Something that is frequently discussed among Navy fans– at least those of you unfortunate enough to have wandered onto this dark and confused slice of the internet– is the idea of a “complete game.” Navy has done a whole lot of winning over the last several years, but sometimes it seems as if one particular unit carried the others to victory. Perhaps the defense won the game in a low-scoring slugfest. Maybe the offense would win a shootout. Then again, there are games like Air Force last year where Navy’s special teams kicked four field goals and blocked two punts to lead the Mids to the win. Rare is the glorious afternoon where all three units play at the top of their respective games, making the Mids look as if they could give the Washington Redskins a run for their money. Those are the games we live for.
The corollary to that, of course, is that sometimes we’re going to see complete losses— games where something goes wrong in all three phases. Saturday’s 27-24 loss to Temple could be described in such a way. Not that you can’t point to good things on both sides of the ball. Vince Murray rushed for 115 yards. The defense finally forced a couple of turnovers. Special teams almost had a banner day, with Joe Buckley nailing his lone field goal attempt, David Wright scooping up a botched punt for a touchdown, and Craig Schaefer recovering a fumbled punt return to set up another Navy touchdown. But as they giveth, they also taketh away, and in the end the game that people remember will look a lot different from the picture painted by those superlatives.
We’ll start with special teams. Things were looking good after Wright’s touchdown gave the Mids the lead with 1:55 left in the second quarter. After a stagnant first half, a little momentum going into the break can do wonders for a team’s attitude. Any momentum gained on that play, however, was lost almost immediately. Temple’s James Nixon returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, turning a 10-7 Navy lead into a 14-10 advantage for the Owls as the teams headed into their locker rooms. Navy had only given up two shaky kickoff returns all season; one to open the Ohio State game, the other at the beginning of the game against Rice. Both were returned to about midfield. Other than that, kickoff coverage hasn’t been much of an issue. In fact, the Mids have given up 20 yards or less per return in the majority of their games thus far. Obviously, that wasn’t the case on Saturday. Temple is particularly strong on kickoff returns, having led the nation with 26.6 yards per return last year. They haven’t slowed down in 2009, ranking 6th with 28.45 yards. Navy, on the other hand, entered the game short-handed on special teams. Ricky Dobbs, Marcus Curry, and Jordan Stephens might have been the names that caught your eye on the injury list, but another pair of names probably flew under your radar: Jordan Eddington and Tra’ves Bush. Eddington and Bush happen to be the team’s two leading tacklers on kickoff coverage, and their absence was felt last week. Does that excuse giving up a 100-yard KO return? No, but it does suggest something other than a systemic problem for the coverage unit. It also demonstrates just how valuable every member of the team really is, and how you can’t take any player’s contributions for granted.
As momentum-killing as Nixon’s return was, though, the Mids were still able to fight back to take the lead at the beginning of the 4th quarter. Unfortunately, the kickoff return was only the beginning of Navy’s problems. First and foremost was the utter collapse of what had been a very stout run defense. Temple superfrosh Bernard Pierce rewrote the record book, running for 267 yards and two touchdowns. Pierce was the Temple offense. Looking back at the game preview, we got two things right. One, Vaughn Charlton’s arm isn’t going to lead anyone to the promised land. Temple’s beleaguered quarterback completed only 5 of 17 passes for 37 yards and two interceptions. That’s not the kind of stat line that usually accompanies victory. It wouldn’t have on Saturday, either, except for the other thing we got right from the preview: Navy has problems defending zone blocking schemes.
What on earth is it with zone blocking that makes it the kryptonite to what has otherwise been a super run defense this year? Shoot, why limit the scope to only this year? Navy has always had problems defending against it. I’d be lying if I said I knew the reason why, although I have a hypothesis. Take a moment, if you will, to consider THE GRAPHIC:
Yes, there it is in all of its master-of-the-obvious splendor– the weekly reminder that Navy is indeed a small team. With reliability that makes Old Faithful jealous, it appears at least once during every Navy broadcast. If you’re like me, you usually just roll your eyes whenever you see it and mumble something along the lines of “same as every other week.” And that’s true; with the exception of the other service academies, the Mids don’t have the bulk of their opponents. While the tendency is for us to dismiss the size difference as simply business as usual, there are occasions where it might be a bit more significant– specifically, with teams that like to run the zone stretch. Lining up across from someone and pushing him backwards isn’t that easy; even smaller players can dig in and get leverage. To really be able to push them around, you need to get them moving laterally. That’s exactly what the zone stretch play does; the line moves together in one direction, while the running back runs to the hip of the playside tackle. A patient ballcarrier will be able to make a cut toward any hole in the defense that might open up. If no running lane develops, his “cut” is to keep running off tackle. As the defensive line is getting manhandled, linebackers are unable to fly to the ball the way they usually would. Doing so would open up the cutback lanes that the running back is looking for. It’s usually a moot point when the Mids take on the zone stretch anyway, since the d-line is unable to draw the double teams to keep blocks off the LBs in the first place.
Even if I’m right– and I could very easily be full of crap– it still doesn’t fully explain 267 yards. My first question was why the safeties weren’t more active in run support. Against Pitt and their freshman phenom Dion Lewis, Wyatt Middleton was second on the team with 9 tackles. Emmett Merchant and Kwesi Mitchell combined for 17 tackles against Western Kentucky, who also relied heavily on zone blocking. Against Temple, the safeties combined for only 5 tackles, and spent most of the game lined up fairly deep. That seems ridiculous when there’s a running back having a record day against you… Or does it? Perhaps the correct statement is that it seems ridiculous after a running back had a record day against you. In this case, hindsight might need to be corrected a bit to get to 20/20. While Pierce did run for 267 yards, 109 of those yards came on two plays. Temple never actually put together an extended touchdown drive; both of their TDs were on runs of 40+ yards. In fact, having the safeties play deep almost won the game for Navy, with Wyatt Middleton finding himself in position to grab two interceptions. Both of those INTs were in the second half, with one leading to a Navy touchdown while the other probably should have assured a win, coming with 6:30 left in the game. This tells me that the Mids’ defensive problems weren’t because of scheme, but rather the result of individual breakdowns on Pierce’s two big runs.
That was certainly the case with Pierce’s game-winner, a 41-yard rambler down the left sideline. Before the play, there appeared to be a bit of confusion between Tyler Simmons and Tony Haberer. After the snap, the source of that confusion was revealed– both players ended up covering the same gap. As a result, neither took the outside lane, and there were enough blockers to handle what few defenders were left out there.
A rare, but costly, mistake.
There were times when a safety was brought down in run support. Whenever Temple would line up with two tight ends and a split end on the same side of the formation, either Wyatt or Emmett would line up closer to the line of scrimmage. Temple would either try to throw deep to take advantage of 1-on-1 coverage with no safety help, or just run the other way, making the safety a non-factor in the play.
I don’t think that anyone would argue that Navy’s defense performed well on Saturday, but upon closer inspection, maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as we first thought. On the other hand, WTF 267 YARDS! There’s a finite amount of space between my ears, and if this game knocked out some fond childhood memory of my dog or Legos or something, I’m going to be really pissed.
Finally, we come to the offense. Vince Murray shouldered the load for the Mids once again, carrying the ball 33 times for 115 yards. To many fans, though, that’s not a good thing. At the beginning of the year, everyone said the problem with the Navy offense was that they weren’t getting any production out of the fullback. They said that the fullbacks were too small and couldn’t “move the pile.” That has apparently been tossed out the window. Now, the complaint is that the fullback is getting the ball too much, that Ivin Jasper is too conservative, and that this would never happen if Paul Johnson was still here.
Shouldn’t we have advanced past this point by now? Apparently “conservative” is defined as “not getting the ball to the slotbacks enough.” Sometimes I wonder what on earth people have been watching for the last eight years. Shouldn’t we all know by now how the offense works? If not the specific Xs & Os, at least the general concepts? Haven’t we been told over and over again that it’s the defense that determines who carries the ball ? Of course we have. On Saturday, the fullbacks and quarterbacks combined for 87% of Navy’s carries. That would never happen in a Paul Johnson team! Really? Against Maryland in 2005, they combined for 81% of Navy’s carries. Against Air Force that same year, it was 82%. Against UMass in 2006, it was 86%. Tulsa? 94%! In these games, was Paul Johnson being “conservative,” or do you think that maybe it was a result of what the defense was giving up?
There is a reason why Vince Murray carried the ball so many times against Temple, too. The Owls lined up with 4 men on the line of scrimmage. In doing so, they frequently left the center uncovered. Coach Jasper just gave the ball to the fullback straight up the middle. The fullback hits the hole so quickly that the guards could pass inside of the defensive tackles to get to the second level.
Maybe “conservative” means that Coach Jasper didn’t pass enough. Well, did you see Kriss Proctor’s passes? Did you really want to see more of them? Thank goodness Mario Washington was wide open on the first pass Proctor threw, because even that wasn’t exactly pretty. On the first play of the game, the corner covering Mario blitzed. The safety on the other side of the field followed the tail motion in the direction of the play. When the Mids came out to start their second drive, Coach Jasper had Mario run a crossing pattern to the area that the tail motion safety vacated. With Temple firing the corner again, nobody was around to cover him:
Proctor’s other passes were underthrown pretty badly. One actually ended up drawing a pass interference penalty. The other was intercepted.
You’d think that running up the middle on almost every play would open up the toss sweep, but it never really did. Remember, the toss sweep is sort of like a screen play; the object is to suck defenders into the backfield while getting the ball behind them and into the hands of a fast runner in space. The linebackers never lined up on the line of scrimmage, though. That, plus safeties creeping up with the knowledge that the Mids probably didn’t want to risk passing again, meant that they’d probably be able to stuff the toss.
The toss isn’t the only way to get the ball outside, though. Another way is to show a triple option look, but use the fullback as a blocker. Use the guard to block the would-be dive key, then option off of the same pitch key. After being unable to convert on a few 3rd and short-yardage situations, Coach Jasper tried this. Unfortunately, the guard couldn’t maintain his block, and the defensive end blew up the play.
Navy moved the ball well enough for most of the game. In the end, though, the inability to convert on these 3rd & 4th downs were what made all the difference. Coach Jasper tried running the quarterback sneak, but it didn’t work. He tried handing to the fullback off tackle. Didn’t work. He tried the midline. Didn’t work. He tried the triple so that the QB could read his way outside, and that didn’t work. He tried to force the ball outside on a double option, and THAT didn’t work. In every instance, there was either a bad block or a missed assignment. There wasn’t much else to try. Convert on any one of these plays, and the Mids probably win the game.
— Clock management has been a bit confusing to me at times this season, although I’m not nearly as critical of it as some of the things I’ve read. Most of the complaints this week have centered around the use of timeouts. Now, maybe I’m in the minority here, but I think timeouts are THAT valuable, especially in the first half. So if Coach Niumat wants to call timeout to get his team on the same page before a big 3rd down play, that sounds like a fine idea to me. In the second half, one timeout was spent when Kriss Proctor had trouble checking to the right play. That’s a good use of a timeout. Another was used when Proctor was sacked with 2:29 left in the game. Again, that’s a good time to call timeout. The second timeout was spent when as Coach Niumat tried to run down the clock before punting with 4:19 to play. That’s the only one I didn’t really like.
The problem for me wasn’t the idea that Coach Niumatalolo would let the play clock run down just to call a timeout before punting. That’s a common tactic. The only problem I had with it is that he did it with more than 4 minutes left to play. That is a LOT of time, especially in the college game. At that point, running the clock down actually hurts the Mids. With their drive starting with 4:13 remaining, Temple didn’t even need to run a hurry-up offense. If running the clock down before punting doesn’t put the other team in extremis, then there’s really no value in doing it. Think of it like basketball. If you get the ball in a tie game with about a minute left, you want to shoot the ball as soon as possible so that you’ll have time for another possession if your opponent uses the full :35 on the shot clock. It’s the same concept here.
Of course, none of the timeouts really affected the outcome of the game, so this is all just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.