I finally joined the new millenium this summer and got a DVR; apparently DirecTV passes them out like candy if you threaten to switch. I thought it would be a great thing for the blog; I would be able to record all of Navy’s opponents’ games and really add some substance to my game previews (not that anybody ever read them). Unfortunately, I’ve pretty much abandoned game previews since I just don’t have the time to write them like I used to. I still record all of Navy’s opponent’s games, though, and try to watch as much as I can the week they face the Mids. After watching Wake Forest all of last week and comparing what I saw to what happened on Saturday, I’m really glad I’m not a coach. I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to game plan for something all week only to see a completely different look come game time.
I don’t know what Coach Green expected out of Wake Forest on Saturday, but I thought they were going to run the ball. It’s what they had done all season. When Jim Grobe and offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke came to Wake Forest 10 years ago, they brought with them option elements they picked up at the Air Force Academy and used with success in their offenses at Ohio. They got away from that over the last four years, since quarterback Riley Skinner wasn’t much of a runner (Grobe: “But trust me, Riley is not a wishbone quarterback“), but they appeared to have returned to their roots through their first five games. A lot was made over a potential advantage that Wake Forest might have had after playing a similar offense to Navy’s in Georgia Tech the week before this game, but with the Deacs running the option as much as they were, it looked like Navy would get the same kind of advantage out of playing Air Force. Wake Forest ran at least 50 times in each of its first three games. Not only that, but the last time they beat Navy (in the 2008 EagleBank Bowl), they threw only 11 times. It seemed like a pretty safe bet that the Deacs would come out running the ball.
So much for that. Freshman Tanner Price got the start for Wake and completed 37 of 53 passes for 326 yards and 2 TDs. Wake Forest completely abandoned the offense they had been running all year and returned to the short passing game. Perhaps the sudden change is the product of playing four different quarterbacks this year due to injury. Or maybe it was just Wake’s way of taking advantage of Navy’s tendencies on defense.
Wake’s longest pass play of the day was only 22 yards. It’s not like they were throwing downfield very much; a high percentage of their passes went to receivers in the flat or out of the backfield. A typical Wake Forest play had one or two receivers running deep to draw the coverage back, then passing went to a crossing receiver or a buttonhook underneath.
Coach Green looked to take away the deep routes, which is a departure from how he defended Wake Forest when Skinner was at quarterback. Skinner wasn’t known for throwing a terribly accurate deep ball, so Green was comfortable tightening up the underneath coverage and daring him to throw long. There isn’t much tape on Tanner Price yet, so maybe Green wasn’t comfortable going with that game plan this year. There’s nothing wrong with forcing the quarterback to throw underneath, but if you do you had better 1) tackle well and 2) wrap up the quarterback when you have a chance to get a sack and end a drive. The Mids did neither.
The Mids did start covering the short routes on Wake’s first two drives of the second half, and were able to get off the field. On the third drive, though, Wake Forest adjusted. With the cornerback drawn in by a pump fake to the receiver in the flat, the outside receiver was able to get past him.
That kept the secondary from playing too aggressively underneath. Wake then picked up where they left off in the first half, and scored on their next two drives.
Navy’s offense also turned to a few things that worked in past Navy-Wake Forest matchups. One thing that Coach Jasper has relied on fairly heavily against the Deacs over the last few years is the zone dive.
We spend a lot of time talking about blocking assignments and quarterback reads here, but the fullback has reads to make when he runs the ball, too. Making those reads on the inside zone play is where Vince Murray really separated himself last year. The offensive line moves in the called direction of the play; if nobody’s lined up in front of them, they move on to the second level. The quarterback isn’t reading anyone, obviously, since it’s a designed handoff to the fullback. If this was the triple option, though, the quarterback’s first read would be the first down lineman over or outside the B-gap– #1 in the count. On the zone dive play, the fullback’s read is the first down lineman inside of #1. If the lineman goes one way, the fullback goes the other.
This is exactly why you don’t want a fullback who “moves the pile.” You want a fullback who avoids the pile. And for most of the game, they were:
The fullbacks missed a few reads too, as is bound to happen sometimes when making such quick decisions.
At full speed on TV or in the stadium, a missed read on the inside zone can look like a mistake by the quarterback. That’s one of the many reasons why you really have to go back and re-watch games to understand what on earth is going on:
Coach Jasper used another zone blocking play at the goal line, only this time, it was the quarterback running the ball. At first glance they appeared to be double option plays, but they aren’t. You can see the unblocked defensive back on the first play squaring his shoulders and giving a pretty obvious pitch read to Ricky, but Ricky keeps it. On the second play, the blocking opens up a nice cutback lane, and Ricky turns upfield. That’s a classic zone-blocking run.
Wake’s basic defensive game plan was the same as Air Force’s. They started in a cover 2, then rolled to a cover 3 after following the tail motion. The playside safety would step up to play run support.
We saw a lot of twirl motion from the slotbacks because of it; it gets the safeties moving a step or two in the wrong direction.
Since Wake was doing the same thing as Air Force on offense, one would expect Navy to do some of the same things on offense. And they did, running a lot of double/speed option in the first half.
That lasted until the end of the second quarter, when Wake made an adjustment. They had the OLB jam the fullback in the backfield, which freed up an inside linebacker to make the play on the pitch in the backfield.
It’s kind of like a squeeze & scrape, only with the fullback instead of the playside tackle. That was the last time the Mids ran that play until the last series of the game.
Wake ran the same basic defense as Air Force, but they took a different approach to the stunts they ran to confuse the quarterback. Air Force ran a lot of perimeter stunts, while Wake preferred to use the mesh charge. The mesh charge, you’ll remember, is when the dive key starts towards the fullback, then turns to take the quarterback at the last second. Ricky had a very tough time making this read on Saturday.
Towards the end of the game, Coach Jasper started calling plays that looked like the triple option, but really weren’t. Like the triple, the playside tackle would leave #1 unblocked. But instead of reading #1 to to decide whether to give the ball to the fullback or to keep it, the quarterback kept the ball by design. The fullback blocked #1.
This happened after Alex Teich left the game with a concussion. I’m not sure if it was an adjustment to help Ricky with the mesh charge, or if Coach Jasper didn’t want to risk a fumble at the mesh with a cold, third-string fullback coming into the game at such a critical point.
The Mids were able to take advantage of Wake’s defense in the passing game. On Ricky’s first TD pass, the safeties bit so hard on the toss sweep play action that he had a buffet of receivers to choose from going the other way.
Navy ran the midline a couple times in the second half, the most successful of which came on a 41-yard keeper by Ricky. The play was set up by the backside safety basically giving up on the play. It looks like he thought the fullback got the ball, and he just stopped running.
The game-winning touchdown was set up by our favorite, the wheel-post.
It’s sort of funny to see how perceptions change, especially about the offense. Statistically, this wasn’t one of Navy’s best games by a long shot. The Mids had 368 yards of offense; not horrible, but a lot less than some other games where the offense was criticized. Had Greg Jones not hauled in that last touchdown pass, chances are that Coach Jasper would have been just as criticized for this game as he was for the others. Fortunately, Jones did catch that pass, so it’s a moot point. The bottom line is that both teams had opportunities to pull away, and both teams made enough mistakes that kept that from happening.