THE STATE OF SERVICE ACADEMY FOOTBALL: NAVY

We’ll begin our look at the state of the Navy football program by talking about… Air Force basketball?

If the Los Angeles Clippers and the Kansas City Royals had a child, it would look like the Air Force basketball program. Throughout its history, Air Force basketball has been really, really bad. Really bad. In the 19 seasons that Air Force was a member of the WAC, their basketball team finished 3-13 or worse in-conference 15 times, and peaked with a 6-10 record in 1988-89. Things didn’t get much better in the Mountain West, as the Falcons could do no better than 4-10 in their first four seasons in their new league. Then something strange happened. After their third straight 3-11 campaign, Air Force won the conference in 2003-04, finishing 12-2 (22-7 overall) and earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. It would be the first of 5 straight seasons of .500 or better for Air Force, and it came at a time when Navy basketball was struggling. Naturally, Navy fans attempted to explain the two teams’ differing fortunes. Air Force used a Princeton-style offense; some fans felt that it was the basketball version of the triple option, and the only way a service academy team could win. Other fans felt that Air Force just attracted better players because they played in a fairly high-profile basketball conference.

Both explanations made me chuckle. Even though it probably shouldn’t surprise me at this point, sometimes I’m amazed at how short the average fan’s memory can be. Only a few years before everyone declared the Princeton offense the only way to win, Navy was the dominant Patriot League team of the 90s. Had basketball changed so much in 3 years that now the Princeton offense was the only way for a service academy to win? After two decades of the WAC and Mountain West being the Air Force program’s biggest hinderance, had it all of a sudden become the reason for the program’s success? Of course not. Anyone looking objectively at the Air Force program could see that the same obstacles that they’ve always had were still there; sure enough, the team has gone 0-16 and 1-15 in-conference over the last two years. But for a 5-year stretch, the Falcons had captured lightning in a bottle. It happens sometimes, but people don’t want to believe in luck. They need more tangible explanations, so they come up with what they can… Even if those explanations contradict the lessons they should already know.

Short-term memory also seemed to be a common theme around Navy football as the team got fall camp underway, with the image of the Mids standing victorious over the beaten-down carcass of a Big 12 team being tough to forget (not that we’d ever want to). The 35-13 pounding of Missouri in the Texas Bowl has its side effects, though; with such a convincing performance to wrap up 2009, expectations for 2010 are higher than they’ve been in Annapolis for a long, long time. The main question coming out of media day this year has been how Navy will handle those expectations and the hype that accompanies them. The Mids have received votes in both preseason polls, and Ricky Dobbs has been called a dark horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy. It’s all a little bit surreal, especially for those of us who have been Navy fans for a long time. Navy fans used to swing a little too far in the other direction on the emotional pendulum. After 20 years of bad football, they refused to believe that any success achieved by the program was anything more than fleeting, even though there were several fundamental changes that made it possible. Yet half the people holding these lofty expectations also thought the world was ending after the Hawaii game, and that Army was catching up to Navy after a ho-hum performance by the Mids (relatively speaking) in Philadelphia. Like most things, one has to take all the top 25 votes, BCS speculation, and Heisman talk with a grain of salt.

Of course, we can’t completely ignore the win over Missouri either. While we should know better than to base our expectations for 2010 on the outcome of the Texas Bowl, the game still gives us a benchmark to measure just how far the Navy program has come since the last time they went bowling in Houston back in 2003. The Missouri team that Navy beat in December is better than the Texas Tech team they lost to seven years ago. Missouri came into the game with a better record, a similar high-flying passing attack, and a much better run defense. The Tigers were only two years removed from being the #1-ranked team in the country. While a lot of the players from that team were gone, they were replaced by players like Blaine Gabbert, who was the top quarterback recruit in the country in 2008. Service academies aren’t supposed to beat teams like this, let alone completely dominate them. The Mids have come a long way.

The victory over Mizzou capped off a 10-win season that featured a record seventh consecutive Commander-In-Chief’s trophy. More importantly, it was the second CIC Trophy, and second winning season, for Ken Niumatalolo as head coach. There isn’t much left for Ken Niumatalolo to prove. He’s won 10 games in a season. He completely outcoached Gary Pinkel in the Texas Bowl. He beat Notre Dame. In two years, he has as many wins over top 25 teams as Navy had in the preceding two decades. We have reached the point where Army fans think that a two-touchdown loss to Navy is a reason for optimism. Think about that. One might argue that Johnson still had a hand in recruiting and developing a lot of these players, but most of that development came under the tutelage of the assistant coaches that are still here. Any talk from the media and in the recruiting pitches of rival coaches that Navy will slide now that Paul Johnson is gone rings increasingly hollow.

With 14 starters returning, there is no reason to think that the Mids of 2010 won’t continue to maintain the standard of the last seven years. Four of the five returning offensive linemen have starting experience. The top two fullbacks are back and healthy. The secondary might be the best overall unit on the team. The biggest concern for the Mids is at linebacker, where only Tyler Simmons has significant playing time at the position. Coach Green relies on his linebackers to make the bulk of the plays in his 3-4 defense, and the last time the Mids had this much turnover at LB was in 2007– a year Green would probably like to forget. Should we be worried about a repeat? Probably not. The linebackers in ’07 were freshmen and sophomores pressed into service due to injuries in the depth chart. In contrast, this year’s LBs are juniors and seniors who have been waiting for their chance. For all the attention the offense gets, it was the defense that was the team’s strength in 2009, and it could very well be again in 2010. With so many key pieces in the offense returning, hopefully it won’t have to be. The biggest piece is, of course, quarterback Ricky Dobbs. Dobbs had a statistical giant of a season last year, but the irony is that it would have been less impressive on paper if he was better with the offense. Ricky will have fewer carries as he improves his reads and checks. That might not be good for his Heisman hopes, but it’s better for the team.

All in all, it’s business as usual in Annapolis. Navy has found a winning formula, and there’s no reason to think that will change anytime soon.

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17 Responses

  1. “He completely outcoached Gary Pinkel in the Texas Bowl.”

    Still hoping in vain for a breakdown of that game. Especially Navy’s odd looking defensive front. And why MO couldn’t run the ball against it.

  2. For whatever reason, I really hate getting preseason love. It is so worthless and has huge potential for distraction.

    Having said that, I can’t wait to see the mids line up against the Turtles!

    At the risk of sounding pushy and unappreciative (and no, that risk won’t stop me from saying this), I also would like to hear any thoughts you have on the tx bowl and the use of no-huddle in that game. (Is the no-huddle likely to be used fairly often or is it a tool that will likely come out of the box on a less frequent basis?)

    Thanks Mike!

  3. I’l try to get to the Texas Bowl in the bye week. The thing is halfway written already. I just have to do the video clips.

    Whether they use the no-huddle depends on how comfortable Ricky is with the offense. If he struggles in checking to the right play, we’ll see more of it.

  4. We have reached the point where Army fans think that a two-touchdown loss to Navy is a reason for optimism.

    I just wanted to highlight this sentence because I like it.

  5. Mike,

    Thanks. Trenchant as always.

    Let’s hope that Coach Niumatalolo and the staff can keep the team focused. No easy chore with all the Heisman and pre-season poll hype.

    Who woulda thunk in 2001 that in 2010 Navy football would be grappling with the curse of “Great Expectations”.

    Also, Coach Niumatalolo is the real deal. We’re lucky to have him.

  6. It could be selective memory, but I don’t think Missouri had trouble running the ball against us, I think they just didn’t do it.

  7. An odd looking defensive front was used that seemed almost to invite Missouri to run. I could swear a 3 man front was often used with large, really large gaps between the nose and the ends. I know the color guy on the broadcast mentioned it sometime during the 1st half.

  8. It’s good to hear that the defensive backfield is still on lock like it has been and now more so. My only concern and it has been for some time is Navy’s inefficiency in covering the flats and the short 5 yard passes. If Navy isn’t in a Cover 2, I always noticed those types of offensive plays to cause problems. It wasn’t as bad last season in my opinion because Mike Linebacker Ross Pospisil did a very good job setting the tone however, it still needed improvement. The linebacker Unit could be argued that it has reloaded instead of entering a rebuilding phase for the upcoming season but it leaves a formidable question to be answered. Any thoughts?

  9. There is no question Navy Football has found the winning formula and the future looks bright. One thing should be remembered, “keep your head on straight.” Don’t let this success get to your heads.

    It’s important that our past successes be remembered, but we live in the the present. The future will be determined by continued hard work and focusing on the job in front of them!!

    Cudos for the team’s success!!! GO NAVY…………

  10. the texas bowl was wonderful! and to top it off, i come from missouri and like what used to be the big eight – it is a good brand of football. i have watched rerun of the game at least a dozen times and enjoy it every time i see it.

    missouri could have run the ball, but thanks to the stubbornness of their coach, they were just sure they could beat our secondary with their star qb and hot shot receivers. what a great team effort!

    i agree with whoever said that coach ken is the real thing. i think he has taken what johnson created and elevated it to another level. he pays attention to every detail and it is no small thing that most of his staff has coached together for many seasons. the coach believes in defense and it was the defense that carried the day in the texas bowl. however it was very apparent that one of the strengths of the spread option is that the offense hogs the ball and keeps the foe on the bench. it was easy to see the frustration of the mo offensive team.

    navy will excell this season again PROVIDED that the team remembers to read their playbook rather than all the media hype.

    i always enjoy your breakdown and analysis of the games

    g.d. ballard ’60

  11. Just got done re-watching the TX bowl on DVR. I give it two snaps up! Second half adjustment for MO, according to the commentators, was coach’s commitment to run the ball on Navy, even in the red zone. MO managed to get some offense going, then went back to the pass, and back to el stinko. Not that I’m complaining. It wasn’t inability to run the ball, it was refusal to run the ball.

    I trust that Coach N will beat out any fuzzy good feelings coming from positive press. All he has to do is point back to the Weatherbie years, or the Uzelac years, etc. Keep ’em hungry, Coach!

  12. Dave
    As a Missouri resident and with a son who loves the Tigers and an 84 USNA grad who went to the game….MU got impatient as they sometimes do because their offense is used to 2 min drives. Since other offenses in the Big 12 are of the same nature, they really weren’t used to sitting on the sideline for 6,7, even 8 or 10 minute drives by the other team. So, they really didn’ t try to run the ball that much because it’s just not what they do. Their line was built for pass protection as well – not good for chasing around quick experienced linebackers like Navy had last year. I also think they got really cocky when they scored so quickly….

  13. “Still hoping in vain for a breakdown of that game. Especially Navy’s odd looking defensive front. And why MO couldn’t run the ball against it.”

    Dave – it wasn’t that they COULDN’T run against it, it was that they WOULDN’T. In re-watching the game (for about the 8th time – much to the chagrin of my very understanding wife) Missouri ran all over Navy – when they ran. But they kept going away from the run and then they sputtered. Had they kept pounding the run, they would likely have forced Navy out of that alignment. With that said, the whole Missouri team looked flat – I don’t think it would have changed the outcome, but it might have changed the score a little.

  14. I would like to think that if Mizzou had shown more of a will to run, we would have adjusted the defensive sets we ran.

  15. I’m stealing my own thunder for a future post, but Missouri’s problem was that once they decided to run, they were too far behind. They couldn’t afford to drain 6-7 minutes off the clock running the ball if they couldn’t keep Navy from doing the same thing. They would’ve run out of time.

  16. Scott and 8th wing are right on target. Mizzou got impatient. Maybe it was Navy’s methodical TO, or maybe it was how much they were accustomed to the B12, or maybe they felt they were too far behind. It reminded me a little bit of the close ND games from the 2000’s where Navy would hang close and even take a lead, while ND would put the ball in the air and turn it over or give up sacks. At some point in those games, Willingham or Weis would just say, “Why don’t we line up and run it down their throats.” Obvious difference is the lead that Navy was able to take. I think that this will be the biggest factor this year after losing all the LB’s and having some weapons on O. If Ricky and Co can take care of the ball and score early building some leads, I think that will play right into Buddy’s hands.

  17. Good to see Mid fans still chewing on this game-day strategery as opposed to my Mizzou brethren who have emotionally boxed up this loss and moved on.

    I think I largely agree with Mike with the caveat that the committment to run should have been made NLT the end of the 1st qtr not the 3rd qtr as was the case. Maybe they got convinced of their own greatness by the ease of the first series.

    Offensively, this game set up exactly like the 2007 Cotton Bowl vs. Arkansas. Then MU O-coordinator Dave Christensen decided after the 2nd series that a 3-man defensive front was too tempting to pass on with the result that Tony Temple set the CB rushing record. Heck, he had 165 yds by halftime. They had QB Chase Daniel and WR Jeremy Maclin and they ran it all day long.

    Ironically, Christensen (now the Wyoming head coach) was on the sideline at the TX bowl, was interviewed by ESPN and said words to the effect of “MU needs to run the ball and forget about the pass.”

    Defensively, MU just got beat. They knew what was coming and did nothing to stop it. That was the more impressive part ofthe Navy win.

    Gulf November & Go Mizzou!

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