Paul Johnson’s first season at Navy was not a pretty one, as the Mids sandwiched a 10-game losing streak between a pair of wins back in 2002. The following season was a completely different story; Navy finished the regular season 8-4 and earned a berth in the Houston Bowl, where they fell to Texas Tech. It was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in college football history, and the formula for achieving that success was surprisingly simple. The biggest difference between the frustration of 2002 and the success of 2003 was giving up fewer turnovers on offense and fewer big plays on defense.
Given that Navy is playing like they did in 2002– they’ve given up 8 turnovers and 4 plays of 30+ yards already– it’s no surprise that they’re getting 2002-like results. Navy followed up its season-opening trouncing at the hands of Notre Dame with another afternoon of misery, this time courtesy of Penn State. The loss was Navy’s 9th in their last 12 games going back to last year, and dropped Navy to 0-2 for the first time since 2005.
That’s what happens when you open the year with your two toughest games, I guess, although you’d hope to do a little better than 50-10 and 34-7. I expected the worst when I popped in the DVD of the game. Strangely, the worst isn’t quite what I got. Not that Navy played well, or anything close to it; but the problems in this game were a lot different from the problems we saw against Notre Dame. I actually feel a little more confident in the rest of the season after watching it.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I don’t like to over-rely on statistics. Nevertheless, one glance at the stat sheet will tell you that this was far different from the mess we saw in week 1. Navy outgained Penn State. Not that 371 yards of offense is anything to brag about, but the Mids have won games with less than that before. This wasn’t a loss that came from being physically overmatched, or from a lack of talent. Navy was able to move the ball decently for the most part, driving to inside the Penn State 30 six times. The problem is that they only got 7 points out of those drives thanks primarily to mental miscues.
Bill Wagner mentioned in his post-game writeup that Navy was once again unable to establish the fullback, which isn’t exactly true. It wasn’t that they were unable to; it’s that they didn’t really try. Penn State lined up with their safeties inside the tackle box on almost every play:
When that happens, it opens up the toss sweep. The path that the playside safety is forced to take to the ball carrier makes him easy to block; even if he beats his block, his first contact with the ball carrier won’t be until he’s already gained at least 3-4 yards:
Because of the way Penn State lined up, it made sense to attack the outside by design rather than having the quarterback read his way out. When Coach Jasper did run inside, he did so using the midline. I’m not sure why he called the midline so much; maybe he had a lot of respect for Penn State’s DTs and wanted to option off of them instead of their DEs. Whatever the reason, it led to the fullback not getting a lot of carries. The Navy game plan was to mix inside and outside running using the midline inside, and the toss sweep and counter option to get the ball outside. There were other plays, obviously, but that was the bulk of it. And for the most part, it worked. The problem is that on every drive, there was one play that blew everything to hell, usually the result of some mental error. So let’s take a look at each of Trey’s drives one at a time.
Drive #1: The first drive was over almost as soon as it started thanks to a (completely legit) chop block call that put the Mids in 2nd and 22. That was followed up by a false start call that gave the Mids 3rd & 28. That’s doom for any offense.
The false start was a recurring problem. Tanner Fleming just missed the snap count. That happened at least three times in this game. I don’t know if crowd noise was the issue, but I don’t think so; there were plays where EVERYONE moved but Fleming, so we know other people could hear Trey. If crowd noise was the problem, then at least Navy won’t be playing in front of 98,000 fans again this year.
Drive #2: Navy went 65 yards fairly easily on their second drive before imploding inside the Penn State 10-yard line. First, there was a blown play on 2nd & goal. It was a counter option, but Bo Snelson ran the wrong way after the snap, leaving Trey with nobody to pitch to. If Bo ran the right way, he probably would have scored with all the open space to the outside and Gee Gee leading the way:
Even with that screw-up, it was still only 3rd & goal from the 5. Assuming it was 4-down territory at that point, the Mids could still run the ball. Unfortunately, that was before another missed-snap false start penalty backed them up to the 10. At that point it became a passing situation, and Penn State blitzed in every obvious passing situation. Trey made a bad decision under pressure and threw an interception.
Drive #3: The third drive began with the Mids picking up a first down after going on 4th. The next play was a play-action pass with Trey barely overthrowing an open Shawn Lynch on a post route. On second down, Trey was hit on the counter option and fumbled, with Penn State recovering.
If Trey had pitched the ball, it probably would’ve been a huge gain. Penn State was running a 3-2 exchange stunt, like the one I showed in the pregame post that Ted Roof used at Duke in 2007. The safety on the play side stepped up in run support to take the quarterback, while the linebacker that was #2 in the count played the pitch. If Trey had pitched, John Howell had enough of a head start on the linebacker that he would have beaten him to the corner. With the safety playing the quarterback, the only unblocked player who could have caught Howell was the other safety coming from the other side of the field. That’s a tough play for Trey to make, though, since his read was telling him to keep. Even if he just held onto the ball, Navy could have run a wheel-post on the next play like they did against Duke when Roof used that same stunt.
Between the overthrown ball, the non-pitch, and the fumble, it was almost awesome.
Drive #4: The Mids took over at their own 8 yard line with 3:41 left and got three first downs, reaching the 45. Time became more of a factor at that point, which made it more of a passing situation. That meant more Penn State blitzing, which led to a holding penalty and time just running out in the half.
Drive #5: It took the Mids only 3 plays to reach the Penn State 30 on their first drive of the second half, with a reverse pass and a pair of option pitches picking up 45 yards. Unfortunately, Trey was dropped for a 5-yard loss on the fourth play. At first glance it might look like a bad read, but it was actually just a well-executed cross charge. The unblocked linebacker that was #2 in the count made a great play on the quarterback. If Trey had pitched it immediately, the A-back might have been able to pick up a few yards. That’s a lot of “if” and “might” though. The DE had stepped upfield to play the pitch, and there was just as good of a chance that he would’ve batted it down. This looks like a bad play for Trey, but in reality it was probably a smart one to just hold onto the ball:
That made it 2nd and 15, which meant another passing situation. This time, Coach Jasper tried to catch Penn State in the blitz by calling a throw-back screen to the wide receiver, which unfortunately was overthrown. Trey scrambled for 5 yards on 3rd down, and fumbled when he was hit from behind on another blitz on 4th & 10.
One good defensive play and one overthrown ball killed this drive.
Drive #6: Trey’s last possession was a pretty methodical march down the field. A 5-yard run by Ashby Christian on 4th & 4 gave Navy a first down at the Penn State 29, but another missed-snap false start on the next play made it 1st & 15. Navy ran a FB trap, but the DE and OLB made a good play on the ball and stopped Noah Copeland for a 1-yard loss. That made it 2nd & 16, which meant more blitzing, which meant more of Trey running for his life. He actually threw a great pass to Casey Bolena on 3rd down that would have been a TD, but Bolena dropped it. On 4th, Penn State blitzed again and Trey was mauled before being called for intentional grounding. After that last shot, Trey’s day was over.
You can see the theme here. Penalties. Dropped balls. Missed opportunities. The difference between this game and the Notre Dame game, though, is that there were opportunities. What I didn’t mention was a complete physical mismatch. It wasn’t there. Sure, Penn State won their share of 1-on-1 matchups, especially when Navy was forced to pass; but the Mids held their own for the most part. Penn State is just plain talented enough that you can’t spot them 5 or 10 yards on a penalty and expect to come out with a first down consistently. What I also didn’t mention were missed reads. Trey missed a couple, but with the exception of his fumble on the third drive (which is pretty hard to call a miss), none of them were drive-killers. Trey’s option game wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked at the time. His throwing decisions were every bit as bad as they looked, but those will be corrected.
And that’s one reason why I’m optimistic. The Mids aren’t going to make these kinds of mistakes every week. Navy has had games like this in the past, where one mental mistake snowballed into several and the game got out of hand. They still got it together and ended up with a winning season. Not that a winning season is a guarantee or anything, but I don’t think these issues are lasting ones. The Mids showed some ability when their heads were screwed on straight, and I believe we’ll see the extent of that ability in coming weeks against teams that aren’t Penn State.
Another reason why I’m optimistic is that the defense really wasn’t all that bad. Don’t get me wrong; they weren’t all that good either, but they rarely will be against teams like Penn State. For Navy, when it comes to playing the big-name BCS schools, the offense is the great equalizer. You expect them to be good enough to score points on everyone. The defense’s job is to make enough plays to keep it close so the offense to put the game away in the end. Penn State’s offense was held to 27 points and 341 yards, which should have been good enough to at least give Navy a chance. This was a far cry from the opener, where the defense looked completely lost at times. The Nittany Lions were held to one touchdown over the last 36 minutes of the game, which includes being held scoreless in the second quarter on a drive that began on the Navy 32. They were held to only 70 yards in the second half. Even the one TD they scored was a fluke, coming off a tipped ball. And if Parrish Gaines didn’t slip on the first drive, he would’ve had a good chance to pick off the badly underthrown ball that set up Penn State’s first score. I know that nobody wants to hear “ifs,” and I don’t blame you. Even so, this wasn’t the defense that played Notre Dame.
Navy’s defense was horrible in 2007. Even though the Mids opened the next season with a blowout win over Towson, the defense didn’t look much better, giving up 330 passing yards to a very bad team. That weakness was exposed in losses to Ball State and Duke in the following weeks. But then something amazing happened; the defense played great in a must-win game against Rutgers, and the Mids pulled out a 23-21 victory. A 24-17 win over a top-25 Wake Forest team came after that, and the regular season ended with a pair of shutouts. Something clicked. Can Navy’s defense do it again? If so, this can still be a very good season. I’ve seen enough to keep hope alive.