I’m probably one of the worst note takers you’ll ever encounter in a college press box. Scatter-brained and usually loaded up on Diet Coke and whatever sweets they’re offering at the buffet, I tend to overlook the finer details of the game. I don’t chart plays like the old school writers do, and as much as I try to keep track of who is in the game and who’s not, I’m constantly at the mercy of the statistics provided for by the Sports Information staff (thankfully at Navy, Scott S. and the crew do a great job.)
My note-taking inefficiencies notwithstanding, I did manage to jot down a few stream-of-conscious thoughts during Saturday’s action in Columbia. Aside from the proverbial “Third and 12, this is HUGE” kind of notes, you’ll find an awkward, if not completely random, “SWEET WEDGE BUST” buried in the running word document I was using as my notepad.
The exact wedge bust came when plebe James Britton slammed through the USC wedge after John Howell’s opening touchdown run. Wave Ryder made the tackle, but the 6-foot-2 Britton disrupted the play and made Gamecock return man Bruce Ellington lose forward momentum. It drew a few double takes up at the ESPN replay from those in the press box, and I’m pretty sure it stoked up the Navy sideline, but other than that, I haven’t heard anyone else mention the play.
It’s easy to overlook the wedge bust, but you’d do well not to forget the play completely. Obviously, the reckless abandon of lane discipline and Sonic-the-Hedgehog-like speed makes forgetting the effort a no-no, but within the few seconds of pad on pad fury, you’ll find a surprising stat from Saturday’s game:
Yards per kickoff return, that is. Ironically enough, the Midshipmen’s special teams unit held the 10th ranked team in the country to an average of 17.7 yards per kickoff return Saturday, a full week after allowing perhaps the very worst FBS team — Western Kentucky — to average 32.7 yards.
It’s no secret Navy’s special teams have been, well, inconsistent at times in the past – especially when it comes to defending kickoffs. Delaware may have averaged a pedestrian 19.3 yards per return in week one, but looking back at several games last year, Navy was positively disappointing in kickoff coverage. 28.2 yards per return to Arkansas State. 28.4 yards to Louisiana Tech. 33.2 yards to Georgia Southern. 33 to Wake Forest, and 30.2 yards to Southern Methodist. Heck, the Mids even gave up 23.4 yards per return to Army! And keep in mind these are all accounting for a minimum of at least three returns a game.
Now, factor in that South Carolina was averaging more per return in their previous two games this year – as well as the fact that Navy was without several key defenders who could have otherwise been available for kickoff coverage – and if you’re not already impressed, you should be. These weren’t veterans running down SEC skill players – these were freshmen and sophomores going up against much bigger, faster players in the most violent and sudden-change aspect of the sport.
Is this a sign of things to come? If you base it off the understanding that South Carolina’s kickoff return unit is the most athletic Navy will see all year, it very well might be. But before you get your hopes up, consider that Navy allowed only 15.7 yards per return in Maryland during week one last season before giving up 33.2 yards per return the next week to Georgia Southern. Long story short? There isn’t always a rhyme or reason for why special teams play a certain way one week, with many factors (weather, wind, turf type, etc.) contributing to the return game. Yet with momentum playing as big a role as ever in the college game, and with Navy’s defense often taking maximum advantage of even just an extra 15 or 20 yards of field position, the lack of early returns last Saturday gives Navy fans one more thing to feel good about.