I doubt we’ll see any people leaving comments on Wagner’s blog this week complaining about Navy’s offense.
The Mids cranked out 537 total yards, including 471 on the ground, to dismantle the Rice Owls on Saturday, 63-14. Fourteen players carried the ball for Ivin Jasper’s offense, led by Ricky Dobbs’ 104 yards and 4 touchdowns. Reserves got most of the carries in the second half, and #2 QB Kriss Proctor made the most of his playing time with 83 yards and 3 TDs of his own. Rice remains winless, while Navy moves to 4-2 and one step closer to a return trip to Houston for the Texas Bowl.
I probably should have seen this coming. Even in 2008, when Rice was a 10-game Texas Bowl winner, their defense still couldn’t handle the triple option. Army ran for 461 yards on the Owls last year, and Army’s offense was terrible. I’m not sure if it was that game or David Bailiff’s earlier experience with Georgia Southern and Cal Poly that tipped him off, but Ken Niumatalolo knew exactly what was coming. In his radio interview with Bob Socci before the game, Coach Niumat mentioned that Rice would be looking to force the ball outside, counting on the free safety to make the stop. Hmmm… Now where have we seen this before? Coach Jasper tested this on Navy’s first play from scrimmage, faking the toss sweep and throwing deep over the middle to Marcus Curry. The safety bit on the fake just enough to allow Curry to get behind him for a 51-yard gain. After the game, Bailiff commented on his defensive plan: “Every adjustment we made, everything we did, nothing worked. We will put the film on.”
Coach, at Rice, you never end a sentence with a preposition! But when he does put the film on, he’ll see that the defense did exactly what it was designed to do. Rice safety Andrew Sendejo had 17 tackles, more than twice as many as the next closest Owl. Rice switched between odd and even fronts, but the one constant was Sendejo following the tail motion and making a beeline for the pitch:
You can see in the clip how the tackle tried to make the block, but couldn’t. Over the course of the game, Coach Jasper went after the safety in a few ways. In the tight formation, he used the playside wide receiver to block the safety. This left the cornerback unblocked, but he was lined up so deep in the cover 3 that he couldn’t make the tackle until the ball carrier was already nine yards downfield. Next, he continued to use the tackle to block the safety, but instead of releasing inside of the quarterback’s read key, he had him release outside in order to give him a clearer path to his assignment. It worked well enough. Finally, he had the slotback take the safety, and Mike Stukel laid a textbook cut that carved a path for Ricky to get to the end zone.
Coach Jasper did other things too. There was the pass to open the game, of course. The counter option had some success as well. He also tinkered with the trips formation. Take a look at this next clip. In the first play, the tackle releases inside and isn’t able to get to the next level of the defense. The playside linebacker and safety are both unblocked; one takes the quarterback, the other takes the pitch, and the play is blown up. The second play is the same, only this time the safety is blocked by the wide receiver. The tackle arc blocks the cornerback, and Bobby Doyle runs for a first down:
Despite the considerable output, it was hardly a flawless performance by the offense. There were missed blocks, mixed assignments, and missed reads, although they still turned into 2-3 yard gains against the Rice defense. On the flip side, there were also some immediate improvements in the wake of the Air Force game. In the next clip, you’ll see Ricky make a tough– and correct– read against a mesh charge. You’ll also see Vince Murray make two great runs. In the first, Murray makes a nifty move to take advantage of his blockers and find some open field. The second play is a designed handoff to the fullback. Instead of trying to plow through an unblocked linebacker, Vince runs around him. Against Air Force, that play is a 2-yard gain. This week, it’s a touchdown.
Perhaps an Air Force linebacker makes that play. Still, you have to appreciate the progress.
The pyroclastic flow of offensive destruction is the most eye-popping item from the Rice game, but don’t let it overshadow another excellent performance by the Navy defense. The Mids are 29th in the country against the run after holding Rice to 21 rushing yards. Of course, 2009 Rice isn’t exactly 2004 Rice when it comes to running the ball, but after performances against Ohio State, Pitt, and Air Force, it’s clear that this ranking is no fluke. Naturally, Navy’s remaining schedule features four of the country’s top 16 passing offenses. Figures. Fortunately, the Mids got a good tune-up for these games on Saturday from a pass-happy Rice team and their sophomore quarterback.
Rice has high hopes for quarterback Nick Fanuzzi. The transfer from Alabama appeared to be turning a corner when, earlier this year, Rice actually outgained Oklahoma State in a 41-24 loss. A shoulder injury forced him to miss the last two games, but he was back in action against Navy. Fanuzzi finished with 242 yards passing and 2 TDs, including a pretty incredible toss to Patrick Randolph at the end of the first half. But the Mids were able to pick off two of Fanuzzi’s passes, and neither of Rice’s drives that started in Navy territory resulted in a score.
Fanuzzi could have blamed those fizzled drives on being rusty after being hurt for two weeks, and I don’t think anyone would have blamed him. To his credit, he didn’t:
“I felt great after this week of practice. I was confident with what I could do with my arm. I’m not putting how I played based on my shoulder hurting, that’s not the case today. I think we just had missed opportunities and we’ve just got to fix them and look forward to next week. I felt prepared, I thought we were ready to go out and play Navy this week, but I give them all the credit. They played a great game offensively and defensively. We’ve just to keep grinding.”
One of Fanuzzi’s two interceptions went to Ram Vela, who had a stellar game. On top of the interception, Ram also led the team with 5 tackles, two of which were made behind the line of scrimmage. Kevin Edwards grabbed the other interception and broke up another pass. Perhaps the most impressive performance of the day came from Michael Walsh, who filled in at nose guard while Jordan Stephens, Chase Burge, and Shane Bothel were out with injuries. Walsh usually plays defensive end, and at 251 pounds, is a bit undersized when compared to other nose guards. Someone forgot to tell him that on Saturday. Walsh consistently drew double-teams, but was still able to push himself into the backfield and even knocked down a pass. Rice’s sophomore linemen had their hands full– sometimes literally– with the Navy senior. Like the offense, Buddy Green was able to rotate in several reserves, with players like John Angelo, Max Blue, and Mason Graham making plays in the second half.
My favorite defensive play came in the first quarter, with Navy up 14-0. What looked like an option run in one direction became a pass to the tight end running in the other direction:
Clint Sovie didn’t overpursue the option look. Instead, he recognized the play action, recovered, and held the play to a minimal gain. One or two years ago, this kind of misdirection would’ve resulted in a big gain. Now, the Navy defense is much more disciplined.
As exciting as it was to see the offense explode the way it did, I’m not sure how much there is to learn from this game. When a team full of freshmen and sophomores carries out a mediocre game plan that the other side is prepared for, obliteration happens. By the end of it, Coach Jasper had to be thinking to himself, “We run the option, and our backups are in the game! How are we supposed to keep from running up the score? Pass?” But hey, there’s nothing like a good blowout to cleanse the soul. Just don’t let it go to your head.