It’s a strange situation whenever Navy plays a struggling BCS-conference program. When we see a team coming into Annapolis with a 2-4 record, it’s only natural to think that maybe the Mids should win this one. You have to be careful not to fool yourself. Not that Navy isn’t capable of winning games against BCS programs, because we’ve seen over and over again that they are. It’s just that there’s a big difference between “should” win the game and “can” win the game. Even struggling BCS teams are still BCS teams, with the talent that goes with it. For every blowout of Missouri or Notre Dame we’ve seen over the last decade, you can point to even more tight games with Duke or Vanderbilt. These teams might have their issues, but their issues are at a whole different level; a Big Ten team with problems is a different proposition than a MAC team with problems.
That’s why beating Indiana is such a big deal. On the 4-4-4 spectrum, any game against a Big Ten team is a reach for Navy.
In a lot of ways, Saturday’s game is how the Penn State game should have gone. In my writeup on that game, I said this:
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.
That’s exactly what happened against Indiana. The Hoosiers didn’t have too much trouble moving the ball, scoring 30 points while rolling up 417 yards. I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t just as frustrated as you probably were with the defense at times. But Coach Green’s squad did just enough to keep the game within reach by holding Indiana to field goals, forcing a couple punts, and grabbing two interceptions from a quarterback that only had one all year coming into the game. That put the offense in a position to win it at the end, and they did.
That’s all the more remarkable because the offense didn’t play very well at all for a good part of the game.
As far as scheme goes, Indiana didn’t really do anything crazy. You’ll recall that last week, Central Michigan aligned their linebackers to the wide side of the field. Indiana also favored the wide side of the field, but they did it with the defensive line. The Hoosiers lined up in a 4-3, but shifted the line to use more of a 4-3 over look with a nose tackle and two linemen to the wide side of the field:
Like we saw against Central Michigan, if the defense is going to favor one side of the formation, the offense will just run the play to the other side. That is why most of Navy’s plays were run to the short side of the field:
Navy’s offense had two big problems. The first was the inability of the offensive line to get to the second level and block the linebackers. The linebacker on the opposite side of the play would follow the tail motion and get ahead of the backside tackle that was supposed to block him, running all the way to the other side of the formation to make the stop. Sometimes the backside linebacker would be blocked by one of the playside linemen, but that just left the middle linebacker free to make the tackle.
Coach Jasper tried a few things to try to slow down the linebacker pursuit. First, he used twirl motion. Twirl motion just means that the playside (blocking) A-back goes into motion instead of the pitch man. At the snap, the motion man pivots and carries out his blocking assignment. The misdirection keeps the linebackers from running to the ball too quickly by forcing them to think about which direction the play is headed. That split second is enough time for linemen to get out in front of them for the block:
That is, it’s enough time as long as the defense still buys into the misdirection. Once they start to expect the twirl motion, you’re right back where you started. That’s why we saw more and more counter plays mixed in as the game progressed. The only real stunt the Indiana defense used was the occasional cross charge. One of the ways to beat the cross charge is with the toss sweep, since that leaves a slower lineman with a bad angle to chase down the slotback instead of a linebacker. Of course, the backside and middle linebackers could still follow the tail motion as usual to get a jump on the play. To combat this, Coach Jasper started calling counter option plays that used toss sweep motion:
On the Mids’ first two drives, Coach Jasper tried a different tactic to get to the linebackers using the twins formation. The way Indiana lined up against that formation, it left three blockers on the wide side of the field to block three defenders. Coach Jasper ran the option to the wide side of the field, but instead of the defensive end being #1 and the OLB being #2, the DT was the dive key and the DE was the pitch key. With both of those defenders being unblocked, that left two playside offensive linemen to block the middle and backside LBs or the free safety. One of them would be left unblocked/ Again, Coach Jasper tried to give counteract that by using tail motion, hopefully giving the pitch man enough of an angle to be able to turn upfield and beat that unblocked defender to the corner:
The second problem for the offense was that Keenan didn’t have a very good day with his option reads. There wasn’t one particular thing that he struggled with. Sometimes he missed a read to keep. Sometimes he missed a read to pitch. Sometimes he pitched too soon, giving the #2 defender the opportunity to get to the pitch man. Here’s a representative sample:
For all of those mistakes, though, none resulted in turnovers (although that fumble came pretty close). Keenan didn’t do anything to completely take Navy out of the game, giving the offense the chance to do enough things right to hang around until the end. There was a little luck involved, too. The Mids put the ball on the ground twice, but were able to recover and maintain possession. They were also bailed out by a couple of bad penalties by the Indiana defense. To the offense’s credit, they were able to capitalize on their second chances.
Another fortunate break for Navy was Indiana’s handling of their second-to-last possession. Navy kicked a field goal to pull within 6 points, then kicked off to Indiana with 5:30 remaining. The Hoosiers were only able to milk 42 seconds off of the clock, going 3 & out thanks to a pair of blown plays. They had played very well for most of the game, but Indiana’s youth finally caught up with them. That’s the kind of thing that happens when your offense has seven freshmen or sophomores in the starting lineup. I don’t think Indiana will make those kinds of mistakes when these guys are juniors and seniors.
There are a couple of smaller things worth pointing out, too. Darius Staten’s touchdown run was a great example of how running no-huddle and using pre-snap motion can help the Coach Jasper call the right play. When Darius was sent into tail motion, the playside linebacker tipped his hand that the defense was using a cross charge. The toss sweep is a good play to run against that stunt, since the outside linebacker is assigned to a gap inside the tackle. At best, he runs himself out of the play. At worst, he makes himself easy to block. On that run, we saw the latter:
Another good bit of heads-up playcalling came on Navy’s winning TD pass. Indiana blitzed everyone on that play, completely selling out on the run and leaving Matt Aiken wide open. That play was set up on the previous drive. On 3rd & goal, the cornerback blitzed and left the WR uncovered. Faced with 3rd & goal again on the next drive, they did the same thing. This time, Navy knew what was coming:
One other play that deserves mention is Jordan Drake’s interception that he returned for a touchdown. When you run a slant pattern, the pass isn’t going to have any arc to it. You have to cut block in order get defenders on the ground to create passing lanes. If you don’t, then the ball will be tipped or intercepted by a pass rusher. That’s what happened here. Obi Uzoma did a great job using his hands to fight off the cut and was able to tip the ball.
Jordan Drake was already jumping the route by following the quarterback’s eyes. It made for a great combination.
Between the Indiana and Air Force games, this Navy team is showing that it has the composure to make plays that put them ahead in close games. It’s a good trait to have, and 4-3 is a good place to be.