Delaware (2-0) at Navy (1-0)
Saturday 9/14 3:30 ET
CBS Sports Network
A few points of interest for Navy’s home opener:
Somebody that we used to know
The winged helmet of Delaware is a familiar sight to regulars at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, as the Mids and Blue Hens have met five times in the last ten years. Their head coach for each of those meetings was K.C. Keeler, Delaware alumnus and star linebacker from the Blue Hens’ 1979 Division II championship team. It can be hard to replace a legend, but Keeler seemed to be the perfect choice to take over for Tubby Raymond. In only his second season, Keeler led Delaware to the I-AA national championship. It would be the first of three championship game appearances for Delaware under Keeler, to go along with four playoff appearances and a share of three conference titles. Not bad for a decade’s work.
It came as a bit of a surprise then that Keeler was fired after last season, especially considering the timing: seven weeks after Delaware’s season ended. The timing led some to speculate that some kind of wrongdoing in the program behind the scenes must have been uncovered, although Delaware AD Eric Ziady denied that was the case. He had only been in Newark for less than a month when Delaware’s season ended; not enough time to really evaluate the program. Once he did, he apparently didn’t like what he saw.
For all of Keeler’s accomplishments, the program had become very inconsistent. Delaware was only 5-6 last year, and it wasn’t all that unusual of a season. While the team went to the FCS championship game in 2010, they’ve also missed the playoffs in 6 of the last 8 years. That 2010 team had a top-20 FCS offense and was #5 in total defense. By 2012, they were ranked 84th in offense and 63rd in defense. The drop in production led to a drop in attendance as well. As an outside observer it still seems like an awfully quick trigger finger, but I’m only speculating on the reasons. Ziady obviously felt like he had to make a move. This year, the familiar face of Agent Smith is gone, replaced by former Rutgers offensive coordinator Dave Brock.
Brock was only at Rutgers for a year before getting hired at Delaware. He is probably best known for his stint as Kansas State’s offensive coordinator in 2008, where his up-tempo offense set school records for passing (led by Josh Freeman) and scored 35 points per game. Playing Indiana might have been the best possible preparation for Navy, since Delaware employs a similar philosophy of lining up and snapping the ball as quickly as possible. Judging by their performance in their first two games, there’s nothing that this offense can’t do. Delaware opened the season rushing for 373 yards in a 51-35 win over Jacksonville University. They followed that up with a 42-21 win over Delaware State that featured 328 passing yards from quarterback Trent Hurley. It’s hard to get read on how good this Delaware team is since the competition in those games was a bit weak. JU is pretty good for what they are, but what they are is a non-scholarship Pioneer League program. Delaware State is a middle-of-the-road MEAC team. That doesn’t exactly make for a gauntlet of juggernauts. Even so, Delaware’s coaches are obviously comfortable both running and passing, giving the Navy defense a lot to think about when planning for this game.
Delaware’s offense presents a few challenges for Navy. Their running game consists of a lot of inside and outside zone plays that will force Navy’s linebackers to have gap discipline while setting up play action and bootlegs. Combined with the high tempo, and it’s easy for a defense to get confused and lose that discipline. Delaware also has a bit of talent running that offense. The offensive line is returning all five starters from a year ago. They run well and know how to get to the second level. One of Delaware’s favorite running plays features both guards pulling outside as lead blockers, and they get there very quickly. Running back Andrew Pierce is on pace to be Delaware’s all-time leading rusher and carried the ball for 120 yards against Navy in 2011. The quarterback from that game, Trevor Sasek, lost a position battle this year to Trent Hurley, who transferred from Bowling Green prior to last season. The Blue Hens also have FBS-level talent at wide receiver. Junior Michael Johnson had a scholarship offer to Arkansas before a knee injury sidelined him for his senior year of high school. This is a capable unit.
They’re capable, but they make their share of mistakes. How did JU score 35 points while being held to 224 yards of total offense, including -37 rushing yards? Turnovers. The Dolphins returned a Hurley interception for a touchdown, and the Blue Hens also lost three fumbles. Delaware fumbled three times against Delaware State too, but was fortunate enough to only lose one of them. Navy is better equipped to make Delaware pay for these mistakes than the other two teams the Hens have faced.
The other side of the ball
Delaware has some talent on defense too. Bill Wagner wrote about four Maryland transfers that have found homes on the Delaware defense, including a possible NFL prospect at DT in Zach Kerr. Cornerback Jordan Thomas is a Rutgers transfer. Sophomore linebacker Jeff Williams led the CAA in both sacks and tackles for loss last year on the way to being named CAA Defensive Rookie of the Year, so it isn’t just the transfers that stand out, either.
Tim Weaver is in his first year as Delaware’s defensive coordinator. His defense lines up in a 4-3, also similar to Indiana. They played very well against Jacksonville, holding the Dolphins to -37 rushing yards. Things were a little shakier against Delaware State as the Hornets gained 440 yards of offense. To Delaware’s credit, they forced two turnovers, but it wasn’t exactly a dominating performance. Delaware State’s offense is nothing like Navy’s, but their talent is nothing like Navy’s either. The defense has to be a bit of a concern for Delaware fans going into tomorrow’s game.
With a new DC and a couple of games against pass-happy offenses, I have no idea what Delaware will do to stop the option. One thing we do have is this quote from the beginning of fall practice:
“Gap assignments don’t matter as much as just playing football. That’s what I really love about our defense,” he said.
If that’s the approach they take against Navy, then that’s what I will really love about their defense too.
The final word
As I watched the Delaware State game, I was impressed by speed of Delaware’s offensive line, but I never got the feeling that they were physically dominating against a Delaware State line that wasn’t all that athletic. Delaware has too much talent not to move the ball, but I think that the Mids should be able to get some pressure on the quarterback to force some mistakes. On offense, Keenan could have a tougher test this week as far as reads go. I don’t know what kind of scheme Navy will face, but I’d be surprised if it is as simple as Indiana’s. If it is, it’ll be another big week.
Bad news for Delaware as Jeff Williams has been suspended for a month.