It’s never as good or as bad as it seems…
I probably lost half of you right there. Nobody wants to hear that. Not this week. Not after beating a Big Ten team on the road. Not after hanging 41 points on a BCS conference squad while piling up 515 yards of offense. No, this is supposed to be a feel-good week where we all marvel at the Navy team’s greatness while going to Kayak to check the price of flights to Miami for the week of the Orange Bowl. And why not? A lot of questions were answered on Saturday, and there is good reason to be optimistic. Still, what Indiana did (and didn’t do) had a lot to do with Navy’s success.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?
Navy, managing only 82 yards of total offense, lost to UConn 38-0 in 2002 in Paul Johnson’s first season as the Mids’ head coach. In the postgame handshake, Randy Edsall commented to Johnson something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, I won’t share this film with anyone.” Translation: “I have solved your offense, but will take pity on you and not tell the secret to others.” That was a bad idea. Navy and UConn met again in 2006. This time, Johnson’s team won 41-17 and amassed the slightly larger sum of 605 yards of offense. Four months later, UConn removed Navy from their future schedules.
In 2008, Navy lost to Notre Dame thanks to a sputtering offense caused primarily by a rash of missed assignments between the wide receivers and the slotbacks. After the game, 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.
They did, and we ended up with the Corwin Brown game.
It was a similar story in 2011 when Navy faced ECU. The Mids made a game of it in the end thanks to Trey Miller’s arm, but that was after falling behind 31-21 early in the fourth quarter. ECU was having their safeties play man-to-man with Navy’s slotbacks. They did the same thing in 2012. This was the result.
You may have noticed a theme here. Teams that recycle defensive gameplans don’t usually fare too well against Navy. I know I say this all the time, but that’s because the topic keeps coming up: there is no one defense that “solves” the Navy offense. It’s hard to fault defensive coordinators for sticking with the same schemes they used in games that they won, but doing so can be risky. If you don’t understand the mechanics of the Navy offense, then you might think that it’s your defensive scheme that stopped them instead of some other variable like personnel or missed assignments. If the personnel are different the next time you play Navy, or if the same players simply correct the mistakes they made, then your brilliant scheme might not look so brilliant anymore. That’s sort of what happened against Indiana.
The Hoosiers didn’t do exactly the same thing they did last year; if anything, they simplified their scheme. It was close enough, though, that what Navy prepared for was still applicable. Navy won last year’s game against the Hoosiers, but it wasn’t like they ran all over them. The Mids had 257 rushing yards; not terrible, but below average. The Mids’ struggles weren’t really with the Hoosiers’ scheme, though. The biggest problem they had was with blocking Indiana’s defensive line. That wasn’t the case on Saturday. Navy is returning a lot of experience on their offensive line, while Indiana has three new starters up front on defense. This year, Navy won those individual matchups. Without the one thing that gave them the most trouble against the Hoosiers a year ago, the Mids piled on the yardage.
Most of Navy’s production in the 2012 game came off of counter and misdirection plays, since Indiana had their OLBs follow tail motion and play the pitch. Navy would use tail motion to get the OLB going the other way, then run to the spot he abandoned. To their credit, Indiana’s coaches realized this and adjusted by having the backside OLB stay home. Coach Jasper didn’t know this going into the game, of course, so he started the game by lining up in a heavy formation. Heavy, you’ll recall, is an unbalanced line where both tackles line up on the same side of the formation, and a wide receiver is lined up with his hand in the dirt next to the guard on the other side. I’m not certain, but I think the goal was to force the OLB to line up further away from the play, since the slotback he’d be shadowing would be lined up over the outside tackle. That would give the inside tackle a better angle to block him if the play was run to the weak side of the formation. As it turns out, it wasn’t necessary, since the OLB wasn’t following the tail motion. But since the Indiana defensive line favored the strong side of the formation, it gave Navy a bit of a numbers advantage on the weak side, which is where they ran most of their plays. The majority of Navy’s plays were run out of either the heavy formation, or flex left/right (with a WR lined up tight to the offensive line). Both gave a strong/weak look to the defense, and Navy ran primarily to the weak side.
As for Indiana’s defensive game plan, let’s let their defensive coordinator explain it:
“We got a little bit stubborn. We tried to continue to play it the way that we’d worked and we’d practiced throughout camp. We weren’t getting it done, so we had to go to Plan B on how we were going to try to adjust it. There was one particular play Plan B didn’t work so we had to go to Plan C. That started to help us a little bit more.”
Alrighty then, so let’s break it down. What was Plan A? Just a cross charge. The cross charge is when #1 and #2 trade their usual responsibilities. The pitch key (#2), takes the fullback, while #1 plays outside to take the quarterback (usually). Keenan simply made the right read most of the time and pitched.
Seriously, THAT WAS THE PLAN. He wasn’t kidding about being stubborn, either. Indiana didn’t adjust until near the end of the third quarter. Their Plan B was to free up the middle linebacker to play the pitch. They did so by using the OLB (#2) to keep the playside WR/tackle from getting to the MLB to make a block:
That lasted one drive. The “one particular play” Coach Mallory was referring to was the midline option, a good play to use if the MLB isn’t committed to staying in the middle:
As for Plan C? There was no Plan C. Coach Jasper just got a little conservative and had Keenan run keepers and other low-risk plays to prevent a turnover and run out the clock. Low risk meant low reward, and Navy wasn’t ripping off 15 yards at a time anymore. It wasn’t because of anything the defense did to adjust, though.
So like I said at the beginning, it’s never as good or as bad as it seems. Don’t get me wrong; it was good. Until they face a scheme that’s a bit more challenging, though, I’m trying to keep my optimism at reasonable levels.
(It’s not easy.)
Some additional thoughts:
— The biggest reason why it isn’t easy is because it’s hard to look at that game and pick out areas where the Mids didn’t perform better than a year ago. I mentioned how good the offensive line looked, but they weren’t the only unit that appeared to have stepped up this season. I think we all figured that the slotbacks would be able to run, but their blocking was fantastic. Kickoff coverage was also outstanding, with Indiana’s longest returns being on touchbacks. Even the defense looked a lot better. I know that Indiana threw the ball all over the place and scored 35, but they’re going to do that to a lot of teams this year. Remember, Indiana went for it 3 times on 4th down, in situations where most other teams probably would’ve punted. Even as Indiana was able to throw the ball, those throws were contested. This wasn’t a situation where the quarterback could sit in the pocket all day and wait for a receiver to get open. Nate Sudfeld actually had to make plays. Not every quarterback Navy faces will be as talented.
— The most encouraging thing from this game wasn’t the offense; it was the run defense. Navy always plays to avoid giving up the big pass. The difference between a good Navy defense and a bad one is how well they stop the run. When Tre Roberson was in at quarterback and Indiana was more focused on running the ball, the Mids did an excellent job getting a push into the backfield and filling their gaps. Indiana’s offensive line was admittedly a bit depleted, but even Big Ten backups make for one of the better lines the Mids will face this year. It’s a good sign.
— I would argue that the book is still out on Keenan a little bit only because he didn’t get tested very much in his reads. We already understand everything else that he brings to the table; his option reads were the one thing we know he needed to work on. I’m not sure we learned much in that regard since Indiana gave him the same look aver and over again. Delaware might actually be a better gauge of Keenan’s improvement.
— The shotgun is still a work in progress in my opinion. Most of the plays worked, but I’m not sure they always would against a better defense. The most successful shotgun play was a double option with a pulling guard to the weak side of a trips formation. Everything else was a little sketchy. Most of the shotgun triple option plays suffered from two problems. One, the middle linebacker was always left unblocked, and not by design. The playside tackle just could never get to him. Fortunately, Indiana’s MLB had a terrible game, and Keenan was able to make him miss. Against a better MLB, I don’t know if he’d be able to. Two, shotgun plays were slow to develop. One of the few plays for negative yards on Navy was off of a shotgun triple option. Keenan made the right read on #1, but the DE had enough time to recover and track Keenan down from behind. It’s something to watch as the season moves forward.