Looking at the final statistics from Saturday, you might think that this year’s edition of Army-Navy was completely different from the nip-and-tuck affairs of the recent past. This looked like a blowout, with Navy winning 34-7 and out-gaining Army 343-157 on the ground. There is no greater truth than the scoreboard, so in that I suppose you could call the game a rout. It sure didn’t feel that way as it happened, though, and once you dig a little deeper into the numbers you can see why. Both teams struggled to convert on 3rd downs, and combined for 12 punts. Four runs made up 165 of Navy’s rushing yards; it took 53 more to get the other 178, which is why the game felt like such a grind. Take those long runs away, and Navy’s advantage becomes a lot more modest. Unfortunately for Army, the big plays count as much as any other, and the Mids’ ability to make them was the difference in the game.
Last week I talked about a few different elements to watch for in the game, and it didn’t take long for those things to present themselves. I mentioned that the time off would give the offense a chance to work on a few different looks, and we saw it on the very first drive. Navy’s offense opened the game in the I formation, something we haven’t seen all year (Navy did use it once or twice against Arizona State). They ran a couple of plays out of this formation, but the one they ran the most was the same counter play that Air Force used with great success against Army. The offensive line got the play moving one way, but the tailback would run the other way, led by the fullback and a pulling guard. We also saw the same concept used out of the shotgun:
The play had limited success. The Mids picked up a first down the first time they ran it, but were only able to grind out a few yards after that. The potential was there, though. If you look at the second play, the middle linebacker was blocked and the free safety played run support outside. If the nose guard didn’t beat his block to make the tackle, there was a whole lot of open space in the middle of the field. One play was busted when it appeared that Keenan ran the wrong way after the snap (before you complain that it was all because of doing something new, the same thing happened later in the game on a plain ol’ option play too). I think this counter play might have been more successful with one of the fullbacks lining up at tailback since they’re more accustomed to running the ball between the tackles, although running two fullbacks out onto the field might have tipped off the Army coaches.
The I formation was apparently part of a semi-scripted set of plays to catch Army off guard to open the game, and not part of the larger game plan. Navy went back to a more conventional look after the first two drives. As expected, Army lined up the same way they did against Air Force. Coach Jasper didn’t call very many triple option plays; you can see here that Army’s 3-safety look again made the free safety difficult to block:
Coach Jasper’s answer was to have the playside tackle block the free safety, and Geoffrey Whiteside had a nice 21-yard run in the second half off a pitch where the tackle was able to make that block. The problem with using the tackle, though, is that it left nobody to stop any inside-out pursuit from the MLB. Army would simply send both the free safety and the middle linebacker out to play the pitch; one would get blocked, and the other would make the tackle. Knowing that they would need more speed at MLB to get to the outside, Army moved Geoffrey Bacon from safety to linebacker for this game.
Having both of the defenders responsible for the middle of the field running hard to the outside presents a fairly obvious soft spot for the defense. If Navy could attack the middle of the field, they would have big play after big play. Perhaps Army’s coaches felt confident that their defensive line could replicate the success that they had last year in keeping the fullback and quarterback in check, so they didn’t worry about plays up the middle. Unfortunately for them, Navy had an answer.
That answer was the inside zone. It’s a staple of the Navy offense, and you might remember the Air Force game from last year where Navy ran the inside and outside zones almost exclusively. Usually it’s more of a change-of-pace play. You don’t need tail motion, so you’re able to change up the snap count (a plus against Army). You also can attack the middle of the field very quickly before the defense even knows what happened. With the way that Army chose to defend the Navy offense, the inside zone went from change-of-pace to the main course.
Navy’s first inside zone run came on the opening play of their third drive, and resulted in Quinton Singleton’s long run that set up a field goal. You can see both the MLB and FS running outside and leaving the middle of the field wide open. On the inside zone, the fullback reads the first down lineman on the inside of the B gap on the play side. Army’s defensive end is lined up over the B gap, so the FB’s read is inside to the nose guard. If the NG goes left, the FB runs to the gap on his right, and vice versa. On this play, Army’s NG actually shifts before the snap, making it a pretty easy read for the fullback. I’m not sure, but I think this might have been intentional. By shifting away from the play, the NG is no longer the center’s responsibility. That job falls to the backside guard, who now has to execute a very difficult block coming across the NG’s body. If the NG is fast enough, he can beat that block and get to the fullback.
He wasn’t fast enough:
The reason why I think the nose guard’s shift was intentional is that we saw it more than once, and always away from the direction of the play. Here’s Noah Copeland’s TD run. It’s the same thing: MLB and FS overrun the play, NG shifts, Anchors Aweigh.
I think I get what Army was thinking. Note the NG in question on that play; it wasn’t Richard Glover, Army’s usual starter at that position. Instead, it was “quick” end James Kelly, who weighs a whopping 220 pounds. I think that Army’s plan was to intentionally give a certain read to the fullback. If they know the read they are giving, then they know what direction the fullback is going to go. My guess is that Army, given how well they were able to time Navy’s snap cadence last year, felt that a fast enough player could shoot the gap and get to the fullback before anyone was able to block him.
If that was the plan, it failed spectacularly.
If Navy kept running the inside zone, eventually Army’s MLB and FS would respect it and stay put in the middle of the field. To mix things up, Coach Jasper started calling more outside zone plays to give those players a reason to keep cheating outside. Here’s Keenan’s first touchdown. Again, the NG shifts away from the direction of the play. When the MLB and FS see the outside zone and react, it leaves a wide-open lane for Keenan to cut back through.
Navy came out in the second half running the inside zone again, but this time Army did a better job of plugging it up. Coach Jasper decided to change his approach. On the second drive of the third quarter, he took advantage of the over-aggressive middle defenders by using the midline option. When the defense adjusted by respecting the middle of the field, Jasper used the fullback toss and outside zone:
Jasper had to use the FB toss instead of the toss sweep because the latter uses tail motion, which would allow Army to time the snap count. This drive was a grind, and came to a stop with a holding penalty on that last play. Navy was able to get a field goal out of it.
After that, Navy started running the outside zone almost exclusively. You can see Glover back in at NG. and he actually has a little bit of success on some of these plays. However, Keenan was patient enough to wait for the middle defenders to over-pursue once again, and they eventually did:
Army started out on offense with A.J. Schurr at quarterback. as most people expected. After two fumbles on his first two drives, he was replaced by Angel Santiago. Even without the fumbles, that was probably the right call. The biggest advantage that Schurr had was his arm, but with the weather limiting what the teams were able to do through the air, it made sense to go with the quarterback that runs the option the best.
And yes, Santiago runs it the best. He received criticism from the broadcast booth during the game for some of his decision-making, but he really only missed one or two option reads. A lot of the plays that people think were missed reads were in fact good plays by the Navy defense. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples. On the first play, Santiago’s read is the outside linebacker (Jordan Drake). Drake is actually the pitch key, but here he plays the fullback. When Santiago sees the pitch key take himself out of the play like that, he knows he has a read to keep. The problem is that Cody Peterson does a good job using his hands to avoid the cut block attempt and is able to make the tackle. Santiago cuts inside expecting the ILB to be blocked, but is instead met by a brick wall.
The second play is very similar. Again, the outside linebacker (this time Obi Uzoma) is Santiago’s pitch key. On this play, Uzoma gets in the way of the LT, preventing him from making his block on the ILB. When Santiago sees his pitch key moving outside, he again gets a read to keep. Once again he is met by Peterson:
Santiago wasn’t hesitant to pitch the ball. His reads were telling him to keep it.
It’s the little things like these plays that defined Navy’s defensive performance. Coach Green didn’t try to come up with a scheme to stop Army’s option offense. Instead, he concentrated on coaching his players on how to win their individual matchups.
The cornerbacks played especially well. Once in a while I get asked why Navy’s corners don’t play in tighter coverage against Army. In theory, the other service academies should be teams that are even matchups athletically, so there’s less of a concern about getting beat deep, right? This game was a great answer to that question. The closer you play to the line of scrimmage, the more committed you have to be. If you’re at the line, you’re either blitzing or dropping back into coverage. You don’t have time to read and react. By backing off and giving a cushion, Navy’s corners are able to read the play, and they did a fantastic job of it in this game. The moment Army receivers showed that they were blockers, the Navy corners reacted aggressively. They took on blocks, made tackles, caused a fumble, and disrupted plays enough for others to make the stop, too:
Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to be as aggressive in weather that is more accommodating to the passing game, but they played well regardless of the conditions.
They weren’t alone, either. Paul Quessenberry also played an outstanding game. On the next four plays, you will see him:
1. Use his hands to shed the LT’s attempted block and make a tackle
2. Blow up an attempt at an inside trap by being too quick into the backfield
3. Again use his hands to fight off the cut block and get in on a tackle with D.J. Sargenti, and
4. Be so quick off the snap that he is able to take away the fullback’s cutback lane on the inside zone.
Quessenberry wasn’t the only player on the line who played well. They all did, occupying the offensive line and keeping them away from the linebackers. The inside linebackers responded with good gap discipline, while Jordan Drake was fast enough to track down outside zone runs from behind:
Army was able to put together one TD drive, set up by three big plays. The first play was an inside zone play similar to what Navy ran with success. Army caught the linebacker cheating a little bit to the outside, which created a running lane up the middle. The second play was basically how Santiago’s supposed “missed reads” were supposed to go. Again, the outside linebacker (this time Chris Johnson) is Santiago’s pitch key, and again, he plays the fullback. This time, though, Army is able to get a block on the ILBs, and the result is a big gain.
The third play was the pass to Xavier Moss. Moss was able to make an adjustment on the ball that Kwazel Bertrand, with his back to it, could not. Army scored two plays later. That was all they could muster, though. Navy’s defense played their best game of the year against an offense that had moved the ball on a lot of good teams. Video of their performance should be sent to any coach that complains about cut blocking; Navy put on a clinic in how to defend against it (and wouldn’t you know, without a blown knee in the bunch).
During the game I saw a lot of comments on Twitter complaining that Army-Navy was too difficult to watch, mainly because of both teams’ style of play. It sort of reminded me of people who complain about soccer games that end in scoreless ties. Sure, you’ll see scores like 12-10 in peewee soccer, but the higher up in skill levels you go, the lower the scores get. Elite-level games become very strategic, with the winner being the team that’s patient, possesses the ball, and capitalizes when the opportunity presents itself. It’s boring to the untrained, but if you know what you’re looking at, it’s absolutely riveting.
When it comes to option football, that’s what you have when Army meets Navy. Nobody runs the option– or defends it– better. It’s a testament to the quality of coaching on both sides. In the end, Navy was the team that was able to create opportunities and capitalize on them. The less-talented team had to scheme to make up the difference, and that scheme left them vulnerable. The team with more talent kept things simple and relied on their ability to pull them through, and it did.