After Navy lost to Notre Dame in 2008, I said this:
If there’s a silver lining in all this, it’s that maybe Notre Dame’s defensive success this year will lead them to line up the same way in 2009.
That’s exactly what the Irish did, and Navy won. It makes me wonder what some coaches see when they watch film after a game. It’s sort of amazing how little understanding there is of the Navy offense among some of the Mids’ opponents. Navy made a lot of mistakes in that 2008 loss to the Irish, but apparently the Notre Dame staff didn’t recognize it. They lined up the same way the following year, only this time, Navy corrected their past mistakes.
Looking at the stat sheet from 2008, you can sort of sympathize with Notre Dame’s coaches for feeling comfortable about their game plan. The Mids only had 178 rushing yards that day, and completed only 3 passes in 14 attempts. The final score was close, but that was thanks to a furious last-minute comeback. For most of the game, Navy’s offense didn’t do much of anything. Even if they didn’t recognize all the missed opportunities Navy had to beat their defense, there was at least a statistical basis for Notre Dame’s coaches thinking that their gameplan was sound.
The same cannot be said for East Carolina. The Pirates won last year’s game in Annapolis, but it wasn’t exactly a dominating defensive performance. Navy rolled up 420 yards of offense on the way to scoring 35 points, all with the backup quarterback coming into the game midway through the 2nd quarter. It was enough to preserve an ECU win that day, but if you were a defensive coach, would you feel comfortable doing the same things that yielded that kind of production the next year? ECU defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell was, apparently. He paid the price. Kickoff for Saturday’s game was at 3:30 EST. By 3:42, it was pretty clear what was happening:
And it did mean lots of points. It also meant lots of yards, and lots of carries for lots of players. Navy had 512 rushing yards split between 12 different Mids. Gee Gee Greene led the way with 131 yards, while the slotbacks as a unit accounted for 350 yards. Keenan Reynolds ran for 81 yards and 3 TDs while throwing for two more. Navy had 11 possessions and scored a touchdown on 8 of them. Two of the other three ended deep in ECU territory (one on an interception and one with Trey taking a knee to end the game), while the third was just Keenan kneeling to end the first half. It was a statistical bonanza, and the scoreboard reflected it.
To be more precise, ECU had their safeties play man to man with Navy’s slotbacks. Coach Jasper called his first play as a way to confirm that the Pirates were doing the same thing as last year, sending a slotback in motion one way and throwing to the opposite flat:
Navy moved back to their base spread formation for the rest of that drive, running the triple option. Usually the playside A-back blocks the playside safety, but with the safeties playing man, Coach Jasper had him block the safety that was following the tail motion instead. That left the playside safety unblocked, but it didn’t matter; he was more concerned with covering his man and guarding against play action. Once the playside safety read that it was a running play and not a pass, he’d get in on the tackle. The problem is that since his first assignment was to drop back in pass coverage, the tackle would be made 5-10 yards downfield.
Coach Jasper continued to tinker with the blocking assignments on that first drive until the Mids scored. Part of ECU’s gameplan was to have the inside linebackers dedicated to stopping the fullback. Because they were playing inside on every play, Coach Jasper could give the playside tackle another assignment. On Marcus Thomas’ TD run, the tackle got in the safety’s way just enough to allow Thomas to outrun the angle. The playside slot blocked the playside safety, making every defender accounted for.
After that, Navy settled into a few more basic plays designed to get the ball outside to take advantage of the man coverage in the secondary. You might remember that VMI ran a similar defense to ECU, with the linebackers dedicated to playing the fullback and rarely straying outside the tackles. Coach Jasper responded by using a play that looked like the triple option, but wasn’t. Instead of leaving #1 unblocked, the playside tackle would squeeze him inside. That is effectively the same as giving the quarterback a keep read. Navy didn’t have to worry about the tackle blocking the ILBs because they were focused on the fullback. The Mids ran the same play against ECU:
You’ll notice that the slots were using a lot of twirl motion to get the safeties moving in one direction before running the play in the opposite direction. The backside safety was left unblocked on these plays, but Navy’s slotbacks are fast enough that the first contact the safety would make was consistently 5-6 yards downfield. That’s also why we saw a lot of toss sweeps.
Another play Navy used to get outside were the basic double option, with the fullback as a lead blocker. The same concept with the backside safety applied:
When the safeties began to sell out a little too much on the tail motion, Coach Jasper called a few different counter plays to keep them honest. One was the inside counter, a play that we’ve seen only once in a while but is a staple of the Army offense:
We also saw the same misdirection off of toss sweep motion that we saw against Indiana, with an option play being run in the opposite direction. This is a particularly good play to show how the safeties were playing man-to-man on the A-backs, since you can see them running in opposite directions to cover their assignments:
Once in a while, ECU would change their ILB assignments to play the quarterback. Whenever they did that, Coach Jasper would call a counter option on the next play, with the pulling guard blocking that linebacker:
Coach Jasper also called a trap option with the fullback as the pitch man. The tail motion ran the playside safety out of the play, and the backside safety played his man on the other side of the formation:
That’s pretty much the bulk of how the offense spent its day. Coach Jasper mixed in a few zone plays here and there. Keenan only missed one triple option read all day as far as I could tell, but Navy didn’t run too many true triple plays. When the Mids did run the triple, #1 almost always gave a keep read. With the inside linebackers focused mainly on the A gap, they were easy for the line to block on the rare occasion that Keenan got a give read. That’s why Noah still averaged more than 6 yards per carry even with the ILBs keyed in on him.
Defensively, Navy was challenged as expected. ECU’s offense has evolved over the course of the season, and if you look only at the national rankings, then you don’t really get a sense of how capable it is. The Pirates are only 101st in rushing offense, but that’s in large part because it took them a while to settle on Vintavious Cooper as their primary running back. In the four games leading up to Saturday, Cooper averaged nearly 120 rushing yards per game. He had 121 against Navy, but the passing game wasn’t consistent enough to augment that performance. ECU’s big-play receiver, Justin Hardy, is 25th in the nation in receiving yards per game, but was held to only 31 yards despite making 6 catches. Coach Green called his usual game to prevent the deep ball and force the offense to throw underneath. Tra’ves Bush and Wave Ryder responded by combining for 17 tackles, limiting ECU’s ability to make yards after the catch. While ECU scored some points, they also had five drives of five plays or less.
The turning point in the game that changed it from “back-and-forth affair” to “Navy blowout” was Lance Ray’s fumbled kickoff return in the 3rd quarter. Navy had just scored on the opening drive of the half to take a two-score lead. Navy turned the short field into another touchdown and a 35-14 advantage. Opening up a three-score lead forced the ECU offense to press a little bit and force a few passes downfield. That played right into what the Navy defense was scheming against. Longer passes meant that Shane Carden had to hold onto the ball longer, allowing the Mids to put more pressure on ECU’s sophomore signal-caller and forcing him to throw on the run. If ECU had been able to hold onto that kickoff and score to keep Navy’s lead to one touchdown, they would have been able to stay patient and take what Navy was giving them. Carden forced a pass into double coverage that was intercepted by Matt Warrick, ending ECU’s last gasp in the 4th quarter.
– Keenan threw two TD passes. With ECU’s safeties in man coverage on the slotbacks, that left the receivers one-on-one with the corners. On the first TD pass, you can see how the over-aggressive safeties left no help in the middle when Casey Bolena ran an inside route:
– On Keenan’s second TD pass, Coach Jasper caught ECU in a corner blitz. The playside safety rotated to cover the CB’s zone, leaving a soft spot for Keenan to hit Geoffrey Whiteside with the A-pop:
– The one blemish for the Navy offense on the afternoon was Keenan’s interception. Two plays earlier, Navy ran an option play where the backside safety followed the tail motion and made the tackle. On the interception, Keenan didn’t expect the safety to be there; he was expecting him to bite on the play action and follow the tail motion again. The problem is that Keenan did a poor job of selling the play action, allowing the safety to read the pass and step into Keenan’s throwing lane:
– Block of the day goes to Gee Gee, who managed to take out both safeties on one toss play:
– ECU used the same defense last year. Before that, the last team to use this scheme against the Navy offense was Missouri in the Texas Bowl.
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