Before the season opener against Notre Dame, I felt that there was no way that Navy could play any worse against the Irish than they did last year. They didn’t, but saying that they didn’t play any worse just means that “every bit as bad” is still on the table. Maybe the game didn’t go exactly as it did in 2011, but 50-10 is 50-10. I doubt anyone really wants to split hairs.
Ha! Who am I kidding? Splitting hairs is all I do here!
Comparing last year’s game to this year’s sort of misses the point anyway. Notre Dame is Navy’s annual measuring stick against the “big boys” of college football (literally), so it’s easy to understand why we’re all doing it. It’s a long season, though, and Navy isn’t going to be playing Notre Dame every week. If we’re going to analyze the game, it’s more important (especially in week one) not to measure the team against Notre Dame necessarily, but to measure them against last year’s Mids– with the hope that we’ll see some improvement regardless of the opponent.
At least that’s what I’m telling myself as I try to digest this debacle.
We’ll start with the defense. If Notre Dame came into the game hoping to take pressure off of their young quarterback, then running for almost 300 yards and throwing half of their passes perpendicular to the sideline seemed like a pretty good plan. Why doesn’t every team with a rookie QB just run for 293 yards? It’s so effective! Well, if Navy’s defense plays like they did last weekend, maybe every team the Mids play will.
One of the things you hear all the time about defending the option is that it requires discipline and assignment football. That goes for more than just the option, though. Notre Dame’s running game consisted primarily of zone stretch plays, with a few variations mixed in. Zone running schemes are similar to the option in that nobody (including the offense) knows exactly where the ball is going to go before the play. In the triple option, one of three players will end up with the ball based on what the quarterback reads after the snap. On a basic zone stretch play, the running back might know that he’s getting the ball, but where he goes with it is also determined after the snap. The offensive line moves left or right along the line of scrimmage, and the running back runs behind them until he reads the right gap he to run through. Then he makes his cut and hits the hole. Young running backs often have difficulty with zone blocking because it requires a patience that most don’t have. Football is a fast-moving game, and when you have the ball in your hands you don’t expect to go very long before you’re in a defender’s crosshairs. Your instinct is to get upfield and do it quickly, not to dawdle in the backfield running toward the sideline. Once the RB learns to trust the scheme, however, it becomes very effective. The running back learns to find soft spots in the defense and attack them.
The challenge for the defense, then, is to avoid giving the offense any of those soft spots. That requires them to match the patience of the running back and maintain their gap responsibilities for the entire play. It’s easier said than done, especially for linebackers that naturally want to run to the ball carrier. They need the discipline to play their assignment and not the ball. Otherwise, they’ll get overzealous in pursuit, lose their gap integrity, and watch as the RB runs right where they were supposed to be. That was the case far too often for Navy on Saturday.
Let’s take a look at two plays, both involving linebackers that lose their outside containment. On the first, Keegan Wetzel completely takes himself out of the play by biting on the misdirection on the counter play instead of playing his outside responsibility. The second play is a zone option. The quarterback reads the highlighted man, and gives to the running back if that player stays home and doesn’t chase the running back down the line. Coach Green had a perfect play called, as Jordan Drake was coming in on a blitz from the other side. Both potential ball carriers had unblocked defenders waiting for them. Unfortunately, Drake overplayed the QB while the RB ran around him.
There were similar problems with the inside linebackers. On George Atkinson’s long TD run, Matt Warrick overran the play, making him very easy to block and giving Atkinson a wide-open running lane to cut back through.
We hear all the time about how disciplined Navy is, but marching to lunch every day doesn’t have anything to do with discipline on the football field. This is not disciplined play. Sometimes these things can spiral out of control; when you’ve had a bad game or two, you might feel pressed to make a big play on the field, which just makes things worse. I don’t know if that’s the issue, but whatever it is, the linebackers need to do their jobs and trust their teammates to do the same.
Of course, it doesn’t help the situation when guys are in position to do their jobs, but don’t:
I noticed something else on Saturday that bothered me last year, too. Zone blocking rules are pretty simple. If there is someone lined up in front of you, block him. If there isn’t someone lined up in front of you, double-team someone else, then quickly get to the second level to block a linebacker. (Side note: zone blocking also means a LOT of cut blocking. Notre Dame was probably cutting more than Navy was. I look forward to never hearing that whining nonsense out of the South Bend diaspora again). Navy’s linebackers had a tendency to sit and wait for that second-level block instead of attacking their gap. That means two things. One, if they make any contact with the ball carrier at all, it’s going to be 3-4 yards downfield. Two, usually they don’t make any contact with the ball carrier because they’re flat-footed and easily blocked, like so:
This is a tougher fix, because you want the guy to read the play and not get caught in play action. The read just has to be quicker. Maybe one of you players or coaches can weigh in on this one.
Not to be overlooked when playing Notre Dame is their physical advantage, which was highlighted on a few plays. In the first example here, the safety recognized the play and came up in run support, where he met the block of the playside TE. If the OLB could have filled the C gap, that would have been enough to force the RB to bounce outside, where the unblocked corner was waiting for him. Instead, the OLB is wrenched aside and the RB had a clear path to the end zone. On the second play… eek.
Notre Dame is going to get their yards. They always have, even when Navy came out on top. They operate on a different plane of college football than the Naval Academy. Their physical superiority is too great to ever shut them down completely, but Navy doesn’t need to shut them down completely to have a chance. If the linebackers played with more discipline, maybe some of those touchdowns turn into field goals. If those tackles aren’t missed, maybe the young quarterback is forced to throw downfield more often, and maybe he throws another interception. Even with the physical challenge, it becomes a very different game if the defense plays with more discipline.
If they don’t, then it’s going to be a very long season. Most teams on Navy’s schedule are physically superior to Navy. Maybe not to the same extent as Notre Dame, but if the defense keeps blowing their assignments, they won’t need to be. Losing 30-28 will ruin a season just as easily as losing 50-10. I’d say that these mistakes are correctable, but if they weren’t fixed last year, I’m not going to assume that they’ll be fixed this year. I’ll have to see it to believe it.
One thing to note here is that this isn’t a schematic problem. Changing the defense won’t fix missed assignments unless there’s some magical scheme I’m not aware of where assignments don’t matter. If there is a coaching issue here, it isn’t in the plays that are being called.
Things didn’t go much better for the offense. Unlike last year, they actually managed to put a few drives together that were longer than 5 plays. They still found plenty of ways to shoot themselves in the foot, though. Navy isn’t going to win very many games when they fumble the ball 5 times. As expected, Notre Dame lined up the same way they did last year. Coach Jasper’s answer was to have the slotback block MLB Manti Te’o.
It worked on that play, but the playside safety ended up going unblocked. You can see the DE holding the playside tackle, preventing him from getting to the LBs or secondary. (The refs in the Army-SDSU game actually called defensive holding on the Aztecs for doing the same thing. Defenses do this all the time but that was the first time I’ve ever seen it called. I want those refs).
To adjust for the unblocked safety, Coach Jasper moved a wide receiver over and ran out of the twins formation. One WR would block the corner, one would block the safety, and the playside slotback would still block the MLB.
Coach Jasper also made an adjustment to try to give the slotback a better angle to the MLB by releasing the tackle outside and having the slot run inside.
(Notice how the center got to the MLB on the first two plays. Notice also that Te’o wasn’t in the game.)
Schematically, all of these things worked just fine against Notre Dame’s defensive game plan. Sadly, scheme isn’t all that matters. The offense made their share of mental mistakes as well. On this play, Noah Copeland is supposed to block #1 while the QB options off of #2. Instead, he blocks #2 and the QB is stuffed by #1.
Here, Bo Snelson makes his block on the MLB, but Trey panicked and rushed a pitch to a covered man. The result is predictable:
You can’t pitch off of a player that’s not in the count.
Mistakes like these are drive killers, and make one hell of a bad cocktail when mixed with 4 turnovers. The offense didn’t fare any better than the defense matching up physically with Notre Dame either, especially along the interior line. Here are three plays you’ll wish you could un-see. In the first, the trapping guard gets tossed to the ground by the DE. The second play is all kinds of fail; the playside guard makes a matador block on the DT, and the pulling guard can’t get to the DE in time. And in the third play… yeah:
Not their finest hour.
If there’s a silver lining from the offense’s performance, it was Trey’s arm. He finished with 192 yards on 14-19 passing while making more than a few difficult throws. The book on Trey was that he isn’t quite the passer that Ricky Dobbs was, but if you only saw this one game you’d have a hard time believing it. Strangely enough, as bad a day as the offensive line had, they weren’t completely horrible in pass protection. If this is a sign of things to come in the passing game, then at least there’s one definite improvement over 2011.
Along those lines, we also saw the debut of the shotgun in non-hail-mary situations. I’m still not enamored with it, although now that I’ve seen it I’m not as afraid of it as I used to be, either. The shotgun formations and plays that the Mids used were all run & shoot, meaning that it was basically the same stuff they already run. The only real difference is the center-QB exchange, although that was dicey at times. Both Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech have started mixing in some shotgun too, so maybe this is a case of great minds thinking alike. I have written in the past that giving up sacks is a weakness of this offense, so perhaps this is a way to address that.
All in all, it was a pretty crappy debut for the 2012 Midshipmen. There is a lot of work to be done if 2012 is going to be any better than the 5-7 disappointment of 2011.