Sometimes I feel guilty waiting until Friday to put out the game previews. I didn’t usually write them so late in the week over the last two years, but this season I decided to change things up. It’s mostly because I’m lazy; procrastination just comes naturally to me. Then again, there is a practical reason to wait until the last minute as well. A lot can change over the course of a week. What you thought you knew on Monday can become a pile of useless goo by Friday. Such is the case with this week’s Navy-Wake Forest game, as Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs was unable to practice all week and will not play on Saturday. Sophomore Kriss Proctor will get the start for the Mids.
After watching Ivin Jasper have to juggle three quarterbacks in 2008, the one thing Navy fans were looking forward to this year was a little bit of stability at the position. That hope was doomed before the season even started, as a crack in Ricky’s right kneecap that appeared while he was in high school was more or less a ticking time bomb that was re-injured against SMU. Well, “ticking time bomb” might be a bit melodramatic… Ricky did finish the game against SMU, after all. Nevertheless, he’s out this week, and maybe longer– I don’t think cracked kneecaps heal in a week. So in steps Proctor, bringing with him the dark, gray cumulonimbus of the unknown.
Well, not completely unknown. With his team up 42-7 after one drive in the second half against Rice, Coach Niumatalolo replaced Ricky with Proctor, and the offense didn’t miss a beat. Kriss finished with 82 yards and three TDs in less than one half of play, including the game’s longest run of 29 yards. Of course, all this came against Rice, which is not only a terrible team this year, but also didn’t have a very good defensive plan to take on the Navy offense. Proctor probably couldn’t have had an easier debut; on its own, there really isn’t that much we can tell about Proctor from the Rice game. Fortunately, there is context. Kriss didn’t come into the spring as the clear-cut #2 quarterback; it was a three-way battle between Proctor, Mike Stukel, and Kameron Smith. It didn’t take long for Proctor to rise to the top of the heap, though. With the advantage of having played in a similar option offense in high school, his option reads and feel for defenses came more naturally than the other two. Proctor’s high school background has led some, including Coach Jasper, to draw comparison between the last Chosen One of Navy quarterbacks, Kaipo. I’m not sure if those comments are just meant to be a confidence booster to his young sophomore, but I cringed a little when I read them. Kaipo has been described, and rightfully so, as the best option quarterback Navy’s ever had. I hope the comparison doesn’t lead to ridiculous expectations on the part of fans… Anything short of those expectations, and we end up with really annoying blog comments. And we can’t have that. With Wake Forest coming to Annapolis, let’s hope the comparison is valid– one thing Jim Grobe’s defenses have done as well as any Navy opponent is give the quarterback a variety of different reads and alignments to deal with.
If you’re sick of Wake Forest, I don’t think anyone would blame you. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and this will be Navy and Wake’s third meeting in a little more than a year. Navy beat then-#16 Wake in Winston-Salem last September, with the Demon Deacons winning the rematch in the Eaglebank Bowl two months later. This year’s Wake Forest team, though, is a lot different than the 2008 squad.
I’m not sure people truly realize just how good Wake Forest’s defense was last year. Four players from that defense were taken in last year’s NFL draft. Aaron Curry, who won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, was the #4 overall selection. Curry was also the fastest linebacker at the NFL combine. The second-fastest linebacker at the combine was fellow Deac Stanley Arnoux, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Saints. Two picks earlier, the Saints took Wake Forest safety Chip Vaughn. Alphonso Smith was named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press and taken in the second round by the Denver Broncos. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime defense for most schools, and it showed. Wake Forest was 16th in total defense last year, giving up less than 297 yards and only 18 points per game while leading the nation with 37 takeaways. Not surprisingly, removing four NFL-caliber players from one defense has taken its toll. Through seven games, Wake has averaged 364 yards and 24 points per game; significant increases over a year ago. Without last year’s stud linebackers, the two leading tacklers on the team– Cyhl Quarles and Brandon Ghee– are both in the secondary.
Offensively, Wake Forest is a bit of a mystery. While teams always know what they’re going to get when they play Navy, Wake has found itself in a bit of an identity crisis for the last two years. The loss to Navy was a turning point of sorts for the 2008 squad. Up until that game, the offense was geared toward making the most of Riley Skinner’s arm. But after throwing 4 interceptions against the Mids, Jim Grobe seemed to favor the running game. In the four weeks up to and including the Navy game, Wake Forest averaged only 85 yards per game on the ground. After losing to Navy, they averaged 138 yards per game, capped off with 239 rushing yards in the rematch with the Mids. The dedication to the running game has carried over into 2009, as the Deacs actually employed wishbone and wing-T plays and formations in their season opener, a 24-21 loss to Baylor. They continued to run the ball, with 383 yards in wins over Stanford and Elon over the next two weeks. Then came Boston College. Facing a 24-10 deficit in the fourth quarter, Wake Forest started throwing again, tying the game with 11 seconds to play before falling in overtime. Skinner threw for 361 yards the following week against North Carolina State, and followed that up with 360 more yards in a win against Maryland. It appeared that Wake Forest was back to being a passing team again.
That came to a screeching halt last week at Clemson, where the senior quarterback threw for only 97 yards and two interceptions in a 38-3 blowout loss. A glimpse at the differing defensive schemes between the Terps and the Tigers might explain why. Riley Skinner has always completed a high percentage of his passes– 67% for his career, a rate he is matching in 2009. It’s an impressive statistic, but like all statistics it needs to be placed in context. The Wake Forest passing offense is one of those “extension of the running game” schemes; short, controlled passing, with plenty of screens and swing passes. When Maryland blitzed on almost every play, it played right into Wake Forest’s hands. Clemson, on the other hand, blitzed very little. They relied on their front four to get pressure on Skinner, and had one linebacker spying on the quarterback to keep him from scrambling for yardage while everyone else was in coverage. With all the short routes covered, Skinner was sacked 5 times and completed only 11 of his 24 pass attempts. Can Navy’s 4-man rush do the same thing? It’s a tall task; Clemson averages nearly 3 sacks per game compared to Navy’s 1. The end result might look very similar to the SMU game; no sacks, but just enough to keep the offense within striking distance.
Wake Forest is a small, private school– the kind of school that one would think Navy would match up well against. History, however, disagrees. Of the nine games that the two schools have played against each other since 1991, Navy has won only two of them. You can’t underestimate their talent. They’ll be especially motivated this week, since the Navy game is almost a must-win for bowl eligibility given the difficulty of the remainder of their schedule. The Deacs have lost their last 5 games on the road, but Navy is without their rocket-armed quarterback. If you know how this one’s going to turn out, you’re one step ahead of me.