The big news for Navy this week is that Trey Miller’s ankle is forcing him to sit out tonight’s game, meaning that Keenan Reynolds will get the start for the Mids at quarterback. He’ll be the first freshman to start at the position for Navy in 21 years, when Jim Kubiak was tossed the keys to George Chaump’s attempt at a west coast offense. On paper, Central Michigan is exactly the team that you’d want a freshman option quarterback to make his first start against. They’re giving up 40 points per game and are 114th in the nation in rushing defense. That’s worse than even Army, a defense that we’ve poked fun at once or twice on this blog. That’s on paper, though. We should know by now that having a statistically bad run defense doesn’t necessarily mean that they won’t be able to defend the option, as Army has demonstrated more than once. Still, it isn’t a good start.
Central Michigan’s defensive coordinator is Joe Tumpkin, who was the linebackers coach at Pitt when they faced the Mids in 2008 and 2009. That 2008 game, you’ll recall, was the Scott McKillop game, where the Mids were unable to put anything resembling a block on Pitt’s veteran middle linebacker. Pitt’s game plan was to use the squeeze & scrape, where #1 would squeeze the playside tackle and prevent him from blocking the MLB. The quarterback would see that as a read to keep, but he would then be whacked by the MLB who wasn’t blocked. Navy tried all kinds of formations and blocking assignments to try to solve the problem, but McKillop beat them all. Tumpkin used the same approach when he faced Navy in 2010, but he quickly learned that Pitt’s defense doesn’t work as well without Pitt’s players. With the Mids doing a much better job of blocking, CMU’s plan to have the MLB play the quarterback backfired; Kriss Proctor (another backup at the time) ran for 201 yards and a touchdown in a 38-37 Navy win.
Whether Tumpkin will employ the same strategy this year is hard to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did. Why not use a scheme that is designed to keep the ball in the quarterback’s hands when that quarterback is a freshman making his first start? Hopefully that’s the case, because I think Keenan is more than capable of making the defense pay if they do. Physically, he’s very similar to Kriss; maybe not as much straight-line speed, but every bit as quick. Once the Mids were able to block the MLB, everything else the defense did was very vanilla and made Kriss’ reads very simple. Keenan has demonstrated that he can handle that much. You always hope that guys rise up the depth chart because of what they’re doing right more than what the other guy is doing wrong, and that’s definitely the case here. John Hendrick is coming along well enough in his sophomore year, but Keenan has just been able to pick up the offense unusually quickly. Keenan doesn’t have the prettiest throwing motion, but he is a better passer than Kriss. CMU’s back seven is fairly young, so the opportunity could be there to catch them looking the wrong way in play action– something Kriss wasn’t able to do in the 2010 game.
My optimism about Keenan’s potential in this matchup is not without its limits, though. Freshmen are still freshmen, and they will make freshman mistakes. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s not without merit. Keenan already has two fumbles this year in only 17 carries, and it took a lucky bounce to make him the hero last week instead of the goat. He has also taken a few sacks, although he did make a good play in the pocket against Air Force that led to Gee Gee’s long reception on the drive that tied the game. I don’t think any of this will keep the coaches from calling the game any differently, though. Keenan has demonstrated a good enough grasp of the offense. You just sort of have to accept that freshmen make mistakes and count on your defense to pick up the slack.
This is a game where Navy might match up pretty well in that department. CMU’s offense isn’t terrible, averaging 393 yards per game. They’ve been able to keep the Chips in most of their games so far. They beat Iowa, which is certainly better than either of Navy’s wins this year. They were competitive with both NIU and Toledo, two of the MAC’s best teams, for most of those games. The even led Toledo 21-10 at one point. The problem is that they were outscored 40-7 in the fourth quarter of those games. Central Michigan isn’t much of a running team; their 156 carries are the ninth-fewest in the country. They prefer to throw the ball and have had some success doing so, averaging 257 yards per game. The problem, and the reason why Navy matches up well, is that most of that yardage is due more to quantity of attempts than quality. CMU senior quarterback Ryan Radcliff is completing only 58% of his passes, and has thrown 6 interceptions. Two of those INTs came in the 4th quarter of the Toledo game, and both were returned for touchdowns. As Radcliff goes, so goes Central Michigan; their best game (Iowa) was also Radcliff’s most accurate. He hasn’t been able to replicate that performance. For a Navy defense that counts on playing bend-but-don’t-break under the assumption that the more snaps an offense is forced to make, the more likely it is to make a mistake, it helps to play an offense that has made its share of mistakes so far.
This is an important game for a 2-3 Navy team. A win here gets them back to .500 and sets them on the path of the winning teams of the last decade. A loss puts the Mids at 2-4 and makes getting to a bowl game that much harder. This is a game that, on the 4-4-4 spectrum, Navy is supposed to win. The Navy teams of the last decade held serve in these games, and if this team wants to replicate their success, they must do the same.