MARYLAND 17, NAVY 14

“It’s 1997 all over again.”

That’s the text I received from a friend of mine shortly after the final whistle blew in Navy’s 17-14 loss to Maryland on Monday afternoon. It was a really great observation, and the parallels are obvious. Following a season that was capped off with a win over a major-conference team in the Aloha Bowl, Coach Weatherbie came into preseason pep rallies chanting “Eleven in ’97!” to fire up the Brigade over the idea that Navy could win all 11 games on their schedule. It seemed possible in part because of returning quarterback Chris McCoy, who had a great season a year earlier and was getting recognition as a fringe Heisman candidate. The preseason excitement became an enormous letdown when the Mids lost a shootout in their opener against San Diego State, 45-31. The Mids would go on to finish 7-4 that year; still a fine season, but sort of disappointing after all the lofty expectations.

<tangent>That San Diego State game was moved to Friday afternoon because of a scheduling conflict with the Padres at Qualcomm Stadium. I had the 40-year swim that day, and the radio broadcast of the game was piped in over the Lejeune Hall public address speakers. It felt like every time I would finish a lap, I would hear “Az Hakim, Aztec touchdown.” It didn’t make my swim any easier.</tangent>

Here we are in 2010, and it appears that history has repeated itself. After an offseason full of speculation over Navy’s chances to go undefeated and Ricky Dobbs’ unlikely Heisman candidacy, the Mids came out and laid an egg against Maryland, falling 17-14.

Here’s what I said before the game:

Maryland might have been 2-10 a year ago, but it’s unlikely that they’ll be quite so bad again this year. The question is just how much better the Terps will be. They’re a big, athletic BCS-conference team that runs the ball in ways that the Mids have struggled to defend in the past; but they’re also young, and playing against a Navy offense that requires discipline to defend. Both teams will be able to run the ball, which will make the game quick and possibly low-scoring.

It doesn’t happen very much, but man did I nail that one. Both teams ran all over the field. Navy rushed for 412 yards, while Maryland ran for 261 yards and averaged 7.7 yards per carry. Davin Meggett had 105 yards on only 8 carries, and quarterback Jamarr Robinson tacked on 92 yards of his own. The game was also low-scoring, but the truth is that it didn’t have to be, at least for Navy. I didn’t get everything right; I had hoped that a more veteran Navy team would make fewer mistakes than their younger Maryland counterparts, but in the end it was the Mids left to lament their missed opportunities. The Mids moved the ball inside the Maryland 15 yard line on seven of their nine drives, but came away with only 14 points. There were plenty of mistakes to go around, from the missed field goal, to miscommunication on a wide-open pass play, to busted plays where players ran in the wrong direction, to a crucial false start penalty at the 3 yard line on the last drive. As a whole, the team played less like it was the first game of the year and more like it was the first fall scrimmage.

That was particularly true of Ricky Dobbs. It certainly wasn’t the quarterback’s finest hour; he lost a pair of fumbles inside the Maryland 5 yard line and made a boneheaded play that ran out the clock at the end of the first half and wasted a chance at a field goal. It was disappointing to see a senior make so many rookie mistakes, and they ultimately cost his team the game.

People are going to blame Ricky for this loss. Right or wrong (usually wrong), it sort of comes with the territory for any quarterback; getting blamed for losses is the equal and opposite reaction to quarterbacks getting credit for wins. Last Monday’s game goes beyond that old cliche, though. Ricky made some truly costly mistakes against Maryland, and he deserves criticism for them. What he doesn’t deserve, however, are people making snap judgments about his character, saying that Ricky bought into his own Heisman hype, or that Ricky was self-serving, or any other variation on that theme. Ricky Dobbs didn’t ask for any of this Heisman talk. People just like him because he is a gregarious guy with a compelling story. That, and he’s really, really good at football. Yes, he should have thrown the ball out of bounds at the end of the first half. And yes, he needs to hold onto the ball. One of his fumbles, though, was simply an excellent play by a Maryland defender who anticipated the snap count, came from the backside of the play, and got to the ball when it was exposed as Ricky was carrying out his fake. How can you blame Ricky for that? Ricky fumbled three times in the Texas Bowl. How were Monday’s fumbles any different? How are they any more product of a guy reading his own press clippings than any other mistake he or any other Navy player has ever made? They aren’t, of course. The difference isn’t with Ricky, it’s with the fans scorned by their own overambitious preseason expectations. They’re the ones who were buying into the hype.

Fortunately for the Mids’ chances for the rest of the season, Ricky also did a lot of things right on Labor Day. Option offenses don’t ring up 400+ rushing yards if the quarterback isn’t doing his job. Not only that, but Ricky showed some signs of making progress in the offense. Take a look at the 4th & 7 conversion in the second quarter. That play was set up by Ricky reading the defense before the snap. The play was originally supposed to be run to the wide side of the field, but Ricky recognized a numbers advantage on the other side and called an audible to run to the short side of the field. First down.

Same idea in the 3rd quarter. Here we have an OLB walking up over the guard. By doing so, he lines up inside of the B-gap, and therefore out of the count. Ricky recognizes this, and checks the play to run in that direction. With no #2 in the count, Ricky is able to keep the ball and pick up a first down on 2nd and 12.

The fumbles are bad, but sort of a fluke. The bigger concern coming into the season was how much progress Ricky has made with learning the offense. Against Maryland, we saw some indication that he has indeed improved.

This is probably the fastest Navy team in the history of the program. Unfortunately, the best glimpse we had of that speed was defenders chasing down Maryland runners from behind after they broke free for big gains. On paper, holding Maryland to 17 points and 272 yards of offense looks like a good day, and probably should have been enough to win. Those numbers were driven more by a lack of opportunity on Maryland’s part than anything else, though, with the Navy offense dominating time of possession and keeping the Maryland offense off the field. When the Terps did have the ball, they pretty much ran at will. That’s because the Navy linebackers– the team’s biggest question mark coming into the season– usually ran themselves out of the play.

Take a look at the video. In the first clip, the OLB has to read the tight end to determine if it’s a run or a pass. He makes the wrong read, and it makes him easy to block. The next few clips show linebackers abandoning their gaps and being caught out of position. The black arrows show where they were supposed to go; the white arrows show where they did go.

Run defense is all about gap control, and Navy’s linebackers spent the day with their eyes in the backfield instead of on their assigned running lanes. It’s a little disappointing to see this from juniors and seniors, but not altogether unexpected when you consider that they haven’t really played together as a unit. This is what it means to trust your teammates. If you trust that your teammates will do their jobs, you won’t worry about carrying out any more than your own assignment. Otherwise, you just leave gaping holes to run through. It’s a lesson best learned sooner rather than later.

On the other side of the ball, a lot was made before the game of Maryland defensive coordinator Don Brown’s familiarity with the spread option, including by Brown himself:

“When I was at UMass we played Navy in 2006 and lost, 21-20, and held them to 80 yards in the second half. So it’s not like ‘Ooh, we’re afraid,’ ” Brown said in an interview with the Terrapin Times this summer.

It was a little bit surprising, then, to see Brown use one of the worst defenses against this offense that I’ve ever seen.

The Terps came out in a 4-3. Brown’s plan was to have the middle linebacker cover the pitch. Now, Alex Wujciak is a mountain of a man and a very good linebacker, but nobody ever accused him of being fast. I don’t know if Brown just didn’t respect Navy’s speed or what, but the slotbacks consistently outran Wujciak and were able to turn upfield. When Wujciak was able to make the tackle, it was usually after the slotback was already able to gain 5 yards. And that doesn’t even count the times the tackle was able to block him.

After getting burned on the outside, Brown switched to a 3-3-5 in the second quarter, presumably to get more speed on the field by replacing a lineman with a defensive back. Now Brown had two guys on the pitch, although the results weren’t much different.

Brown would alternate between the 4-3 and 3-3-5 for the rest of the game.

By having the LB abandon the middle of the field, it opened the door for the fullbacks to have a huge day:

And that’s about it. If it wasn’t for the Navy mistakes, we could’ve had a real Corwin Brown moment here. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Winning the game trumps having the better game plan.

Going for the win

Even after all the mistakes, Navy still had a chance to win at the end of the game. With the Mids facing 4th and goal from just inside the 1 yard line, Coach Niumatalolo opted to go for the win rather than kick the field goal to tie the game. Was it the right call? Of course it was, and if you need it explained to you then you probably also need to be told why it’s a good idea to punt on 4th & 10 from your own 20. It’s that obvious of a decision.

Here’s the decision Niumat faced:

1) Attempt a field goal to tie the game. If you make it (not a guarantee), kickoff to last year’s ACC leader in KO return yards. Then give the Maryland offense 30 seconds to move into field goal range. If you can stop them, take the game into overtime, where anything can happen.

2) Take one play to move the ball two feet.

Going for it on 4th down offers the greater chance for a win, and is the only call to make in that situation.

The play call

Maybe you were fine with the decision to go for it, but didn’t like the play call. Sure, everyone in the stadium knew what the play was going to be. But how often is a quarterback sneak run when it isn’t expected? That’s the whole point of the play; it doesn’t matter if everyone knows that it’s coming. If everyone executes, you’ll pick up a yard no matter how well prepared the defense is for it. You can’t say that about a toss sweep or any other play. So let’s look at what happened:

Andre Byrd was supposed to block the blitzing Maryland safety. He didn’t block anyone. That safety stopped Ricky Dobbs. You can argue there were other plays that might have worked, and there probably were. Yet none of them would have worked any better with missed assignments. This wasn’t Maryland’s defensive tackles stopping the play. This wasn’t a matter of Maryland knowing what was coming. This was a guy missing a block– something that would screw up any play. That’s not to say that we’ll never see any other play run in short-yardage situations, but the QB sneak was the high percentage play here.

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46 Responses

  1. Two things from that 4th and Goal play:

    1) It looks like Maryland’s CB (#2) had nobody assigned to block him. The play may have had the same outcome even if Byrd makes the block on #6.

    2) Look how far Maryland’s #22 is behind the motion slotback (GGG?). A pitch outside to that slot may have been an eeeeasy TD, provided #2 wasn’t able to read it and take a good angle.

    Any comments?

    Thanks for the write-up. Great stuff, as always.

  2. oh we back – well done sir

  3. 1) Ricky’s momentum was stopped by the safety meeting him head-on. He still would’ve fallen forward into the end zone if that safety was blocked no matter what the CB did. He only needed one more foot.

    2) There are a number of plays that might work in any situation. The point is that the play failed because of execution, not because Maryland knew it was coming. A failure of execution can happen on any play. We already saw one bad pitch earlier in the game (although this would’ve been a toss, not a pitch). The reason why the coaches keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands at the goal line is because keeping things simple leaves fewer opportunities for those kinds of mistakes.

  4. “Coach Weatherbie came into preseason pep rallies chanting “Eleven in ’97!” to fire up the Brigade.”

    He DID love rhymes…

  5. Outstanding write up, Mike.

    The quality of the analysis is mitigated only by the ads which precede and follow each clip. Same ad (for some pasta) each time. I’m better informed, but for whatever reason, I’m ready for lunch at 9:15 a.m.

  6. I apologize for the ads. Dailymotion needs their money, I guess. Firefox + Adblock = happiness

  7. Mike,

    The one reason I thought we should have considered kicking the FG and gone to OT was the fact that MD was missing their FG kicker and was using their punter instead.

  8. Bravo!

    I thought Lil Byrd was supposed to get him. It looked like he saw he froze for an instant when he notice #2, and tried to get a piece of him too. As it unfolded, he got neither.

    As always, fantastic analysis coupled with the voice of reason rather than hysteria. Should be required reading.

  9. No matter who their kicker is, gaining one yard is a much higher probability of success with far fewer variables than going to overtime.

  10. great write up – thanks.

    too bad it made me relive all those missed opportunities.

    Byrd had some great runs, but was his blocking that bad all day, or just on this one play. And i ask because his blocking looked horrible against GSU. (although to be fair, a lot of guys blocked poorly last weekend).

  11. Firefox without adblock ran with no ads for what it’s worth, although that could be a function of my corporate firewall too.

  12. A game we lost that we could have won. Not should have, because we made too many mistakes, but could have.

    going for the half yard was the right call. Not getting it was the problem.

    Our offense was really good when we were not fumbling, moving too soon, or running the wrong way. Let’s hope there is plenty more where this came from in the near future.

  13. Very thorough. I didn’t mind these ads. The were out of the way when the real show started. And it gave me a chance to eat some lunch while I waited!

  14. Ridiculous insider write-up, love it all. Just got introduced to birddog at the pre-game festivities to the navy-maryland game. I played receiver for Navy and graduated 08′. I wished i was reading it when i was playing. But good synopsis of the last play. It’s the right call, and when you play navy football its the right call 100% of the time, if you can’t gain one yard when the game is on the line you don’t deserve to win.

    Maryland knew ricky was getting the ball and so did everyone else in the stadium. Of course people are going to second guess the play call, we should’ve ran a toss or option out the back door etc. But i know coach ken, and we’re an option team and we run the option, that’s our staple goalline play, its a designed qb follow called solid rebel, and if somebody is going to beat us, we want them to beat us running the option (what we do, what we practice everyday), not some gimmick or trick play. we’re navy football and thats just how we are, everybody knew their assignments, we just didnt execute. the game however wasn’t won or lost there, as we all know there were countless mistakes that we committed and we should’ve buried the terps by a score of 31-17 at the very least.

    kind’ve reminds me of my soph year when we lost after jumping out to a 14-3 lead, and having a chance to put them away in the 4th but they converted a key 4th and 8.

  15. Coulda, woulda, shoulda – the internet has given new meaning to the term “Monday morning quarterback.” The game is so much easier to play whne watching the slow motion replays. The fact that we lost to Maryland and have had other losses over the last seven years is proof that at no time in the future will a Navy grad invent a time machine.
    Thanks for your analysis.

  16. OJ:
    I hope you’re enjoying the fleet. We all loved watching you play. The video of you jumping up and down at the end of the ND game in 2007 is priceless. What a feeling that must have been for you guys.

  17. Hey OJ, Rich here. Nice to see you chiming in. Maybe TBD will let you on the forum as well!!! Hope all is well.

  18. I have been looking forward to your post-game analysis. Thanks for the great work. Makes me feel better about the outcome of the MD game.

  19. Excellent analysis (as always). In the stadium I was calling for a FG since, at that point, I had zero confidence we could get one yard on the goal line. But you (and KN) are/were correct. That’s the right percentage play. I recall ND stuffing the QB “duck” (solid rebel) on third & goal on Navy’s first drive last year and we came right back at them with the same play on 4th down and RD stuck it in. ND knew it was coming but couldn’t stop it. All about execution.

  20. Mike,
    Great writeup thanks. One of the big issues with the game from my perspective was not just ball handling, but displayed lack of headwork. Numerous false starts including on the final drive which could have allowed two cracks from the one if not for the false start on I believe second down backing the ball up to the eight. Navy football has always been about execution and when that fails, the scoreboard usually portrays that failure as a loss.

  21. Mike,
    Great writeup thanks. One of the big issues with the game from my perspective was not just ball handling, but displayed lack of headwork. Numerous false starts including on the final drive which could have allowed two cracks from the one if not for the false start on I believe second down backing the ball up to the eight. Navy football has always been about execution and when that fails, the scoreboard usually portrays that failure as a loss. Luckily the refs also missed a chop block on the DE and OLB back around the thirty which would have likely ruined the day earlier.

  22. thanks usmc53 and pipehunter, that ND game was exactly how you put it, priceless…the fleet’s not too bad, still wish i could be running on the field with my brothers every time football season comes around though. I’ll be chiming in here and there. The postgame breakdowns are pretty spot on. I’ll start going with an alias from now on.

  23. Dr. Bird Dog thanks for the diagnosis.

    Thank you for educating the rest of us geniuses. The only thing I picked up on was that Wujciak wasn’t making a lot of tackles.

    Glad to hear some else remembers 1997. When I heard that stupid slogan, I figured the God of Poetic Justice would slap Navy in the face. It turned out to be more of smackdown.

    Appreciate your insights on Dobbs. Like many I did not notice his audibles and running the play to side where Navy had numerical advantage.

    Here’s hoping the good guys pull everything together for LaTech and, more importantly, AF.

  24. Why doesn’t some of the videos work? The not Dailymotion ones.

  25. After reading the outstanding analysis and the conclusion for the whole game, I now ask what it was that caused Navy to play as if…[” the team played less like it was the first game of the year and more like it was the first fall scrimmage.”] ???

    Maryland did not deserve to win the game on the fate of Navy’s last play but it getting to that point was such a frustrating heart break!

  26. The videos all work for me running Firefox on my Mac, Rob, but I just tried on my laptop with IE8 and three of them don’t show up. Can’t explain it, since they’re all in the same place. I’ll toy around with other video hosting options if this continues to be a problem, although being hosted on WordPress limits my choices.

    Thanks for the compliments, OJ. I appreciate the feedback. Let me know if I say something stupid.

  27. Thanks for the writeup, Mike. I lap them up like the rest of your Readership.

    I was one of the second guessers on the last Navy offensive play and still am. My brain was screaming at me real time for Navy to execute a straight sneak, so I was somewhat comforted when I watched Navy score against GSU on a straight sneak last week. But hindsight is 20-20, and Byrd doing his job obviously would have sealed the deal, too.

    But your points, as ever, are solid and spot on. It is how the game looked to me. Heaven knows how many yards MD would have run for had Navy not been keeping the ball away from them.

    Looking forward to your post-game analysis of GSU.

  28. One last mumble…

    I hope to High Heaven it stops being 1997 all over again NOW…Air Force stuck a 10-7 loss on us at Annapolis that year…

  29. think Byrd has missed more than a few assignments in MD and GSU games???

    Techies, new format only allows one video all others are now blank(this post and all previous for 2010). My machine? what can we do to fix?

  30. You could also:
    1) let time expire to 1 or 2 secs after the third down play to eliminate MD getting the ball back
    and then decided to :
    a) kick the FG
    b) go for the TD

    It might be a mere two feet– but it’s the hardest two feet in football.

    Would you kick the FG if it was for the win (hence eliminating any OT variables)?

    Probably not if you think the run it option is the higher percentage play.

  31. Higher percentage than going to overtime, not higher than kicking the field goal.

  32. I totally understand the argument to go for it. But I also feel like “live to fight another play” has it’s merits. Having called the timeout and with the likelihood of MD getting the ball back, I am persuaded that going of it was the right call.

    I disagree that we were at some disadvantage going into overtime- if that is what you were suggesting.

  33. You play to win the game, not to make it longer.

  34. Right- but I’m not convinced the FG wasn’t the higher percentage play– go to OT, win the game — but still am persuaded to go for the TD given the time we left on the clock. And I don’t remember if MD had any TOs.

  35. If you need to be convinced that going for it on 4th & 1 gives you better odds of winning than going to overtime, I don’t know what to tell you.

  36. Mike,
    Really enjoy your blog.I do not read the stuff from Scott Strasemeier much anymore.I follow the game score on text msg by phone and then look forward to your game analysis.
    =^..^=

  37. OK…..so if the call to go for the touchdown is right (it is) and the play call is right (debatable) then did we have the right personnel in the game to execute the play call? That is my question. Did we have the “jumbo’ line package in the game? Did we have our best blocking slots in the game?

  38. If you’re bound and determined to whittle that play down until you feel justified in blaming the coaches, nothing I say is going to stop you.

  39. Relax. Nobody said anything about blaming the outcome on the coaches or players. It was just an observation.

  40. Observe a little closer then. One of those questions you can very easily answer yourself.

  41. You’re defending the play call and that’s fine, my point is if you’re going to call that play then get the right personnel on the field to give you the best chance to be successful.

  42. Are you making a point or asking a question?

  43. …………an indirect way of making a point. My questions were intended to be rhetorical.

    I was not looking to assess blame on the coaches and/or players. Lord knows we had multiple opportunities to score.

  44. Don’t start doing this. You know what I’m talking about.

  45. The nose of the football was 24 inches from the goal line…I hope KN goes for it each and every time in that situation if it means winning the game…

  46. Thanks for the endzone shot and analysis of the last offensive play–it helped me calm down about Coach Ken’s play-calling (which didn’t look too good from the sideline camera angle).

    BTW, my reprieve from the DailyMotion ads was short-lived. I got them in all of their “glory” even with NoScript and AdBlock Plus. I guess that DailyMotion figured something out since my last report. Sigh…

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