I’m so mad at June Jones right now.
This week was shaping up so nicely for me. I finished the writeup for the Rice game on Monday night instead of Tuesday, so I was already ahead of the curve. By Tuesday night I was just about done with the SMU preview, too. Everything was all laid out. I wrote all about how this year’s SMU game would be nothing like last year’s 34-7 Navy win. There was no way that there would be anything to take from that game, right? I mean, the game was played in a monsoon, with winds gusting to 36 mph. The wind kept Jones from being able to unleash his full playbook on the Mids. Bo Levi Mitchell finished with only 157 yards passing, 56 of those yards coming on one play. That wasn’t even a long pass either; it was more of a catch-and-run. Forcing the defense to cover the entire field is what makes the run and shoot work, and the wind made that impossible. With the weekend forecast for Dallas calling for clear skies and light winds, the SMU offense figures to look a lot different compared to a year ago.
Two days ago, I thought their defense would, too. Navy didn’t even attempt a pass against the Mustangs in 2008. They didn’t have to. The Mids ran for 404 yards, 224 of them coming from Ricky Dobbs. The Navy QB tacked on 4 TDs as well, and he didn’t even play the whole game; Jarod Bryant was the starter. Bryant was on his way to a monster game himself, running for 50 yards on only 6 carries before leaving the game for the second time due to injury. Ricky carried the ball 42 times, and SMU didn’t stop him. With that kind of a beating, defensive coordinator Tom Mason would be sure to scrap last year’s Navy game plan and go with something else, right? Besides, SMU switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4 this year, so there isn’t any reason to even bother looking at last year’s game, is there?
Then I hopped onto the internet Wednesday morning and read this:
The Mustangs defense will adjust to a four-man front this week in preparation for Navy’s triple-option, defensive coordinator Tom Mason said.
SMU will also revert back to some of the schemes it used in last year’s 34-7 loss at Navy, with new wrinkles designed to better limit quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Dobbs ran for 224 yards and four touchdowns against the Mustangs last season.
Part of me thinks that this has to be some kind of trick. There’s no way that SMU will revert to the same defensive plan that led to last year’s thumping, is there? Apparently, that’s exactly what is going to happen, so now I have to scrap everything I already wrote and hit the DVD player. Way to kill my family time, SMU. I’m not sure this revelation is all that helpful to the Navy coaches, either, since it could easily just be an attempt to spread misinformation.
It won’t take us long to find out. The coaches weren’t really sure how SMU was going to line up going into last year’s game, either. In situations like that, it’s common for Coach Jasper to call a designed handoff to the fullback on the game’s first play. He’ll send a slotback in tail motion to make it look like the triple option, but it’s really just his way of seeing the defense’s game plan. That’s how he started the game last year, which you can see on the first play on the clip. SMU used a variation of the same free-safety-takes-the-pitch-man defense we see all the time. In this case, with the corners playing tight in man coverage, it was really a cover 1 look as opposed to a cover 3. After seeing that, Jasper started calling the triple option. The corners were in tight coverage on the wide receivers and not playing run support, so Coach Jasper let his receivers run them out of the play. The playside A-back would load from the linebacker to the safety. What that means is that he’d first look to block the first linebacker out of the count. If the LB was playing the fullback dive, he’d move on to block the safety instead. With the safety blocked, the pitch was wide open.
Now, pay special attention to that last play. The really unusual part about SMU’s defense last year was that they used their outside linebackers to match up man-to-man with the slotbacks (personnel-wise, one of them was a safety, but where he was lined up made him a de facto LB). Eventually, SMU started occasionally firing their corners in run support. When that happened, Coach Jasper changed the blocking scheme. Now, the wide receiver would block the safety, while the playside A-back would arc block the cornerback.
The man coverage on the slotbacks is why Ricky Dobbs had so many carries in last year’s game. When the playside slotback went out to make his block, the man covering him would follow right along. Of course, the LB covering the slotback was also the quarterback’s pitch key, so when he kept running outside to cover his man, he was basically giving Ricky the read to keep the ball. So Ricky did. A lot.
This coverage scheme opened up opportunities for misdirection, too. The linebacker following the tail motion resulted in a numbers advantage on the vacated side of the field. Coach Jasper used the fullback blocking the inside-out linebacker pursuit, which left a lot of space outside for Ricky to run.
Once in a while, SMU would switch from a 4-man front to a 5-man front. Whenever they did, Jarod and Ricky would audible to the midline option:
The question now is what “wrinkles” the SMU staff intends to add “to better limit quarterback Ricky Dobbs,” and how to do it without opening up other plays. I’m not sure that’s possible in this defensive scheme. Don’t be surprised if, unlike last year’s contest, Coach Jasper airs it out a bit if he once again finds himself playing against cover 1 with the safety dedicated to run support. I don’t know if June Jones and defensive coordinator Tom Mason really do intend to use the same basic defense as last year, but we should hope that they do.
It’s hard to imagine that SMU would want to imitate anything from their dreadful 1-11 campaign of 2008, especially considering how well the 2009 season has gone so far. SMU is 3-2 and off to their first 2-0 start in conference play since receiving the Death Penalty in 1987– a span of three different conference memberships (Southwest, WAC, and Conference USA). The three wins are more than they had in their last two seasons combined. It hasn’t always been pretty– the Mustangs lost to a horrible Washington State team and were outgained by Stephen F. Austin in their opener, 460-355– but when you’re coming off of back-to-back one-win seasons, pretty is the farthest thing from your mind.
As the quarterback of one of only a pair of I-A schools that feature the pure run & shoot, it’s no surprise that Bo Levi Mitchell is among the nation’s top passers, averaging nearly 300 yards per game through the air. That’s up from the 238 yards per game he averaged last year, but Mitchell isn’t really throwing that much better… He’s just throwing that much more. Like last season, he’s completing about 58% of his passes, and with 10 interceptions he’s well on his way to matching the 23 he threw in 2008. He’s completing passes at about the same rate, but he’s had more opportunities to throw, completing 25 passes per game. That’s up from a little more than 19 per game a year ago, and it’s thanks mostly to the SMU defense. The unit, led by standout linebackers Chase Kennemer and Navy transfer Pete Fleps, is definitely better this year, although I wouldn’t exactly call giving up 391 yards per game good. They do, however, lead the country in interceptions with 13, and have forced 19 turnovers overall. When you average almost 4 turnovers per game, you give your quarterback more chances to throw the ball. Mitchell’s favorite target is wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. A 5-11, 180-pound senior, Sanders is already SMU’s all-time leader in receiving yards and TD catches, and needs just one more catch to tie the SMU career mark in receptions as well. He had 18 catches for 178 yards against Washington State, and leads all of I-A in punt return average. He is as legitimate a threat as you’ll find anywhere.
Navy is favored for a reason, but this is going to be a different game than last week. Rice was a downtrodden, defeated team. After beating perennial Conference USA contender East Carolina on Saturday, SMU has to feel like they’ve turned a corner. They are going to be confident, and the Mids are going to get their best shot.
The Gansz Trophy
Saturday’s game will be an emotional one, especially for SMU. The teams will be playing for the newly-created Gansz Trophy honoring Frank Gansz, the SMU special teams coach that passed away on April 27. Gansz was sort of the football version of this guy. A 1960 graduate of the Naval Academy, he didn’t letter, but was a member of the first team to play at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in 1959. Upon graduation, he received a commission in the Air Force, where he served for seven years. After leaving the Air Force, Gansz spent 38 years roaming the sideline. He coached at all three service academies, was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, and won a Super Bowl ring coaching special teams with the St. Louis Rams. He retired in 2001, but came out of retirement last year to coach with June Jones at SMU.
A traveling trophy series with SMU is a great idea for a lot of reasons. A regular series enhances Navy’s visibility and coverage in Texas, a key recruiting state. It’s also one less date on the schedule that Navy has to fill– a task that is becoming more difficult as the Mids are more successful. The current series ends in 2011 and resumes from 2015-2018, with additional dates in the works. Plus, if SMU improves under June Jones they way many people expect them to, this could become a marquee game on the Navy schedule, and one of the better non-BCS matchups every year.