Remember, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl is being played in a baseball park. That means that the lower bowl is very shallow (think RFK). If you aren’t in club seats, it’s actually better to be in the upper deck if you want to see anything. This is important stuff, because Navy’s 24-17 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday gave them 6 wins and put them back on the bowl game wagon.
Suddenly my optimism during the Mids’ 1-3 start doesn’t look so crazy, does it?
Yes, it’s back to business as usual in Annapolis. The Mids are 6-3, which is about where they’ve been through 9 games in most of the last ten years. There are still more games to play, but securing the spot in a bowl game is reassuring. Navy had a down year in 2011, but the program wasn’t heading off of a cliff. It was more of a pothole.
Getting that 6th win might’ve been a little more difficult than some people anticipated, considering that the Mids were facing a 2-6 Sun Belt team that hadn’t faced the Navy offense before. Those people should know better. If anyone should understand the value of good coaching, it’s a Navy fan. The Florida Atlantic program might not have seen the Navy offense before, but its coaches have. FAU’s defensive coordinator is Pete Rekstis, who was on Jim Tressel’s staff at Youngstown State when they faced Georgia Southern in the I-AA title game. He was also the defensive coordinator at Kent State when they came to Annapolis in 2005. Carl Pelini was a GA at Nebraska and coached under Frank Solich at Ohio. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the two of them would be able to use their experience and knowledge of option football to cook up a scheme that would give the Navy offense all it could handle.
After the Mids lost to San Jose State to fall to 1-3, I said this:
San Jose State had a very good scheme, but Navy still had opportunities to make big plays. Some bad decisions and some outstanding effort on the part of a few individual defenders kept the Mids from taking advantage of those opportunities. It’s frustrating, because the defense played so well that it only would’ve taken one or two of those plays to completely change the game.
That’s why I’m still pretty optimistic. The defense played a great, great game, and has improved each week. I still feel that they will be able to keep the Mids in games as the offense matures. Once they capitalize on some of those missed opportunities, they’ll be a very good team.
The FAU game was a great example of this. The Owls could muster up only 323 yards of offense, and managed only 2 scores in 4 trips to the red zone. While FAU took a 10-0 lead in the second quarter, the defense never let the game get out of hand, giving the offense a chance to find something that worked and putting the Mids back into the lead.
It definitely took a few drives for that to happen. FAU came out in a 3-3-5, with the two outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage playing a 7 technique. It was basically a 5-man front with one linebacker in the middle. In the secondary, the cornerbacks played pretty tight man coverage on the wide receivers. That left three players that were de facto safeties. Two of them played more of a hybrid LB/safety position, with one safety deep in the middle. It was almost a 5-3-3. This allowed the FAU defense to bring two safeties in run support on every play. The playside slot could only block one of them, leaving the other safety free to make the tackle. FAU was able to bring more defenders to the outside than Navy could block.
This also allowed the defense to employ a few different stunts, such as this one where #1 gives the quarterback a “give” read, but the safety plays the fullback. Because the tackle releases outside the DE, he can’t block the DB stunting inside.
Coach Jasper tried several different plays on Navy’s first few drives, including toss sweeps, FB dives, and the triple option, and occasionally mixed in different motions in the backfield. After some trial-and-error, he found a few ways to get the offense moving.
FAU’s alignment was very similar to what we saw from Army last year, especially the way their secondary was playing. Because of that, I thought we’d start to see some of the same plays that worked well against Army:
Eventually, we did. Outside zone plays work well here because they’re designed to allow multiple linemen get to the second and third level to make their blocks. That negates the advantage the defense had with the extra DB outside. The Mids ran their first outside zone play on their fourth drive, and it went for 48 yards. Coach Jasper caught the 7-technique on an inside stunt, which took him out of the play when Keenan ran outside:
Another thing that Coach Jasper did was use formations that forced the secondary to cover more of the field. He did this by splitting one or both slotbacks wide, making those hybrid DBs move wide to cover them. That kept them from being able to double up on the outside, since one of them would have to run all the way from the other side of the field. With the middle of the field cleared out, that opened up the midline:
Coach Jasper used the fullback option in those spread formations as well. It worked when Keenan was able to pitch the ball, since Noah was fast enough to outrun the safety to the corner. It had modest success otherwise:
Navy also used the midline triple as a way to get extra blockers to the safeties. When Wags interviewed Coach Jasper about FAU’s defense, Jasper mentioned the Owls’ use of “a zero with two threes and two sevens.” For those who don’t know, that’s referring to their line play. A zero technique is a nose tackle playing head-up on the center. A three technique lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard. A seven technique lines up on the inside shoulder of the tight end, or in Navy’s case, the slotback. Running the midline triple meant that the 3-tech and the 7-tech went unblocked. That allowed the playside guard to block the middle linebacker, and the playside tackle to hustle downfield to block the deep safety. With the slotback blocking the extra safety, the defense no longer had an extra blocker outside.
The Mids also ran the triple option using the 7-tech as the dive key and the LB/safety as the pitch key. That left the slotback to load block from the MLB to the deep safety:
It took a while, but the Mids were eventually able to find their groove on ground. They also managed several big plays through the air, which is becoming a bit of a theme.
Keenan threw two TD passes, both to Brandon Turner, and both out of heavy formations. Heavy formations, you’ll recall, means an unbalanced line. Both tackles line up on the same side of the line, with the tackle’s spot filled by a wide receiver on the other side. As long as that wide receiver is uncovered (and wearing a WR’s number), though, he’s still an eligible receiver. Some defenses don’t know the rule and don’t cover the receiver. That wasn’t the case with FAU, though. Keenan just made a great throw on the first TD pass, while Brandon made a great adjustment on the ball on the second.
After the hiccup at the beginning of the season, Turner is really becoming a star in his senior campaign.
Coach Jasper also used pre-snap motion effectively again this week. On Navy’s first TD drive, Keenan threw a nice pass to Ryan Williams-Jenkins that put Navy inside the FAU 15. Before the snap, Coach Jasper could see the deep safety playing the tail motion. He had Ryan run his route behind the safety:
The most impressive throw-and-catch came in the second quarter, with Keenan floating a perfectly placed ball to Shawn Lynch, who made a Willie Mays-style over-the-shoulder grab. With the corners playing so tight on the wide receivers, Coach Jasper called rub routes on both sides of the formation. Gee Gee’s just-legal-enough rub gave Shawn the separation he needed.
Beating FAU isn’t going to impress anybody, but they were a well-coached team with a good scheme. It wasn’t the statistical fireworks that we saw against ECU, but for the offense, it was a better win in my opinion. FAU’s defense knew what they were doing. I’ll take wins like this wherever I can.