Remember back when Navy-Air Force games were where offenses went to die? Times have apparently changed. Air Force was able to roll up over 500 yards of offense on Saturday, while Navy ran for 285 yards and was 6-for-6 passing. This is the second year in a row that offense dominated the game, which is a far cry from the days where punts were plentiful and touchdowns were celebrated like overtime goals in the Stanley Cup. It’s a fascinating evolution to observe if you’re a football wonk. In past games, both defenses were so familiar with the offenses that they were lining up against that it seemed like they were sending representatives to the opposing huddle. What’s interesting is that as both offenses have schemed to adjust, they’ve arrived at similar answers.
Both offenses turned away from the usual triple option in favor of plays that feature zone blocking as their primary means of moving the ball. By doing so, they take away the defense’s ability to manipulate the reads that the quarterback sees, which was a big part of what made these defenses so successful in the past. When the offenses did run more traditional-looking option plays, they weren’t actually the triple option most of the time. Take these plays for example, where #1 is not read but is instead blocked by the fullback:
Air Force did the same thing. On the next play, you can also see the basic defense that Navy used, with the secondary rolling to a cover 3 when the playside safety came up in run support:
There are a couple of important things about this play that were thematic for the Air Force offense. One is that their offensive line is very good. Look at how quickly the right tackle gets outside to lead the way for Cody Getz. Air Force has never really used the fullback as much as Navy does, and in this game their inside running was virtually non-existent. One reason is that Navy’s defensive line was pretty dominant whenever Air Force tried to run between the tackles. The other reason is that Air Force was doing so well running outside that they didn’t really need to mix it up. Nobody even bothered to block Navy’s inside linebackers half the time. I suspect that their coaches probably felt that their running backs would be able to outrun Navy’s linebackers to the perimeter, and with a couple of exceptions, they did. Air Force would have one or two linemen release outside to act as a convoy for Cody Getz, who had nearly half of Air Force’s carries.
This particular play was more of a change of pace, though. Most of the plays were zone run variations. While Air Force ran almost exclusively outside, Navy did more of an inside-outside mix. Noah Copeland might have had more yards against VMI, but this was his best game. The zone dive play is a quick read for the fullback as he reads the nose guard and runs away from him. Noah did so very well, and showed some impressive agility in the process:
Look at the cutback on the touchdown run. That more than anything else is the hallmark of a successful Navy fullback.
When Navy went outside, it was clear that Air Force wanted Trey to carry the ball. He answered the call, running for 110 yards on 18 carries. In terms of sheer running ability, Trey’s performance was as good as we’ve seen out of a Navy quarterback, especially when you consider that he was hurt on Navy’s third possession. His ankle slowed him down a little, but it didn’t detract from his strength and balance very much as he weaved his way through the defense. You can see how Air Force’s outside linebacker always played the pitch man. Navy would have the playside tackle block down on the defensive end while the guard kicked out as a lead blocker. With the fullback and playside slotback out ahead of him, Trey had a convoy of his own:
The one time that Air Force didn’t play the pitch on that play, Gee Gee had a huge gain:
Against VMI, the Mids ran another play that looked like the triple option but really wasn’t, with the playside tackle blocking #1. They did the same against Air Force. With the success that Noah was having on the dive play, the inside linebackers had to respect it, giving the A-backs plenty of running room outside.
That’s pretty much all there was to it. While there were one or two other plays tossed in for good measure, those four plays were 90% of the Navy offense, and they worked all day. If you’re a fan of play-calling chess games between opposing coaches, this game was a little bit of a letdown.
When Navy’s drives fizzled out, it was because of penalties and a few key plays, with a mix of good defense on Air Force’s part and bad blocking on Navy’s part. First with the penalties, the most important of which was the person foul on Gee Gee right before halftime. Navy had a chance to go up 17-7 and get the ball back to start the third quarter. Instead of 1st & 10 at the Air Force 18, though, they ended up with 2nd & 22 at their own 42.
The play was the double option where the fullback blocked #1. As usual, #2 played the pitch, and Trey made the right read and ran for 25 yards. He runs that far in part because the highlighted defensive back either completely loses track of the ball, or because he had other plans:
Gee Gee understandably didn’t appreciate getting hit like that 7 yards behind the play. I assume he retaliated off camera, because all we saw in the brief replay was him shoving the DB’s shoulder pads. It’s hard to fault Gee Gee for being upset, but it could have been costly.
On Navy’s first drive, they ran their first zone stretch play with the quarterback. The play was stopped because nobody blocked the run support safety:
There were a few other key plays where Air Force got a stop. Have a look at the next clip. The first play is the triple-but-not-triple option where the tackle blocks #1. The backside DE was able to beat his block and get to Trey. This slowed Trey down enough that #1 was able to move from the FB to the QB. While Trey was able to get a pitch off, he should’ve just held on and taken the loss since the pitch was covered.
The second play was another penalty, although this one was caused by the Air Force NG beating Tanner Fleming. The DE beat the LT to make the tackle.
On the third play, the same DE was able to get enough of a push into the backfield that Trey was forced to cut back when he didn’t really want to.
The last play is another option play where the FB is supposed to block #1. Noah wasn’t able to get his man on the ground here.
This is just to illustrate what actually happened in case you thought these were bad reads or something. You shouldn’t get too hung up on these plays. When you have evenly matched teams, both sides are going to win a few battles.
This brings us to the big drama of the day, as Keenan Reynolds stepped in after Trey re-injured his ankle and Navy marched 75 yards to tie the game in the 4th quarter. Coach Jasper came out throwing, but not too aggressively. Of Keenan’s three passes, two were just simple hitch patterns that Navy typically runs whenever the DBs give a big cushion. The big play was Gee Gee’s catch and run. He was the outlet receiver, and Keenan dumped the ball off when he started feeling pressure. Air Force just blew the coverage, which has been a problem for them all year.
The first pass was tipped and was a pretty great one-handed grab by Brandon Turner. All good plays, but more of a testament to Keenan’s decision-making than to the strength of his arm.
Keenan’s first five plays were pass, pass, zone dive, pass, and FB trap. He didn’t have to read an option play until his touchdown run, which was textbook triple option:
The best part of that run was how Keenan didn’t mess around with #2. One cut and he was gone.
He wasn’t quite as good on the two-point conversion. This is one of my favorite plays, and a staple of the offense in this situation. The offense places the ball on a hash mark and lines up in trips to the wide side of the field. The formation forces the defense to align itself accordingly, leaving only one DB on the short side of the field. The play is run in that direction. With a guard pulling to block the middle linebacker, that creates a numbers advantage; the OLB is forced to cover both the quarterback and the pitch. On this play, he almost pulls it off; Keenan doesn’t force him to commit one way or the other, and he almost gets to Noah after the pitch. Fortunately, Noah is agile enough to keep his balance after the arm-tackle attempt and was able to dive forward into the end zone.
This was a hard-fought game between two evenly matched teams. Like it usually does in such contests, the game was won the team that took better care of the football and didn’t miss their field goals. If you’re worried about the yardage discrepancy, don’t be. Last year, Navy not only outgained Air Force by a wide margin, but they ran more than double the number of offensive plays while holding onto the ball for forty minutes! Do you think anyone cared? The coaches’ job is not to gain the most yards. Their job is to manage the game in a way that puts their team in a position to win. That’s exactly what happened.
A couple of other thoughts on the game:
— That management still made me nervous at the end of regulation, though. Coach Niumatalolo has always been conservative when it comes to milking the clock, and it almost cost him this week. 1:40 is a long time to burn to get to overtime. I know what he was thinking; deep in your own territory with a freshman backup quarterback, it was probably more likely that Navy would turn the ball over than drive for the game-winning score. All’s well that ends well, but man that was close.
— Tra’ves Bush caught a lot of heat from the broadcast crew over that second Air Force TD pass, but it wasn’t his fault. He played his assignment. It was his job to come up in run support. As the secondary rolled to a cover 3, it was Wave Ryder’s job to come over the top for a deep ball over the middle. Still would’ve been a tough play to defend coming from the other side of the field.
— Was anyone else shocked at the number of empty seats? For all the talk there has been in the past from certain corners of the Colorado Springs media about how Navy-Air Force is now a bigger game than Army-Navy, the locals don’t seem to agree.