The Armed Forces Bowl was originally supposed to be between Navy and a Mountain West team. With my new high-capacity DVR, I was going to be prepared. I recorded every Mountain West game I could find, including all of Air Force’s and New Mexico’s televised conference games to see how their opponents defended the option. Whatever Mountain West team Navy would be lining up against, I was ready for them.
LOL at me.
Thanks to a switcheroo courtesy of ESPN, Navy will not be facing a team from the Mountain West. Instead, the Armed Forces Bowl turned to Conference-USA and picked Middle Tennessee State to line up against the Mids. It’s a different opponent than we expected, but that doesn’t mean that Navy’s task got any easier; the Blue Raiders are as good as most of the Mountain West teams that were in the running to come to Ft. Worth. Head coach Rick Stockstill has quietly built a consistent winner in Murfreesboro. His program is bowl eligible for the 4th time in 5 years, which includes a 10-win season in 2009. This year’s 8-4 mark includes a 6-2 record in their inaugural C-USA season.
It doesn’t take a whole lot of guesswork to figure out why MTSU has had this run of success. They’re a well-coached, veteran football team. Of the 22 starters that will take the field against Navy, 19 of them will be redshirt sophomores or older. That’s a lot of players with at least 3 years of experience. There’s plenty of talent to go along with that experience, too. Outside linebacker T. T. Barber earned first team all-conference honors after registering 112 tackles (10.5 for a loss) and 3 interceptions. On the all-conference second team is Josh Walker, a 6-5, 323-lb. tractor disguised as a left guard. Kevin Byard was a freshman all-American at safety last season. Reggie Whatley was named to the All-C-USA first team in the preseason at kick returner before being slowed down for much of 2013 due to injury (he’ll play against Navy). Meanwhile, quarterback Logan Kilgore has added his own chapter to the school record book. He ranks first in career TD passes and 200-yard passing games, second in 300-yard passing games, and is the only player in school history to pass for 2,000+ yards in three straight seasons.
After starting 3-4, Middle Tennessee State beat Marshall in a 51-49 thriller (the Herd’s only regular-season conference loss) to start the 5-game winning streak they’ll be putting on the line on Monday. It’s over those last 5 games that MTSU has really hit their stride. In that span they’ve averaged 523 yards of offense per game while outscoring their opponents 42-21. The offense ran for at least 200 yards in each of those games, and twice topped 300. Defensively, MTSU recorded their first shutout since 2006 and twice held opposing offenses to less than 300 total yards. The Blue Raiders are coming into the Armed Forces Bowl at the top of their game.
Leading the way is an offense that is balanced and methodical. Just how balanced? Middle Tennessee averages 208.3 yards per game on the ground and 207.4 through the air. Their most complete performance came against UTEP in their last game, as the Miners were torched for 304 rushing yards and 325 passing. A closer look at that game shows how the Raiders go about breaking opposing defenses down.
For the most part, MTSU uses a 4-receiver pistol look. Sometimes they’ll mix in a tight end or a fullback, but what they like to do the most is spread defenses out to create running lanes in their zone scheme. Against UTEP, they opened by running the same zone counter play that Air Force and Navy used against Army. The offensive line starts the play moving one direction, while the running back cuts back the other way led by one or two blockers. Those blockers can be a pulling guard, a tight end brought in motion, a fullback, or any pair out of that group.
UTEP lines up in a 4-2-5, but you can see in those plays that they were forced to bring a safety or two up in run support. Once the secondary has to come up to stop the power running game, that’s when Middle Tennessee turns to the horizontal passing game. The more the secondary has to focus on the middle of the field, the faster the offense wants to get the ball outside using slants, bubble screens, fake bubble screens that turn into slants, etc.
Now that the secondary is forced to cover the field from sideline to sideline, that softens up the middle for the zone stretch play. You’ll see in the first play that the running back finds a cutback lane for a huge gain. On the next play, the linebacker is so preoccupied with the possibility of a cutback that he doesn’t even move, and the play runs right by him.
Once MTSU established the outside zone run, they were able to use play action off of that to pass back the other way:
And just like that, UTEP went down 34-7 at the half.
Middle Tennessee isn’t really known for their downfield passing, but they will take their shots. On this play, the Raiders take advantage when UTEP leaves a wide receiver with one-on-one coverage:
Navy rarely plays man to man coverage like that, so that’s a play we aren’t likely to see on Monday. Still, I expect MTSU to throw deep once or twice just to keep the defense honest.
If alarm bells are ringing in your head, it’s probably because you realize how similar this looks to what Notre Dame did against Navy. Now, with all due respect to MTSU, they aren’t Notre Dame. However, not all of Navy’s problems against the Irish were caused by the physical mismatch up front. The success that Notre Dame had running the ball on the zone stretch caused Navy’s outside linebackers to lose discipline in their gap assignments. They lost outside contain trying to chase down running backs from behind, which left them vulnerable to play action rollouts the other way. You don’t have to be Notre Dame to take advantage of that. Middle Tennessee is more than capable of making Navy pay for getting sloppy.
Defensively, MTSU is only ranked 83rd in the country against the run, giving up an average of 185 yards per game. Of course, Navy fans should know that there’s a difference between defending the “run” and defending the “option.” After all, the Mids are ranked 84th against the run, but held Army and Air Force to a combined 17 points. Middle Tennessee could point to similar success after holding Georgia Tech to 238 rushing yards in an eye-opening 49-28 win over the Yellow Jackets last year. Based on that result, you might be concerned that Middle Tennessee found a formula that works against the option. In reality, they didn’t solve the option as much as they solved Georgia Tech’s quarterbacks.
As long as the quarterback made the right read, Georgia Tech ran the triple option just fine:
Unfortunately for Georgia Tech, that was the only time the quarterback did make the right read on his own, and it came on the second play of the game. After that, it was pretty ugly:
And that’s just with the basic dive key read. Most of the game, Middle Tennessee used the cross charge. The cross charge, you may recall, is one of a few names given to a stunt where the dive and pitch keys exchange responsibilities. #1 in the count steps outside to be the pitch key, while #2 stunts inside to take the fullback.
The correct read on that stunt is to keep, and usually to pitch after that since it’s going to be hard for most defensive ends to chase down A-backs. The quarterback missed that read every. single. time. The challenge for Coach Johnson then became how to run his offense with one hand tied behind his back, since his quarterbacks were taking the bread & butter play off the table.
He started by running the fullback off tackle. With the OLB playing an inside stunt, you should be able to use a slotback to keep the DE from getting outside, freeing up the fullback to get to the second level. It worked well enough the first time, but the second time the DE didn’t try to step outside and caught the fullback in the backfield instead.
Since that didn’t work, Coach Johnson went to plan B. In the second quarter, Georgia Tech started “faking” the triple option. By that, I mean that Coach Johnson told his quarterback on the sideline what “read” he’d be making ahead of time. Johnson would call the triple, but since the read on a cross charge is almost always going to be to pitch the ball, that’s what Johnson told him to do. It was almost comical how early the quarterback made the pitch sometimes. To give the appearance of the fullback still being a “read,” Johnson would mix in a few called FB dives too. That gave the defense a reason to keep using the cross charge to stop the fullback.
Any time there’s a stunt that brings OLBs inside, it’s a good time to run the toss sweep. Johnson mixed in a few of those, too.
This worked for a while, and the game was tied 21-21 at the half. The problem is that eventually, the MTSU staff figured it out. Knowing that the option was always going to be a pitch, the defense started ignoring the fullback. When the OLB would come in on a cross charge, he would ignore the fullback and instead run straight at the quarterback. When they didn’t stunt, the DE would do the same:
Once that happened, Johnson dropped any pretense of running the option. In the third quarter, he kept the whole inside-outside concept but instead used the FB trap mixed with the toss sweep.
You can tell that the more Georgia Tech used the toss sweep, the harder it became to run outside. You might think that would be a sign that it’s time to run play action off of toss sweep motion, and you’d be right. However, when Georgia Tech tried to do so, they were either unable to protect the quarterback, or the ball was so badly underthrown that what should have been wide-open TD passes turned into interceptions:
After that, Georgia Tech abandoned the run altogether and just passed out of the pistol for most of the 4th quarter. With all of that plus 3 lost fumbles, it’s a small miracle that Tech even scored as much as they did. Middle Tennessee certainly deserves credit for making some plays and adjusting to what Georgia Tech was trying to do, but all of it would’ve been moot if Tech simply had a quarterback that could make the right read. Navy doesn’t have that problem. In fact, Indiana used a similar defense and Keenan Reynolds handled it just fine. Of course, there’s no guarantee that MTSU will use the same defensive scheme against Navy. After beating Georgia Tech with it I assume they will, but they know that Navy’s coaches will be expecting it too. They might throw a curveball. No matter what defense they use, though, it will be a challenge for the Navy offense to block a veteran MTSU defense. MTSU might not win on scheme, but if they can beat their blocks and win individual matchups, they won’t have to.
Navy and Middle Tennessee have a lot in common. Both teams have identical records and come into the game on winning streaks fueled by offenses playing at their best. It should be a very good game.