Yes, the hibernation has ended (for now).
I am the worst blogger ever. I’m not even a blogger, really. Instead of providing running commentary on the various happenings that involve my chosen subject, I emerge every once in a while to drop some way-too-wordy essay on here before fading away for another few months, or the next time my inspiration outweighs my laziness. Not gonna lie, that’s probably not going to change this year. Nevertheless, I feel guilty letting this dormant blog take up valuable space in the tubes while football season is about to start, so for now I’ll let guilt be that inspiration.
It seems like everyone is grateful that real football is about to start, since the offseason was so… eventful. Honestly, I’m not all that jazzed up about it (like I said, I’m the worst blogger ever). Nevertheless, time, tide, and football season aren’t going to wait for me to be ready. At least the Mids’ first game is interesting. That game, of course, is in Dublin against Notre Dame. The fact that it’s in Ireland just adds to the hoopla surrounding a game that is already a highlight of the Navy football season every year. There’s more to it than that, though. This year’s game against the Irish is of particular interest to this Navy team. Unlike last year’s rope-a-dopes against Delaware and Western Kentucky, we’ll know right away if Navy has made any improvement going into the 2012 campaign. It can be argued that the Notre Dame game was Navy’s worst performance on both sides of the ball in 2011.
Looking strictly at the stats, last year’s game is pretty bad, but not that bad. Navy’s defense gave up 442 yards of total offense, which was only 30 yards more than their average for the year (wow that was depressing to type). Offensively, the Mids were only able to gain 229 yards; lousy, but not out of line with some other clunkers the offense has put up over the years. Yardage stats only tell you so much, though. When your average starting field position is your own 41 yard line (like Notre Dame’s was in the first half), you don’t have to go that far to score. That’s the kind of field position you get when the other team has three 3 & outs in 6 first-half possessions plus a fumbled kickoff return. Meanwhile, Notre Dame scored TDs on 5 of its 6 first-half drives. Neither the offense nor the defense did enough to give the other a chance. The game spiraled out of control, and at 35-7, was over by halftime.
So how did it get that bad? I’m going to focus on the offense here, because they were more of an anomaly; the defense stunk against pretty much everybody.
The obvious place to look would be at quarterback, since it was Trey Miller’s first start. Trey replaced an injured Kriss Proctor a week earlier and almost led an unlikely comeback against East Carolina. It was reminiscent of the 2007 season, when Jarod Bryant stepped in to replace Kaipo at the end of a few games. Jarod had some success coming in with fresh legs and running a few plays that were tailored to his strengths, but struggled a bit when he was expected to run the full offense. That’s sort of how it went for Trey against ECU. He threw the ball well, but wasn’t asked to do very much as far as the triple option was concerned. Like in ’07, the plays were tailored to his strengths. The easy answer to the offense’s bad day against Notre Dame, then, would be to say that Trey just didn’t know the offense well enough in his first start.
That’s the easy answer, but not the right one.
Not that Trey played well. Nobody did. Navy’s problems, though, didn’t come from Trey missing option reads. Actually, he did a pretty decent job as far as that’s concerned. The offensive line was a different story.
What we had was a bit of a Scott McKillop situation. Linebacker Manti Te’o had a huge day, leading both teams with 13 tackles (including a sack) while playing middle linebacker in the 4-3 alignment that Bob Diaco switched to for this game. Te’o was simply unblockable. It wasn’t necessarily that he was just that physically superior. It was more the result of his alertness coupled with a dominating Irish defensive line that kept blockers away from him.
First, let’s take a look at how things should have played out. Here, Navy is in their base spread formation while Notre Dame is lined up in a 4-3 with the quarterback’s dive and pitch keys pretty easy to pick out. The center is left uncovered. When that happens, his job is to load block from the middle linebacker to the secondary. What that means is that he will block the MLB if he plays the middle of the field. If the MLB reads the play and moves laterally, then the center moves on to block the safety. The MLB becomes the playside tackle’s responsibility. On this play, the MLB stays put in the middle of the field and is blocked by the center. Trey makes the right reads, and the result is a nice gain.
Obviously, that wasn’t the norm, and Te’o did a lot better reading most plays and running to the ball. That shouldn’t be a problem, since the tackle should pick him up. Unfortunately, he never did. Here are two more plays. Again, Trey makes the right read on both of them, but gets stuffed by the unblocked MLB.
In real time, these plays can look like missed reads by the quarterback, but they weren’t. Trey did everything right. When this problem has happened in the past, some people have asked why the quarterback doesn’t just pitch the ball in that situation. The answer is that you can’t pitch off of a defender that isn’t in the count. The decision to keep or pitch depends on the actions of specific keys. If you pitch off of someone other than the pitch key, then the play will be blown up when the pitch key plays the pitch man. Like so:
Again, the tackle can’t get to middle linebacker, and the quarterback pays the price. This time, Trey pitched the ball, but #2 was playing the pitch man and stuffed the play. We’re lucky that’s all that happened there, because pitching to a covered man is a good way to end up with the ball on the ground.
The coaches tried to find ways to fix the problem. One play that had (very) limited success was a double option, with the fullback responsible for blocking the MLB instead.
They tried putting an A-back on the line of scrimmage to get a better angle on Te’o as he tracked the play to the outside. Of course, that does no good if the play doesn’t go outside. On this play, Trey again makes the right read. This time the read is to give to the fullback. While the slotback stands waiting to block a player that never comes, none of the playside linemen are able to get to the second level to block the MLB if the fullback gets the ball. Te’o again goes unblocked and fills the gap the fullback is supposed to run through.
They also tried releasing the tackle outside of #1 rather than inside, but the end result was the same:
Trey made the right read yet again, but the only guy to touch the MLB was the ball carrier.
This is what the coaches mean when they talk about the importance of “establishing the fullback.” Navy never did, and Te’o was able to react so quickly in lateral pursuit because he wasn’t worried about the dive play. If he had to wait another split second out of respect for the possibility of the fullback getting the ball, then the tackles would have had enough time to get out in front of him more often than not. But he didn’t, so they didn’t. The Mids were so overwhelmed by the Irish defensive line that the linebackers were free to roam as they pleased.
And that’s the problem in a nutshell. In this offense, everything depends on being able to run the option first. No matter what scheme a defense comes up with to defend the option, there is an adjustment that Coach Jasper can make that will counter it. Unfortunately, there is no adjustment for getting your butt kicked. If you’re forced to change your play-calling based on what you can’t do instead of adapting to what the defense is doing, then it’s going to be a long day.
That might be where the silver lining is for Navy going into Saturday’s game. Schematically, Notre Dame didn’t really do anything. They basically just lined up in a 4-3 (as opposed to their usual 3-4) and reacted to the play. That isn’t a criticism; after all, it worked. The point of any game plan is simply to put your players in a position where they can succeed, and that’s exactly what happened. What didn’t happen, though, was the deployment of some whiz-bang scheme that “solved” the option. The Mids should have been able to run wild, and against a team with lesser players they probably would have. With any luck, the Irish will line up the same way on Saturday (apologies to Corwin Brown). If they do, and if the offensive line doesn’t get completely hammered again, then Navy should be able to roll up their fair share of rushing yards.
Of course, those are two big “ifs.” It’s a lot easier said from my La-Z-Boy than done on the field. Not helping the situation is that Coach Niumatalolo felt compelled to make some changes in the line. Graham Vickers is reportedly doing very well at center. The coaches like Bradyn Heap at tackle primarily for his quickness and agility, which is exactly what Navy needs if they want to correct what went wrong in the last game. Even so, he’s still a work in progress. He’ll have his hands full (as will the rest of Navy’s offensive line) with a Notre Dame defensive line that’s expected to be even better this year.
Another silver lining, for me anyway, is that re-watching last year’s game made me feel pretty confident about Trey taking over at quarterback this season. It’s easy to forget that he was only a sophomore last year. Compared to other Navy quarterbacks as sophomores, Trey stacks up pretty well. When Craig Candeto was injured against Notre Dame early in the 2002 game, Aaron Polanco stepped in and almost played well enough to get the upset. The next week he started against UConn and led possibly the worst offensive performance in Navy history (not hyperbole). Brian Hampton entered his sophomore season having spent the previous year as a slotback and kick returner. They both turned out ok, and judging by Trey’s ability to make his option reads both in the Notre Dame game and in the Blue & Gold scrimmage, he’s on schedule as far as his development is concerned. I was a little nervous during spring practice when I read about some of the things the offense was working on. Not that there’s anything wrong with the zone option or shotgun necessarily– a few years ago, the coaches even took a trip out to West Virginia to get some pointers from Rich Rodriguez– but the more you add, the less you’re able to practice your bread & butter. I was worried that Trey might miss out on reps he’d need to get his reads down cold. Maybe I was just over-thinking things.
As for Notre Dame, the biggest story going into Saturday is the rash of injuries and suspensions that have forced Brian Kelly to shuffle his lineup. Starting running back Cierre Wood has been suspended for the first two games and will be replaced by running-back-turned-receiver-turned-running-back-again Theo Reddick. Lo Wood was the most experienced of what was already a pretty thin group of cornerbacks, and he was lost for the year with an Achilles injury. TE Alex Welch was also lost for the year with a knee injury, while linebacker Carlo Calabrese and quarterback Tommy Rees were both suspended after offseason run-ins with the law. If you’re a Navy fan, you just shrug your shoulders watch as these guys get replaced with other highly-touted athletes. Notre Dame fans might sweat these losses to varying degrees, but not so much when it comes to Rees. To a lot of people, the loss of Rees is addition by subtraction now that Everett Golson has been named the starter.
Most fans would be at least a little nervous with a quarterback making his first college start after redshirting his freshman year, but we’re dealing with a messiah situation here. Navy fans should be familiar with the phenomenon. You remember how some people used to think that we were one strong-armed quarterback away from unleashing Paul Johnson’s “Hawaii offense?” The mythical creature that threw for 300 yards per game and had defensive backs checking their closets before going to bed at night? There’s a similar train of thought when it comes to Brian Kelly’s spread offense; that Notre Dame hasn’t had an athlete at quarterback capable of unleashing its full potential. Kelly has had a pretty good run of QBs that could make things happen with their legs as much as their arms, from Curt Anes at Grand Valley State, to Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan, to Ben Mauk and Zach Collaros at Cincinnati. (Tony Pike? Don’t talk to me about Tony Pike!). Golson is more in that Kelly-quarterback mold, and the hope is that what he brings to the offense athletically will make up for whatever shortcomings he might have due to a lack of experience.
Another question for Notre Dame coming into this season is how to replace Michael Floyd at wide receiver. The answer might not be a receiver at all, but rather a tight end. The conventional wisdom on young quarterbacks is that they rely heavily on their TEs as check-down targets, and Notre Dame just happens to have arguably the best TE in the country in Tyler Eifert. The senior was a Mackey Award finalist in 2011, leading all TEs in catches (63) and receiving yards (803). At 6-6, 251, Eifert is a matchup nightmare for just about everyone. He’s only 10 receptions short of 100 for his career, and it isn’t crazy to think that he could reach that milestone on Saturday.
Eifert should have plenty of time to get open, too, with Notre Dame’s experienced offensive line. If you’re going to start a rookie quarterback, this is the line you want to do it with. It creates a difficult choice for Buddy Green. Do you try to bring pressure and force the young QB to make mistakes, knowing that the veteran offensive line probably won’t let that happen? Or do you sit back and play contain against a quarterback that wants to run, and hope that he’ll make mistakes on his own? Neither choice is all that palatable, and if Navy’s defense plays like it did last year then it won’t matter what Coach Green chooses. You can’t really say that the defense is fixed if you don’t know what the problem was to begin with (and I don’t).
And that’s what we all want to know. Is this team any better than the 5-7 squad of a year ago? We’d like to think so, but at this point we have little more than faith telling us that they are. We’ll know soon enough. Notre Dame presents a huge challenge on both sides of the ball. How the Mids respond to that challenge will tell us a lot about how 2012 is going to go.