“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.