I don’t understand people who look at the schedule each year and say things like, “I’m really worried about [INSERT SCHOOL HERE]” or “[INSERT SCHOOL HERE] scares me to death!” as if there are other games that they don’t think Navy is capable of losing. I’m not one to get “scared” over a football game–I mean, come on now– but if you’re defining “scared” as “concerned about the possibility of losing,” I’d probably be scared about all of them.
Fear can be quite the motivator, and has been with Navy teams of the recent past. For them, it wasn’t the (somewhat annoying) fan fear of being afraid of what other teams can do. Instead, it’s something more internal; the fear of failure, the fear of not doing your job, the fear of letting your teammates down. For years we’ve heard a similar refrain from each group of seniors: we don’t be the class to take a step backwards. We don’t want to be the class to let everybody down. But this year, it was a different attitude:
“Top 25, undefeated, BCS bowl game _ that’s all that is left. That’s what the next level is,” senior safety Wyatt Middleton said. “As long as we play our game and keep playing hard, our program is to the point where we can do that.”
The fear of regression was replaced by ambition. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I guess, but anything different from the formula of the past will naturally be questioned. As I watched the first half of the Louisiana Tech game and saw more mistakes– penalties, players running the wrong way, missed PAT– I thought to myself that maybe the players just didn’t have that fear anymore. Of course, I think lots of things over the course of each game that have no business being published here or anywhere else, and after the Mids pretty much dominated the second half, a lot of those concerns went away.
Navy put up 516 yards of offense, 219 of which came through the air in a career-high passing day for Ricky Dobbs. He added another 67 on the ground, while Gee Gee Greene led the team with 87 yards. Even if it didn’t always feel like it at the time, it was a pretty dominating performance by the Navy offense.
When Navy played Delaware back in 2003, the Blue Hens basically decided they weren’t going to worry about the Navy passing game. They put 10 guys within 6-7 yards of the line of scrimmage and ran to the ball. It burned them a couple of times, with Eric Roberts scoring early on a long passing play in the first half, but Coach Keeler stuck to his game plan. The Mids couldn’t make enough plays through the air to take advantage. Delaware won, 21-17.
Louisiana Tech tried the same thing last week. Here’s Navy’s first play from scrimmage. Notice two things: 1) 10 Bulldogs within 6-7 yards of the line of scrimmage, and 2) the defensive end pinching the playside tackle, keeping him from blocking the middle linebacker. (Video courtesy of 901458, a man whose generosity has earned him the Birddog Peace Prize.)
NERD ALERT: There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where a member of an alien race renowned for their strategic thinking comes onboard the Enterprise to evaluate the crew. A galactic ATG of sorts. It leads to this conversation:
Lt. Cmdr. Data: For over nine millennia, potential foes have regarded the Zakdorns as having the greatest innately strategic minds in the galaxy.
Lieutenant Worf: So, no one is willing to test that perception in combat?
Lt. Cmdr. Data: Exactly.
Lieutenant Worf: Then the reputation means nothing.
That’s sort of how it is with the Navy offense. We’ve heard over and over again that it has its roots in the run & shoot, and is as effective a passing offense as it is a running offense. Yet very rarely has anyone gone all-out to make Coach Jasper prove it. By bringing so many players into the “box,” Louisiana Tech did, and the Mids responded. 178 of Ricky’s 219 passing yards came in the first half as the Mids were able to put together big play after big play through the air. With the safeties playing so far up, it led to a lot of one-on-one coverage of Navy’s receivers, who were fast enough to get a step or two on the Tech defensive backs. Bulldog safeties were playing the pitch, making it easy for the playside slotback to get behind them.
Navy would go on to score on the opening drive. The scoring play demonstrated what Navy would do for the rest of the game. First, the WR/SB blocking was changed. You’ll notice that the CBs were playing Navy’s WRs pretty tight. When CBs are lined up within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, they’re usually the slotback’s responsibility. That’s because the slotback would have a better blocking angle in case the CB decided to blitz. The WR would then be responsible for the safety. But with the safety playing so close to the line of scrimmage, Coach Jasper knew that the CBs weren’t going to blitz. They couldn’t. If they did, there would be no way for the safety to get back to cover the WR. Knowing that the CBs were committed to pass coverage, Coach Jasper just had the WRs run them out of the play. The slots would block the safety.
The second adjustment was to counter the defensive end pinching on the playside tackle. Coach Jasper had the tackle release outside of the give key.
Having the tackle release outside the give key makes for a harder read for the quarterback, since it happens a lot faster when the DE doesn’t have to run around the tackle on the way to the mesh. Both Ricky and Kriss Proctor missed some reads early on. Once they became accustomed to it, though (which didn’t take long for either of them), both quarterbacks were able to take advantage. When the tackle releases outside, it can lead to a big game for the quarterback and slotbacks since the tackle can get a clean block on the inside linebacker and cut off the inside-out pursuit. That’s what the Mids did for just about the entire game:
When Kriss Proctor came in for Ricky, Coach Jasper called a couple of non-option plays to get him up to game speed. Proctor missed his first read, but on 4th & 2 he redeemed himself. He then scored on a midline triple:
On the goal line, the Mids ran the usual sneak play, but just like against Maryland, they had problems executing. Here, the outside defender was again left unblocked like he was supposed to be. And again, the slotback whiffed on his assignment (this time it was Stukel). Fortunately, Ricky had the strength and the presence of mind to reach the ball over the goal line for the score.
Defensively, it wasn’t Navy’s finest hour, but the Mids were able to regroup a bit in the second half thanks to the Navy offense dominating time of possession and Louisiana Tech turnovers. Buddy Green discussed some of his adjustments with Bill Wagner:
“They hurt us in the first half a lot on the weak side. They were working the weak side underneath so we just put some extra guys to that area,” Green said. “Instead of rushing (Hauburger) off the edge, we pushed him to the weak side and also shaded the inside linebacker to that side. We just did a better job of taking away that part of the field in the second half.”
You can see here what Coach Green is talking about. Louisiana Tech was able to use their formation to create one-on-one matchups for their weakside wide receiver and open space for running backs coming out of the backfield.
By dropping Hauburger into coverage instead of blitzing him, Coach Green took away the easy completion and forced Colby Cameron to throw into coverage. At first I was surprised that Green didn’t choose to put more pressure on Louisiana Tech’s freshman quarterback, but as it turns out, the defense was more effective when they rushed fewer people and dropped more into coverage.
Unfortunately, that adjustment doesn’t explain away all of the Mids’ defensive struggles. The linebackers are still going through some growing pains. There were a lot of the same gap control problems in run defense that we saw against Maryland. There were similar issues in pass defense as well. Take a look at this next play. The inside slot receiver runs a skinny post pattern, while the middle slot receiver runs a short in pattern. But Navy ends up with two linebackers occupying the same zone– a big no-no. One of those two has to drop back deeper. In any zone defense there are going to be soft spots, but if one of those two drops back deeper into coverage it at least makes it a tougher throw for the quarterback. He would have to thread the ball over or around the LB. Instead, it’s a wide-open passing lane and a fairly easy completion.
All in all, it was a pretty good day for the Navy offense. They ran for nearly 300 yards, didn’t put the ball on the ground, and showed that they could protect Ricky well enough to be able to use his arm to carry them. The defense had issues, but showed improvement in the second half. Now they need to put it together for 4 quarters. The Mids will face better passing offenses than Louisiana Tech’s later on in the season, and nobody wants to have to come from behind every week.