In the 2006 season opener against East Carolina, quarterback Brian Hampton carried the ball 34 times for 149 yards as the Mids defeated the Pirates, 28-23. ECU made an effort to take away the slotbacks in the triple option, stepping into pitching lanes and even batting down a couple. The defense forced the quarterback and fullback to carry the load for the offense, with the two positions accounting for 52 of the team’s 70 carries. After spending all afternoon running between the tackles, Paul Johnson likened the offense’s day to “playing in a phone booth.”
If that was playing in a phone booth, then Saturday’s 16-13 victory over Air Force might be described as playing like the offense was trapped at the bottom of a well. Ricky Dobbs and fullbacks Vince Murray and Alex Teich combined for 52 of Navy’s 56 carries as the Mids were held to 209 yards of total offense. After Dobbs’ touchdown run on the Mids’ first drive, Navy failed to get a first down on seven of its next ten possessions. There came a point in the second half where I started getting worried that watching the game any longer might turn me into a pillar of salt. WHATEVER COACH JASPER DID TO OFFEND YOU, KARMA, SURELY THAT DEBT IS NOW PAID.
We’ll get to that, but first let’s take a look at what I said after last year’s Air Force game:
Those of us who have been Navy fans all our lives might see things a little bit differently. There was a time when the idea of beating Air Force with half our offense tied behind our back was completely unfathomable. Air Force used to be so talented relative to Navy that only a flawless effort in every phase of the game would give the Mids a chance. Now, the tables have turned. Not only did Navy win with a watered-down offense, but they scored 33 points! For me, Navy’s victory on Saturday was nothing short of brilliant.
Other than the whole 33 points thing, my feelings towards the 2009 game are nearly identical. Yes, the offense was lousy, but you can’t lose sight of the big picture here. Navy beat Air Force for the seventh straight year. If you’re new to the program, or only started caring when the team became good, or if you only go to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to drink wine at a tailgater and complain about the length of TV timeouts… Well, maybe that’s not enough for you. The rest of us are thrilled. In the 21 years prior to the current Navy winning streak, the Mids beat Air Force twice. Do you think in those years anyone would be turning up their noses at an ugly, 16-13 win? Hell no. Yes, Navy is a better team now, and expectations are higher. That doesn’t mean that anyone needs to start worrying about style points when it comes to service academy victories. I understand that every game is played in the context of a larger season, and that we all want to see various problems addressed. But if your first instinct after such a dramatic win over a service academy rival is to complain about the offense, then you have completely forgotten what it means to be a Navy fan. If I ever reach the point where I take wins over Army and Air Force for granted, feel free to kick me in the face.
The shame in all the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the offense is that it’s distracting from what should be the focus, which is a dominating performance by the defense. At the beginning of the season, we knew the young, largely unproven offense was going to sputter once in a while. If the Navy team was going to reach its goals in 2009, the defense was going to have to win some games for them. There were encouraging signs through the first four games that they’d be able to do so, but until it happens, you’re never really sure. Well, now you can be sure. The Mids were suffocating on defense, holding Air Force to 249 yards of total offense while forcing two turnovers and keeping the Falcons out of the end zone. Their 3 & out on Air Force’s first posession might have been the difference in the game, giving the Navy offense excellent field position on their first drive to set up the game’s only offensive touchdown. Ross Pospisil was his usual dependable self, leading the way with 12 tackles. If Joe Buckley hadn’t been Mr. Automatic, a strong case could be made for Wyatt Middleton as the game’s MVP. Middleton was all over the field, making 9 tackles in run support while breaking up two passes in coverage. The line also had a banner day, with Matt Nechak and Jabaree Tuani combining for 14 tackles. You can point out a good play by just about any Navy defender that got into the game.
The corollary to the complaints about the Navy offense has been to heap praise upon the Air Force defense. They played well too, but they shouldn’t be overshadowing the defense that actually, you know, won. Contrary to what some would have you believe, there’s nothing wrong with winning games with defense. Hell, two years after fielding what seemed like the worst defense in history, it’s downright refreshing. It turns out that games won with defense count just as much toward bowl eligibility as shootouts. Who knew? Younger fans might have an excuse, but anyone old enough to remember the George Welsh years should recall that Navy won games primarily through superb defense and a ball-control offense. I can only imagine the comments we’d have seen if we had the internet back then. OMG WHY DO WE KEEP HANDING OFF TO GATTUSO?? LESZCZYNSKI NEEDS TO PASS MORE!
Still, you have to give credit to Air Force for their defensive game plan. I didn’t think the game had to be so close, but when Navy was unable to make use of its two biggest advantages– slotback speed and Ricky’s arm– it’s no surprise that the score was tight. Not that Coach Jasper didn’t try to get the ball to his weapons. Navy’s first play of the game was a toss sweep that, as a harbinger of things to come, was blown up by the Air Force cornerback. Our intrepid offensive coordinator continued to call pass plays throughout the game as well, but most of them devolved into scrambles almost immediately. Coincidentally, those scrambles were Navy’s most successful running plays on the afternoon.
Navy’s offense started the day picking up where they left off in last year’s game, handing the ball off to the fullback. The first drive consisted primarily of designed handoffs to Alex Teich. Actually, other than the shorter field it was very similar to the first drive against Ohio State; the fullback carried the load until the last play, when the defense’s overpursuit of the fullback left a running lane open for Ricky to scoot to the end zone. The Mids didn’t run an actual option play until its third possession, at the very end of the first quarter. The first play of the drive was another called handoff to the fullback. The cornerback crept closer to the ball before the snap. On the next play, Coach Jasper called the triple option. The cornerback cheated toward the ball again. This puts him in the count; he’s #3, and the playside slotback should pick him up. He doesn’t, though, opting instead to head upfield and block a linebacker. Even though Ricky is given a read to pitch, he can’t; the unblocked cornerback would blow up the play. Ricky is forced to hold onto the ball for a minimal gain.
After that, Air Force settled into their option game plan. Their goal was to take away Navy’s big-play ability outside, forcing Navy to run into the strength of the defense. They did this in two steps. First, the pitch key almost always played the pitch. He didn’t wait for the quarterback to get outside, either; he ran straight into the backfield to show his intent. Second, the give key used the mesh charge to confuse the quarterback. The mesh charge is a very difficult read, as the defender basically fakes taking the fullback dive and steps upfield to take the quarterback at the last second. The combination of the two puts the quarterback in extremis almost immediately.
Ricky was able to adjust to the mesh charge and make the correct read more often than not. Since he was clearly being forced to run up the middle, Coach Jasper tried calling the midline to give Air Force a different look:
It might have worked more often than it did if nose guard Ben Garland didn’t absolutely own the middle of the field.
Garland wasn’t alone. The option isn’t the only way to get the ball to the slotbacks on the perimeter. But no matter how you try, you have to block the cornerbacks. Navy could not. The Mids’ inability to block Air Force’s corners was reminiscent of the futility of trying to block Scott McKillop against Pitt in 2008. Whenever someone tried to block him, McKillop just sidestepped him and kept moving. The Air Force cornerbacks were doing that all afternoon.
Obviously, it wasn’t exactly a banner day for the Navy offense. You might ask, “where were the adjustments?” Well, no matter what you adjust to, at some point someone’s got to start blocking. Navy had a hard time with that concept on Saturday. Air Force had a lot to do with that.
Still, after five games, Navy is sitting pretty: 3-2 after a brutal stretch of opponents, with half of the Commander in Chief’s Trophy competition in the bag. But what will become of Air Force? The knock on Fisher DeBerry at the end of his tenure in Colorado Springs was that after his team lost to Navy, their season would fall apart. That might have been true in 2003, but after that it’s complete revisionist history. From 2004-2006, Air Force wasn’t all that great going into the Navy game to begin with; their combined pre-Navy record in those years was only 6-6. The season was already in trouble by the time they got to the Navy game, and in each of those years they actually followed up the loss to the Mids with a conference win. Sometimes revisionist history rules the day, though, and to Troy Calhoun’s benefit. One thing that Calhoun has been given a lot of credit for is holding Air Force’s season together after losing to Navy, well enough to earn bids to two straight Armed Forces Bowls. I’m not so sure that’s going to happen this year. Like Navy, Air Force is also 3-2. But their next 4 games include #10 TCU, plus road games at Utah and a much-improved Colorado State team. Even Wyoming is 3-2 right now. It’s entirely possible for Air Force to be 4-5 after that stretch and needing a win at BYU to secure a winning record. 6-6 is a real possibility for this team.
So what’s different? Why is Air Force staring .500 in the face after going 17-9 in Calhoun’s first two seasons? Shouldn’t the team be getting better in year three? Well, they are on one side of the ball. Defensively, Air Force has been excellent, and that doesn’t look to change much next year with 7 starters returning. The offense is a different story. One would think that this would be the year that they’d break out, with seniors starting at all five offensive line positions plus tight end. Who wouldn’t want to run behind that? Despite that experience, the unit has been held without a touchdown for two consecutive games, and only has four against I-A competition all year. The culprit, according to some, is conservative playcalling. Was it? Air Force was the one throwing 14 passes on Saturday. Air Force was the one taking shots downfield in the first half– one being intercepted by Emmett Merchant, and the other almost meeting the same fate courtesy of Wyatt Middleton. Air Force was the one calling end-arounds, attacking the perimeter, and using double-reverse play-action. Maybe they played things close to the vest in overtime, but not during regulation. It only appeared “conservative” because frankly, they didn’t have enough speed to make those plays work. Receivers running downfield were matched step-for-step by Navy defensive backs. When Tim Jefferson completed passes underneath, his receivers couldn’t generate any yards after the catch. When Jonathan Warzeka tried to get to the corner, he couldn’t outrun Navy’s inside-out pursuit. Despite the bellyaching, Air Force’s most successful plays on Saturday were the “conservative” ones, when Savier Stephens would run up the middle behind that veteran offensive line.
If it wasn’t razzle-dazzle that Air Force was missing on Saturday, perhaps it was something else. While Calhoun used zone reads and other option plays, the triple option was very sparingly employed. That might be because he has two sophomore quarterbacks sitting on top of his depth chart. Air Force has had a bit of a continuity problem at quarterback. A mass exodus from their prep school left them with few options, and now Jefferson is set to become the school’s second straight four-year starter at the position. It sounds like a good thing, but it really isn’t. It’s one thing to start a freshman or a sophomore because that player is just that damn good. It’s another to start a freshman or sophomore because you have no other choice. Air Force is experiencing the latter. That’s not a slight to Jefferson; it’s just reality. He is going to become more comfortable in the offense, and Calhoun’s playcalling options will expand. Unfortunately for Jefferson, though, by the time that happens, he won’t have that super-experienced line blocking for him. Obviously there’s a lot of football left to be played this year, and a team can improve over the course of the season. But Air Force hasn’t exactly faced the Monsters of the Midway so far this year; it’s going to be a lot harder to get better against the likes of TCU and Utah.
But that’s their problem. Right now, Navy has two road games of their own to deal with in the next two weeks, heading to Texas to take on Rice and SMU. While the team has to move on, at least they do so knowing that they can still achieve all their goals. Well, except maybe the rushing title.
— It’s time for Air Force players to stop saying they want the trophy “back.” Yes, they want the trophy, just like Army and Navy’s players do. But no current Air Force player has ever won the CIC Trophy. When these seniors were freshmen, none of their seniors had won it either. These players are two generations removed from having it. There is no “back.” The idea that service academy games are nothing more than an Air Force victory lap is now officially out of style, like Hypercolor t-shirts and Tommy Toughnuts phrases like “it’s on like friggin’ Donkey Kong.” Players, fans, and media alike are encouraged to embrace this reality.