Compared to the hoopla surrounding last year’s season opener, the start of the 2011 Navy football season feels almost subdued. Rather than heading into Baltimore to play in a 70,000-seat NFL stadium against a rival BCS-conference team on Labor Day, this year the Mids are keeping things simple. They’re opening the season at home sweet home, on Saturday like everyone else, against a I-AA team they’ve faced plenty of times in recent years. The hype isn’t there, but the promise and excitement that comes with each new season remains. It’s nice to have football back.
You really can’t label Delaware as just “a I-AA team,” though (and I don’t mean because it’s called “FCS” now). This isn’t Nicholls State or South Dakota. This is Delaware: 2003 I-AA champion, last year’s runner-up, and one of the premier programs in the division’s top conference, the CAA. Not that Navy fans need any reminder, with the Mids falling to the Blue Hens in ’03 and ’07. Expectations are just as high this year, with Delaware being ranked at #5 in the Sports Network preseason FCS poll. (Amazingly, despite the lofty national ranking, Delaware was only voted third in the CAA preseason poll behind William & Mary and JMU. Talk about conference depth). Delaware is already a talented football team to begin with, and like most elite I-AA programs, they’re also a popular destination for transfers from I-A schools. This year’s team is no exception, with several high-profile transfers including senior OL Gino Gradkowski (West Virginia), tight end Ryan Cobb (Virginia), linebacker Jessel Curry (Auburn), and defensive back Travis Hawkins (Maryland). Delaware probably has more players that had BCS-program scholarship offers than some I-A teams on Navy’s schedule.
For the first time since K.C. Keeler took over the Delaware program, none of those transfers are at quarterback. The Delaware QBs that Navy has faced (Andy Hall, Sonny Riccio, Joe Flacco, and Pat Devlin) all came to Newark by way of a BCS program. That won’t be the case this year. Keeler hasn’t revealed who will be starting (FEEL THE GAMESMANSHIP!), but it will be either redshirt sophomore Trevor Sasek or junior Tim Donnelly, both of whom were recruited the old fashioned way. Sasek will most likely get the starting nod. At 6-6, 220 lbs., he has Flacco-like dimensions. It’s way to early to make any other comparisons to one of the greatest QBs in school history, but he did play well subbing for an injured Devlin against JMU last year. Still, consistency is a concern with any sophomore quarterback making his first start. The Delaware game plan will most likely be to run the ball.
Running the ball probably would have been the plan no matter who was playing quarterback. When the Hens and Mids last met in 2009, Delaware had a very effective ball-control game plan featuring short-range passes and zone-stretch running plays that limited both teams to only 3 possessions in the first half. The pieces are certainly in place if they want to do it all over again. Delaware has seven preseason All-Americans, with three of them coming from the offensive line alone. Running behind that line is another All-American, sophomore running back Andrew Pierce. As a freshman, Pierce ran for 1,655 yards (second most in school history for a single season) and 14 touchdowns. He had seven 100-yard games, was the no-brainer pick for CAA Rookie of the Year, and opens the 2011 season sharing preseason CAA Offensive Player of the Year honors with with William & Mary’s Jonathan Grimes. Delaware is going to spread the Navy defense and give Pierce room to run.
Defensively, Delaware seems to have found a formula that they’re comfortable with against the spread option. Fortunately, it’s not that great of a formula. Even-man front, with the secondary lined up 3-deep and the free safety covering the pitch? We may have played against that once or twice. Like we saw in the 2009 game, the Hens will try to mix up their front seven a little bit, but it’s really no different. Actually, by having both inside linebackers so clearly dedicated to stopping the fullback, it makes the defense a bit more predictable. We saw some of that in last year’s I-AA playoff game between Delaware and Georgia Southern.
Georgia Southern came out in what looked (somewhat ironically) like the wishbone. It wasn’t a true wishbone– the halfbacks weren’t lined up in a 3-point stance– but both A-backs were in the backfield instead of their usual position in the slot. I suspect that Coach Monken made this adjustment to keep the free safety from getting a jump on the tail motion and knowing the direction of the play before the snap.
It worked for the most part. The safety made a lot of tackles, but they were usually 7-8 (or in this case 12) yards downfield.
The playside slotback’s responsibility is to block #3 in the count, which is usually a defensive back in run support. The count can be adjusted, though. Usually it’s the tackle’s responsibility to look at the alignment and call out who’s in or out of the count. It can be tinkered with in other ways, too. In that last play, it was the tackle running all the way to the third level to try to put a block on the safety. But if you know that the free safety is always going to play the pitch, that essentially makes him the run support. So you adjust the count, make the old #3 the new #2, and make the free safety #3. Now you have a slotback blocking the defender assigned to the pitch, which means the A’s will be making plays:
That adjustment is a lot easier to make when you know that the ILBs are dedicated to stopping the fullback. If the defense is playing a squeeze & scrape, a stunt where the ILB/MLB moves outside to take the quarterback, then you might hesitate to change the blocking A-back’s usual assignment to load from the inside-out pursuit of the ILB to the safety. Coach Jasper has been reluctant to have the slotbacks go directly after the free safety in this defense for some reason; maybe that’s why. One exception was the ECU game last year, and we all saw what happened there.
That’s all nice and all, but I’m sure there’s a Delaware fan out there already in mid-comment about to remind me that the Blue Hens did in fact win the game. For all that Georgia Southern did right, there was plenty that they did wrong. For starters, there were turnovers. Lots and lots of turnovers. The Eagles marched right down the field on their first drive only to fumble the snap once they got to the goal line. Tack on another three fumbles and an interception, and you kill any chance you had to get back into the game.
Blocking the free safety was also sometimes easier said than done. The Eagles left a lot of big plays on the table simply because of missed blocks:
A 5- or 6-yard run is a nice gain, but 20- or 30-yard runs (or more) are game changers. That’s the kind of running room those slotbacks had in front of them if their stablemates would have made those blocks.
The biggest obstacle that the Eagle offense failed to overcome, though, was the cross charge. As you know, the cross charge is a stunt run by the defense that changes up their assignments. A good defensive coordinator that understands the mechanics of the spread option knows how the count works and tries to manipulate it. That’s what the cross charge does; it changes up the expected assignments of #1 and#2 in the count. Instead of taking either the fullback or the quarterback, #1 steps out to play the pitch. An inexperienced quarterback sees that and mistakes it for a read to give to the fullback, where he is stopped by an unblocked #2 who has stepped inside to play the dive. GSU QB Jaybo Shaw missed his read every time Delaware ran a cross charge:
That’s all it takes. It’s a fine line between success and failure in this offense. One weakness like that, and is starts to snowball. Missed reads turn into 3rd & long, which turn into forced passing situations, which turn into sacks and interceptions, which turn into losses. Delaware found Georgia Southern’s weakness and kept attacking it, which is why they were the ones left standing in the end.
That makes this a big game for Kriss Proctor. His knowledge of the offense and his ability to make the right reads are what we’ve been told are his strengths. The cross charge is generally considered the hardest option read for a QB in this offense to make; if Delaware comes out doing the same thing, those strengths will be tested right out of the gate. The ability to lead this offense through situations like those that plagued Georgia Southern are exactly what he is supposed to bring to the table.
In fact, Delaware’s entire game plan (if it’s the same as what they did against Georgia Southern) plays to Navy’s strengths. Slotbacks usually get the most carries against this kind of defense, both in the option and on toss sweeps. That’s the deepest and most talented position on the Navy team. Quarterbacks should end up with a lot of carries when defenses use the cross charge, and Proctor is the fastest Navy quarterback most of us have ever seen. Delaware is just as talented on defense as they are on offense, but schematically, this should be exactly what we want to see. I’m optimistic.
Delaware is a good football team. On offense they’ll make the Mids cover the whole field, and on defense they’re going to go after the quarterback. They might be I-AA, but they’ll put Navy to the test. We won’t have to wait long to find out what the 2011 Mids are made of.