The last time Navy started 0-2 was in 2005. The Mids opened with a heartbreaker in Baltimore against Maryland, then fell just short in a back-and-forth shootout with Stanford at home. The team rebounded to win the next four in a row before finishing at 8-4, blasting Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Happy times.
When the 2012 schedule was released showing the Mids leading off against Notre Dame and Penn State, a lot of people probably penciled Navy in for another 0-2 start this year. I’m not so sure they can afford one.
I don’t like to talk too much about intangibles like player state of mind, mostly because acting like you have a clue about what’s going on in players’ heads based on what you see on TV or from the stands just makes you look like an idiot. That doesn’t mean that these things aren’t part of the game, though. Navy was originally supposed to play Washington and Boston College at the beginning of the 2003 season, but replaced those schools with VMI and Eastern Michigan in order to give the Mids a chance to win and gain a little confidence after going 2-10 the year before. Confidence alone won’t win you any football games, but a lack of confidence sure as hell can lose them for you. Not putting your best effort into something that you don’t think will succeed is just human nature, an isn’t always a conscious decision.
Even though the 2005 team started 0-2, they still had confidence in what they were doing. A year earlier they had won 10 games and finished at #24 in both polls. They didn’t have too much trouble moving the ball against Stanford, and they should have beaten Maryland. They knew they were still a good team, even after the bad start.
One has to wonder if that’s the case in 2012. Navy isn’t coming off of a 10-win season. Instead, they had their first losing season since that 2002 campaign, and followed it up with an offseason of turmoil in which the team captains were stripped of their titles. They didn’t look good in the opener either, getting mauled by Notre Dame. This isn’t the self-assured group from 2005. This team is surrounded by doubt, and at some point you worry that osmosis will take over and that doubt will start creeping into the locker room. It’s a long season. It won’t be over with a loss tomorrow, but there’s no better way to crush the doubt and announce “we’re back” than with a win over Penn State.
If there was ever a Penn State team that Navy would have a chance against, this would be the one, thanks to all the distractions, transfers, injuries, and a new coach. Not that Coach Niumatalolo thinks that way, saying that these things just make the Nittany Lions dangerous like a “wounded animal that has their backs against the wall.” And he has a point, of course. Every player that Penn State loses is just replaced by another highly-recruited guy that would probably start for Navy, so from Niumat’s point of view, the challenge hasn’t gotten any easier.
One thing that Niumat might feel good about is that he probably has a good offensive game plan ready. Penn State’s defensive coordinator is former Duke head coach Ted Roof. Duke played Navy in each of the four years that Roof had the job, so it’s a decent bet that the Navy staff has a pretty good idea of what the Penn State defense has planned for them. If Roof follows his usual M.O., then it won’t be anything drastic.
It’s interesting to see how defensive tactics evolve with coaches who face this offense on a regular basis. In 2004, Roof didn’t do anything that unusual other than switching between odd and even fronts, presumably to give the QB and offensive line something to think about before the snap.
By the time Duke and Navy faced each other for the fourth time in Roof’s tenure as HC, you can tell that he had developed a better understanding of the mechanics of Navy’s offense. In 2007, he stuck primarily with a 4-3, but started to mix in a few stunts designed to mix up the quarterback’s reads. If you control what read you’re giving the quarterback, you can control where the ball is going to go and defend accordingly… In theory, anyway. It didn’t work out that way.
In the next video, the first play shows how Duke lined up for most of the game. In the second play they tried a cross charge, designed to fool the quarterback into giving to the fullback. #1 in the count steps outside, which would trick an inexperienced quarterback into thinking he’s getting a “give” read. When the fullback gets the ball, he would be met by the unblocked #2. Just to cover all their bases, Duke had the middle linebacker assigned to the pitch. The problem for Duke is that Navy’s quarterback was Kaipo, who was about as experienced as option quarterbacks come. The MLB is blocked, Kaipo makes the right read, and Reggie runs for a first down.
The third play in the video shows a different stunt, where #2 plays the pitch. That should give the quarterback a read to keep the ball, where he would be met by a blitzing safety; a 3/2 switch. Unfortunately for Duke, that leaves them vulnerable to play action on the wheel-post, since one DB is left on that side of the field to cover two receivers. OJ Washington is wide open on the post, and Kaipo hits him for a TD.
Duke was torched, but you can see how Roof understood what the quarterback was reading and tried to exploit it. That puts the focus squarely on Trey Miller this week. Notre Dame did a lot of things to Navy, but none of that butt-kicking involved giving Trey any unusual looks in the option game. That won’t be the case tomorrow. This game will be a better indication of the junior quarterback’s grasp of the Navy offense. It might also be a chance for Coach Jasper to flex some play-calling muscle. In the four games against Navy with Roof at the helm, Duke gave up an average of 34 points and 341 rushing yards. In 2007, they even gave up 236 passing yards, which for Navy is an air raid. If Roof starts getting fancy with his stunts, Trey has demonstrated that his arm is capable of whatever Coach Jasper wants to do to make him pay.
In fairness to Roof, he did beat Navy in 2002 as Duke’s defensive coordinator. I don’t have video of that clash of 2-10 titans, and I assume none exists since God would destroy that mess like he did the swastika on the crate holding the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also in fairness to Roof, it’s one thing to point out what Navy did to Duke teams that won all of four games in his four years at the helm. It’s quite another to apply that to a team with the talent of Penn State. I’m sure that Roof feels a lot better about defending the option with Penn State’s players than he did with Duke’s.
The same probably can’t be said for Bill O’Brien and the Penn State offense; Penn State is talented, but they aren’t the New England Patriots (although maybe Troy Calhoun disagrees). Not that they need to be the Patriots to move the ball on Navy, of course. Penn State is about as pro-style of an offense as you’ll see in college football. They’ll line up in all kinds of formations, something that will challenge a Navy defense that had trouble carrying out their assignments two weeks ago. Even though Penn State’s running game is different from Notre Dame’s spread/zone scheme, I’d plan on running the ball all day on Navy if I coached the Penn State offense. I’m not so sure that’s what we’re going to see, though. Penn State’s running back situation is a bit muddled going into this game, and Coach O’Brien is talking about using trick plays and getting people to stop criticizing his quarterback. That sounds like he wants to throw the ball to me. We’ll see.
After the way the Notre Dame game went, I think a lot of people just want to see some improvement out of the team. Navy’s schedule gets a lot easier after this, so a good performance will at least give us some warm and fuzzies heading into the rest of the season. But is it really that easy? Navy lost to San Jose State, Air Force, and East Carolina a year ago. Indiana might not be a very good Big Ten team, but they’re still a Big Ten team. Texas State was supposed to be a cupcake, and they opened the season by stomping a mudhole in Houston. Haven’t we learned by now not to take wins for granted? I sure have. Every game has some measure of importance, but the longer you go without that first win, the more important they get. I’d rather not wait another week.