I had a wrestling coach in high school that absolutely hated the phrase, “You can’t win them all.” At the end of practice, usually while he was running us into the ground, he’d yell out something along the lines of, “What do you mean you can’t win them all? If you always work harder than the other guy and always wrestle smarter than the other guy, then why can’t you win them all?” It was probably the most important thing that I was taught in high school, and pretty much changed my approach to life. The lesson has served me well, but it makes it hard for me to look on the Air Force game with that c’est la vie attitude when my blood pressure would probably benefit from it.
Anyway, let’s take a look at what I thought before the game:
1. I thought that the game would be higher-scoring than last year’s.
Well that obviously wasn’t the case. I’m going to take partial credit on this one, though. It wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard, but there was a lot more offense in this year’s game.
2. Air Force’s defense would show the same look as last year: blitzing LBs, shooting the corners, and trying to force Navy inside.
That’s what they did all afternoon.
3. Navy would respond by running the midline.
I counted all of one midline option all day.
4. Navy would also run the fullback dive off of toss sweep motion.
Well, I got that one right.
(Video made possible by 901458, a man rumored to be the last Airbender.)
The Mids were able to run the dive with moderate success in the first half. A little less so in the second, but we’ll get to that later.
Coach Jasper anticipated the Air Force defensive game plan, but instead of running inside like last year, he found a way to get the ball outside using the speed/double option. The Mids came out in the double flex formation. When the OLBs tried to blitz to take the quarterback, the wide receiver was able to squeeze him inside. Early on, the run support safety would take the pitch man, giving Ricky a read to keep.
Later, Coach Jasper moved to the base spread formation. In the double flex, the wide receiver blocked the OLB, while the fullback became more or less a lead blocker into the secondary. With the receiver split wide in the spread, the fullback became responsible for the OLB. After Ricky had a few big gains, the pitch key started taking the quarterback, opening things up for the slots.
Jasper was able to mix in another play early on. Go back and look at the fullback dive video. The cornerback on the motion side of the defense would always blitz. Coach Jasper took advantage by putting the slot in tail motion and throwing to the uncovered wide receiver.
Navy’s next attempt to take advantage of Air Force’s coverage scheme was a bit less successful. Here’s Ricky’s first interception. Navy lined up in trips left. The cornerback had the underneath zone, covering the short out pattern of the slot receiver. The safety lined up over the slot receiver had the deep zone on the left third of the field. Ricky rolled out to the left while the wide receiver ran a fly pattern. This is actually a great play to call against this defense. If Ricky had thrown the ball at the point that the video freezes, the receiver would have been in a soft spot behind the cornerback’s zone that the safety wouldn’t have been able to reach in time. The problem was that Ricky held onto the ball so long that even the safety covering the middle third of the field had enough time to get over and catch the ball.
The receiver probably should have broken off his route and sat in the weak spot of the coverage.
Air Force spent the majority of the game in a cover 2/cover 4, rolling to a cover 3 as the safety on the motion side of the formation came up to play run support. The A-pop is tailor-made for that defense, but the Mids couldn’t connect.
The A-pop was the second thing Coach Jasper called to adjust to the Air Force defense. The first thing he did was run that same double option, but out of the trips formation. The play is no different than when it’s run out of the spread; the pitch man just goes in motion from the opposite side of the formation. The formation, though, forces the safety to stay deep rather than play run support. Unfortunately, the blocking slotback couldn’t get his man on the ground, and that LB forced Ricky back inside where he was tackled.
The missed block was far from the worst thing to happen on that play, as Matt Molloy suffered another concussion and had to leave the game. Molloy became the starter after Andrew McGinn was lost to a concussion in 2008. Now it’s junior Ryan Basford who took over for the injured right tackle. He didn’t have the best game. Losing Molloy was a bit of a turning point, and it affected Navy’s play calling the rest of the afternoon.
Molloy was eventually forced into a starting role after Andrew McGinn went down with a concussion. Now Ryan Basford finds himself in the same situation, and just like Molloy back then, he’s struggling. In the first play, he looks like he’s confused about his assignment; he blocks #1 instead of releasing and blocking the ILB. On the second play, he gets the assignment right, but completely misses the block. On the third play, his assignment is to scoop block the backside pursuit. He doesn’t block the backside linebacker, who would go on to make the tackle. If that block is made, Ricky has a nice cutback lane and could have had a chance at the first down. On the fourth play, he just can’t block the ILB again.
As a result of the inability to block the inside linebackers, Coach Jasper was forced to call a lot of fullback dives to make the ILBs defend the middle of the field. When the linebackers had to step up to defend the fullback, they were easier to block and the Mids were able to run the triple effectively:
The problem is that it took a lot of fullback dives to make it happen. (Bonus footage of Rembert’s “Air Force being Air Force” moment there.)
Air Force threw in a few option stunts as well. The first one here is the cross charge, which as we know is when #1 goes wide to play the QB/pitch while #2 takes the fullback. The second one is called a 3/2 exchange. It sort of works like a cross charge, only now it’s #3 and #2 switching assignments instead of #1 and #2. #2 jams the playside slotback to keep him from blocking his assignment, #3, who takes the quarterback. The last stunt is the squeeze & scrape that we often see, where #1 squeezes the tackle to prevent him from blocking the ILB, who plays the quarterback.
When a defense is running stunts like this on the perimeter, it sets up the toss sweep. Jasper saved the rocket toss until he really needed it in the 4th quarter on a big 3rd down. But the Mids still couldn’t execute; the playside slotback must have zoned out or had trouble hearing or something, because he was late off the snap. It slowed down Mike Stukel and gave the blitzing corner a chance to get low deep in the backfield and stop the play.
Navy’s execution problems continued at the goal line as well. The Mids drove down to the Air Force 3 yard line in the first quarter. They brought in an extra tackle to help punch the ball into the end zone. On first down, they ran a keeper to the strong side of the formation. Air Force didn’t respond in any unusual way defensively; their inside linebackers and secondary are all 4-5 yards off the line of scrimmage, and none of them blitz. The one guy who does blitz is the OLB, who was doing that the whole game. The extra tackle just completely whiffed the block.
On second down, Air Force lines up the same way; again, nothing unusual. This time, Jasper mixes it up by running the keeper to the weak side of the formation. Once again, the OLB goes unblocked. Both the fullback and the playside slotback end up blocking the same safety, meaning that one of them should have picked up the OLB. Earlier in the drive it was the FB who took the OLB, and he probably should have here as well.
On third down, Jasper tried the FB dive off of toss motion that worked so well earlier in the drive, but to no avail.
You can see, though, that the failure of these plays had nothing to do with predictability. Air Force wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. Their secondary wasn’t involved in either play. It was the failure to block the front 5 that stopped the play, and there aren’t too many plays in the ol’ arsenal that will work when you don’t block the front 5. Air Force didn’t do anything at the goal line that they weren’t doing the rest of the game.
Defensively, Navy had its share of problems; tackling was horrible, and Air Force was able to convert on several 3rd & long plays. Still, they only gave up one real scoring drive. It was certainly a good enough performance to win the game, which just adds to the frustration with the offense. Navy ran plays that we hadn’t seen all year. Coach Jasper anticipated Air Force’s game plan, had plays to take advantage of it, and made adjustments as the game wore on. But against a defense that knows what it’s doing against the spread option, you can’t afford to make the mental errors that Navy did and still come out on top.