Navy (0-0) at Indiana (1-0)
Saturday 9/7 6:00 ET
Big Ten Network (DirecTV 610-3)
Navy football is finally here. The Mids kick off their 2013 campaign at Indiana on Saturday. Let’s set the table:
We’ll start with what we don’t know.
With the Indiana offense, that’s a goodly amount. They’re trying to keep things under wraps as long as possible. If you watched the Indiana State game looking to get an idea of what you’ll see this week, I’m not sure you found it. Indiana was nearly identical in both rushing and passing yardage. They have three quarterbacks sharing the top spot on the depth chart, and played all three. While we have an idea of a few elements of the offense– the spread formations, the high tempo– it’s hard to say exactly how Kevin Wilson plans to use them.
We can make an educated guess, though. Cameron Coffman was Indiana’s quarterback against Navy last season and is locked in a 3-way battle for the job this year with redshirt sophomore Tre Roberson and sophomore Nate Sudfeld. If I had to guess which of the three will start, I’d say Roberson for a few reasons. He was supposed to be the starter last year. A broken leg against UMass in game #2 sidelined Roberson for the rest of the season and earned him a medical redshirt. If he stayed healthy, I don’t think we’d be having this conversation. More importantly, though, is the fact that Indiana is a more complete team with Roberson at the helm.
Indiana wants to run the ball. It was a priority for them in the offseason, and last year’s Navy game was a perfect example why. The Hoosiers ran the ball well enough against the Mids, rolling for a healthy 173 yards. When they had a chance to put the game away, though, they didn’t feel comfortable enough relying on the running game to do so. Indiana got the ball with a 30-24 lead and 5:30 left in the game. They proceeded to throw three straight incomplete passes and gave Navy the ball having run less than a minute off the clock. Navy went in for the winning score and later sealed the victory with an interception. With a little more confidence in the running game, Indiana might never have had to give the ball back.
That’s what Roberson brings to the table. You’ll read articles where the coaches will say that the offense doesn’t change based on the quarterback, but that wasn’t true against Indiana State. When Roberson was in the game, Indiana was much more of an option team. Nate Sudfeld in my opinion is clearly the most talented passer of the three, but that advantage is largely negated by the simplified coverage that Roberson sees from defenses concerned with stopping the option. In other words, Roberson doesn’t have to be as good of a passer to be equally as effective in the passing game.
Indiana already has a running back with a lot of potential in Tevin Coleman, who excelled as a kick returner last year as a freshman. Combine two credible running threats on every play with receivers that led the Big Ten’s most prolific passing offense, and you have an Indiana offense that’s closer to the vision that Wilson has for his program. That’s why I expect Roberson to start, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he plays most of the game. That’s just a guess, though.
The Hoosier defense will be well-prepared if nothing else
Either Indiana’s coaches subscribe to the NavySports.com mailing list or Indiana has one of their own, because it’s clear that they’ve read every word that’s been printed about what Navy has been working on in the offseason. They know all about Keenan, going 4-wide, and throwing the ball out of the shotgun. Navy won’t be catching them off-guard. Coach Wilson also made mention in his press conference of two of Navy’s worst offensive performances from 2012: San Jose State and Army. He’s paying attention.
Last year, Indiana lined up in their usual 4-3 and had the outside linebackers follow tail motion and play the pitch. Navy responded by running a ton of counters and misdirection to get the OLB moving, then running the other way. Running all those counters instead of the triple is why the QB and slots combined for 243 of Navy’s 274 rushing yards. The scheme wasn’t that difficult to handle. The Indiana defensive line, on the other hand, was. When the Mids struggled, it was mostly because the Hoosiers were winning one-on-one matchups and getting into the backfield.
This year’s Indiana defensive line is just as talented, but younger. The unit returns only one starter from last year’s squad and will be starting two sophomores. Traditionally that has been a good sign for Navy. It isn’t the physical freaks that ruin Navy’s day. It’s the savvy veterans that play with assignment discipline, know how to use their hands to shed cut blocks, and know how to change up the reads that they’re giving the quarterback that give the Mids trouble. (When they’re veteran players and physical specimens, well, that’s when you HIDE THE CHILDREN.) If nothing else, last year’s biggest matchup problem for the Navy offense is an unknown at this point. With a sophomore DT and a freshman starting at middle linebacker, it might make sense to try some midline early to test the middle of the field.
It’s interesting that Coach Wilson took notice of how well San Jose State played against Navy’s offense. I’m sure he’s seen the film. The Spartans ran a lot of stunts to force the play outside and keep the playside tackle from blocking the middle linebacker. The MLB would then play the pitch man. That makes for an interesting risk/reward proposition for Indiana if they choose to go that route. On the one hand, Trey Miller had a difficult time making the right reads against that defense, and it would almost certainly put Keenan Reynolds to the test as well. On the other hand, you’re asking a lot of a freshman to have your entire game plan revolve around him. I’m not sure if Wilson is blowing smoke or not but I’d be surprised if he didn’t borrow a few things from both SJSU and Army.
…Is Keenan even going to play?
For all the ballyhoo surrounding what we don’t know about Indiana’s offense, Navy has more than a few questions of their own. The big story with the Navy offense over the offseason has been the expanded use of shotgun formations, 4-WR sets, and increased emphasis on the passing game. With some of the defensive tactics the Mids have seen in recent years, it seemed like the right time to make better use of Keenan’s arm. We started seeing the shotgun incorporated a little bit last year, but not to the extent that has been talked about for the last 5 months. Indiana’s won’t be the only offense with something new up its sleeve.
That assumes, of course, that Keenan Reynolds plays. He hasn’t practiced for two weeks and is still nursing a sore arm. This isn’t something you want to hear on the Wednesday before the first game. If he doesn’t play, does that mean we still see the new wrinkles in the offense? If you’re changing your offense to take advantage of Keenan’s arm, does it make sense to incorporate those changes if Keenan isn’t playing? It’s a difficult question to answer without knowing exactly what those changes are (“shotgun” and “passing more” aren’t very specific). John Hendrick has a good enough arm, but I don’t know if it’s rework-your-offense-to-take-advantage-of-it good.
We’ve also heard that “we’re going to pass more” in years past, and that never really materialized. The coaches sound a lot more committed to it this year, saying they’re aiming for a 70/30 run/pass split. Still, until you see it it’s hard to believe that Navy will pass any more than usual.
As for the Navy defense, their biggest challenge might not be Indiana’s talented players, but rather their tempo. Indiana is as fast-paced an offense as you’ll find in college football, and the Mids had a hard time keeping up in last year’s game. It’s particularly troublesome for Navy because it negates one of their biggest strengths this year: their depth, especially along the defensive line. Navy won’t be able to rotate fresh legs in if Indiana is snapping the ball every 20 seconds.
The last word
Indiana got the rare taste of a conference title race last year. With Ohio State and Penn State both ineligible for the Big Ten championship game, Indiana briefly found themselves in the thick of the chase to be the Leaders division representative in Indianapolis. It lasted all of a week, but that sudden jolt of optimism has carried over into 2013. Expectations are high around the Indiana program this year, and people are talking about bowl games. With all the talent returning from last year’s Big-Ten-best passing offense, they have good reason to feel that way.
Indiana’s schedule won’t make it easy, though, with a conference slate featuring Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan, plus non-conference games against Missouri and a high-scoring Bowling Green team. The tough schedule makes a 2-0 start crucial to achieving their postseason goals. The Hoosiers are a pretty big favorite over the Mids, a situation they won’t find themselves in too often the rest of the season. If Indiana loses to Navy, they’ll have to steal a win from a team they aren’t supposed to beat. With a win, a bowl game becomes a real possibility. That makes the Navy game very important for Indiana. If you think you’ll see anything less than their best effort, don’t fool yourself.
Being the first game of the year, on the road against a BCS opponent, I think Navy will be dialed in for this one, too. Let’s hope so.