which you’re getting your news and analysis. That doesn’t just apply to Navy; you could say that about anyone. To obtain a real understanding of a team, you have to read their local stuff. It’s the only way. If you’re happy with platitudes and human interest stories, though, Gameday has you covered. I laugh when the message board crowd gets excited over WOW LEE CORSO PICKED NAVY TO UPSET PITT, even though Lee Corso can’t name more than three people combined from both teams’ rosters. OMG SPORTSLINE RANKS NAVY 64TH or whatever is equally meaningless, since Navy is being ranked against 119 other teams the website’s prognosticators don’t know anything about. For the same reason, I also don’t get too spun up if these places don’t rank Navy very highly. These guys take a stab for the casual football fan to skim over, but that’s all. Hardcore fans are best served looking elsewhere.
I know, I know… Thanks for the lecture, Mike, but nobody cares what you think and Herbstreit is dreamy, so have fun with your Spongebob on Saturday mornings while I watch Gameday and read me some news. I get it. But don’t pretend you don’t get annoyed when you read that “Air Force tends to get a higher caliber of player than Navy.” You know you ask yourself where on earth the Troy Calhoun love affair comes from, and why Ken Niumatalolo doesn’t get nearly the same kind of credit for his work at the Naval Academy. And why does it seem like people are so anxious to hand the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy back to Air Force year after year? Now, it’s not as if the very thought of Air Force being a better football team is so outrageous. They have good players, and they win games. I’m sure someone could construct a detailed argument to support the idea… But they don’t. These proclamations are rarely accompanied by anything resembling an in-depth comparison of the two teams. It’s usually a one-liner, followed by something like “last year/two years/three years were a fluke!” or “Troy Calhoun is the real deal!” or “Navy isn’t the same without Paul Johnson!” (That last one is especially funny to me, since these people would still pick Air Force even when Johnson was the coach.)
So if it isn’t actual analysis that inspires all these people to think Air Force is so great, then what is it? The same reason why everyone is so anxious to say that Florida State, Miami, and Michigan are “back”: reputation. That’s all there is to it. It’s just what people are used to. It’s bogus, of course, but it’s what you’re left with when you don’t have the time or inclination to take a detailed look. It usually works out well enough since, generally speaking, good programs are good programs for a reason– some schools just have inherent advantages in money, location, admissions standards, etc. The service academy football experiment, though, happens in its own little petri dish. Air Force might one day have a built-in advantage if the Mountain West ever gets a BCS auto-bid, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for that; the same goes for Army and the Alternative “Service” Option. As far as things stand right now, the service academies all have more or less the same tools to work with; the Naval Academy might have a small advantage in the number of service options available upon commissioning, but I doubt Army’s or Air Force’s coaches see that as much of an obstacle. People picking Air Force– or Navy, for that matter– to be kings of the service academy mountain because they’re supposed to be there are mistaken.
The whole “this is the way things are supposed to happen” way of thinking can infect fans and players as much as the media. Navy has defeated Air Force for six consecutive years, but as we’re constantly reminded, none of them were blowouts. That’s because it’s Navy-Air Force! It’s going to be a tight one! It always is! Right? Well, once upon a time the same was said about the Army-Navy game– the ol’ “throw out the records when these teams meet” cliché. That’s how things usually played out, too. In the 11 years from 1991-2001, the margin of victory was less than 5 points seven times. But then a strange thing happened. In the 2002 game, the Mids went up 14-3 early in the second quarter when Craig Candeto punched in his second 1-yard TD run. When he got back to the sideline, Candeto said something, and it might have been the exact moment Navy football turned the corner as a program. Candeto told the offense, “Guys, this doesn’t have to be close.” And it wasn’t. Navy walked out of the Meadowlands having racked up 508 yards of offense in a 58-12 victory. The rivalry– and the team– haven’t been the same since. Part of me wonders if the whole “it’s always a close one” mentality becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for Navy when they play Air Force. Contrary to the mainstream, I don’t think this is an even matchup. I think Navy is the better team, hands down. No, that doesn’t mean that the Mids are going to come out and hang 58 on Team Jesus Christ on Saturday. Air Force is clearly not the 2002 Army team, and is fully capable of winning this game. I just don’t think they will.
That might seem unusually confident coming from me, but it’s fueled in part by what looks like a remarkable lack of confidence from Troy Calhoun in his team. I’ve made fun of the new Air Force media guidelines a couple times here, but it wasn’t until last week that its true nature really began to come to the surface. Falcons quarterback Tim Jefferson was hurt early in the game against New Mexico; he left and didn’t return. The Tuesday after the game, Jefferson spoke about his injury, saying that his ankle was “between 60 and 80 percent.” Two days later, a new policy was handed down from Calhoun on top of the already stringent rules that were issued earlier this season: no more talking to injured players. The message Calhoun is sending is clear; he doesn’t trust his players. The easy solution would be to give players a little guidance on what they should and shouldn’t say to the media like every other program in the country, but it would appear that Troy Calhoun doesn’t believe his players can handle that.
Depending on who you ask, that lack of confidence may be manifesting itself on the field as well. Last week’s game against San Diego State wasn’t exactly an offensive performance for the ages; the Air Force defense actually outscored the offense, and had the team’s only touchdowns. Afterwards, Calhoun stated that he intentionally kept things conservative on offense. OK, that happens. We’ve seen Navy do it before, most notably in the 2007 Army game. Of course, Paul Johnson wasn’t calling any double reverses in that game, either. Air Force did against San Diego State– more than once, actually– which makes you wonder if Calhoun was really scaling things back. He was, but only if you define “scaling things back” as “not passing much.” Otherwise, it was the same Air Force running game we’ve seen all year.
To give you an idea of how the Air Force offense has been performing, consider this: Navy scored as many offensive touchdowns against Ohio State as Air Force scored against Minnesota, San Diego State, and New Mexico combined. The Falcons have averaged 6 ypg less than Navy against I-A competition, and Navy has faced not only the Buckeyes, but also Pitt, and a Louisiana Tech team that won 8 games a year ago and just held Hawaii to 301 total yards on Wednesday night (Hawaii was averaging 521 ypg coming into that game). Air Force has made 14 trips into their I-A opponents’ red zones so far this year. Ten of those trips resulted in 3 points or less. Maybe Calhoun played things close to the vest against the Aztecs, but for the entire season? No way.
The problem for Air Force last year against Navy was that they just didn’t have any offensive playmakers. There were instances in last year’s game where a player would take the ball on a pitch and have gobs of real estate in front of him, but couldn’t get any more than a first down out of the play. The issue seems to have creeped its way into 2009. Air Force has yet to find a player to replace Chad Hall. Hall was named the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year in 2007 after finishing third nationally in all-purpose yards and leading the Falcons in both rushing (1,478 yards) and receiving (524 yards). In contrast, Air Force’s leading rusher in 2008 was Todd Newell, with all of 594 yards. Hall was the one player on the team that was fast enough to turn any play into six points. This year, Air Force doesn’t have a run longer than 26 yards against I-A competition. The threat just hasn’t presented itself. Asher Clark, the quarterback-turned-tailback-turned-quarterback-turned-tailback that emerged after the loss to Navy last year, might be the answer. He finished with 588 rushing yards in only 8 full games as a freshman. But he injured his shoulder against San Diego State, and Calhoun hasn’t said anything about his status for Saturday’s game. Even if he plays– and I suspect he will– he’s only a sophomore, and hasn’t reached Hall-like ability yet. Navy’s defense is making fewer and fewer mistakes in 2009, and has become the strength of this team. Air Force has to capitalize whenever they can. They just haven’t shown that they have the horses to be able to do so.
It’s a different story on the other side of the ball. A solid unit in ’08, the Air Force defense has wasted no time picking up where it left off, and then some. The Falcons rank 20th nationally in total defense, and have allowed a cool 106 yards per game against the run. That’s impressive enough on its own, but the most remarkable thing has been their ability to create turnovers and turn them into points. Air Force leads the nation in takeaways with 15. Four of them were returned for touchdowns, including two against San Diego State alone. Where the offense has struggled in creating big plays, the defense has picked up the slack. Last year, the Air Force defense held Navy to a mere 244 yards of total offense. Many people point to that performance as the sign that this is Air Force’s year.
Navy’s offense sort of went through three phases in Colorado Springs last year. At the beginning of the game, Jarod Bryant actually did a pretty good job in making the right option reads; a feat made even more impressive by the fact that Air Force was doing a good job showing him different reads on almost every play. There were two problems, though. One, Air Force clearly had no respect for Bryant as a passer, and sent a safety running full speed to the line of scrimmage on almost every play. Two, Air Force’s defensive line was dominant in the first half. Even though Jarod was making the correct reads, it didn’t look like it; he kept getting tackled for minimal gains. Take a look at this play:
Jarod makes the right read here, but defensive end Jake Paulson is so athletic that he’s able to recover from initially taking the fullback, and tackles Bryant from behind. Plays like this led to phase two of the Navy offense: Jarod, having made the right reads but still being unable to get the offense kickstarted, lost his confidence in what he was seeing and started making the wrong reads. In an effort to stop the bleeding, the Navy coaches moved on to phase three in the 4th quarter: just giving the ball to Eric Kettani on every play. By then, Navy had established a little bit of a lead, and was content with just getting a couple of first downs and punting, playing field position and preventing a turnover that would give the Falcons another short field to work with (the Mids fumbled 4 times in that game, losing two). Air Force managed to score a late TD to make it a one-score game, but Navy ran out the last 2:30 to clinch the victory.
It was a spirited effort on the part of the Air Force defense, and as solid a gameplan as we’ve seen… But replicating that performance will be a lot easier said than done. Air Force can’t completely disregard the pass this year, thanks to Ricky Dobbs. That keeps the playside safety from selling out in run support. Air Force also no longer has Paulson and fellow bookend Ryan Kemp, two players on the defensive line whose individual efforts went a long way in disrupting Navy’s option game. Especially Paulson– first-team all-conference players aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Myles Morales and Rick Ricketts have done their jobs, but through 4 games they’ve combined for only 18 tackles. They should be a better matchup for Navy’s tackles, both of whom were only sophomores in 2008.
One player that Air Force still has in their defensive arsenal is nose guard Ben Garland. Statistically, Garland didn’t appear to be much of a factor last year, tallying all of one tackle against Navy. But that’s why you can’t just look at a stat sheet. Garland played an excellent game, and has single-handedly influenced Navy personnel decisions because of it. Bill Wagner wrote an insightful piece on the center-nose guard battle in last year’s contest. Coach Niumatalolo didn’t change all that much when Paul Johnson left, but one change he did make was at center. Because Air Force plays with a 5-man front against Navy with a nose guard lined up over the center, Niumat felt that he should put a bigger, stronger player at center to get a better push. Ricky Moore was moved to center to do just that, and he had a great year… Except against Air Force. Moore was never able to push Garland out of the way. Garland didn’t use his 275-pound frame to try to get leverage on Moore; instead, he used his hands to simply shed Moore’s cut blocks and get around him.
That’s a well-coached defensive tackle right there, and he’s back for another year. Moore’s size was a non-factor. Because of that, Navy’s coaches opted to make a change at center, moving the larger but less experienced Brady DeMell back to guard in favor of senior Curtis Bass, widely considered Navy’s best offensive lineman. As heavily as Air Force relies on its defense, the Bass-Garland showdown is the key matchup of this game.
One could easily argue that Navy has playmakers of its own to replace on offense. But Marcus Curry has emerged as a big-play threat, as has Ricky Dobbs as a passer. Those two, plus Bobby Doyle and Alex Teich, all have plays as long as anything Air Force has run against non-Nicholls State competition. Air Force will do their best to confuse Ricky, and will probably find some success with it. But as long as Ricky doesn’t turn those mistakes into turnovers, Navy should come away with the win.
(Pray that I’m right, because if not, the comments on this blog are going to be unreadable for a while, BROTHER).