The Navy defense picked a good time to turn in their two finest performances of the season, saving their best for last.
The Mids gave up 31 points per game (in regulation) in the 7 contests leading up to Army-Navy, but in the last 2 games of the season they allowed a total of 13. The mini-revolution came thanks to a rushing defense born again hard. Army had been the nation’s #2 rushing attack, averaging 323 yards per game. Against Navy they only managed to run for 157 yards. Middle Tennessee State is a lot more balanced between the run and the pass. While the 218 passing yards they gained against Navy was pretty close to their season average, the Blue Raiders’ 91 rushing yards was well below the 208.3 ypg they were averaging coming into the Armed Forces Bowl.
Middle Tennessee State’s offense is very different from Army’s, but Navy found success against both for the same reason: winning individual matchups. Coach Green didn’t go nuts drawing up the defense’s game plan. Against the Blue Raiders’ zone running scheme, he just counted on his front seven to play with discipline, control their gaps, and get off of blocks. For the most part, that’s exactly what they did.
Linebackers and safeties didn’t run themselves out of plays. The defensive ends and outside linebackers got enough of a push into the backfield to either string plays out to the sideline, or force RBs to cut back inside only to be tackled by a nose guard that beat his block. Players did their jobs and trusted their teammates to do the same rather than overextending themselves trying to get to the ball, and it resulted in the best 2-game stretch for the Navy defense since recording back-to-back shutouts against Northern Illinois and Army in 2008.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about how well the Navy defense played was that some of the best performances were turned in by the defensive ends and the safeties– the two units that were the most depleted. Paul Quessenberry was arguably the best playmaker on Navy’s defensive line, but he was sent home prior to the game for a violation of team rules. Evan Palelei, Aaron Davis, and Will Anthony each responded by playing their best games of the season. George Jamison was put on the spot after the (ridiculous) ejection of Wave Ryder and the injury to Lonnie Richardson. All he did was get into the backfield on a huge 4th-down stop and make an interception:
Travis Bridges made a great play of his own on that 4th down. Jamison finished the game with 6 tackles in a little more than one half of work. As you would hope against a zone running team, the two ILBs led the way with 7 tackles apiece.
Schematically, Middle Tennessee didn’t do anything unexpected on offense. One quirk that I did notice was that they preferred to use 4 WRs on most of their outside zone runs as the game progressed instead of lining up with a tight end. Without a TE coming back across the formation to block the backside pursuit, there wasn’t much of a threat of play action. That freed up Navy’s DEs and OLBs to chase running backs down from behind, which they both did surprisingly well. I think a big reason for this was the discipline of the outside linebackers early in the game. When MTSU did line up with a TE in the first half, the OLBs weren’t as aggressive. They did very good job playing their contain responsibility first before running after the ball. I think that MTSU’s coaches saw that the OLBs probably wouldn’t be fooled by play action, so they figured they were better off trying to use 4 WRs to try to spread the Navy defense out.
They had some success with that plan. While it wasn’t misdirection off of the zone stretch, MTSU’s most successful plays were play action passes of a different sort. Navy’s safeties are almost always lined up deep in order to keep everything in front of them. Any time the inside linebackers were a little too eager to step up to cover their assigned gaps, it left a lot of space between the second and third levels of the defense. MTSU was able to run play action to hit receivers in that space. It’s similar to the A-Pop in the Navy offense:
That was the closest that the Blue Raiders were able to come to a consistent downfield passing attack. That’s not really their game; they prefer getting the ball outside on bubble screens and slants as quickly as possible. They do like to throw downfield on occasion to keep defenses honest, but whenever they tried to do so against Navy, the Mids were able to get pressure using only a 4-man rush:
Navy’s ability to get pressure on the quarterback without sacrificing coverage kept Middle Tennessee from making big plays. That meant they had to nickel and dime their way down the field, and they couldn’t do it without someone on the Navy defense eventually making a drive-killing play.
Navy’s offense had their own issues with drive killers. After scoring on their first two possessions, a trio of fumbles on the Mids’ next three drives (two of them lost) helped keep the game closer than it should have been. The two lost fumbles both came after extended drives that put Navy inside the MTSU 20-yard line. Still, although MTSU did a respectable job of their own in keeping Navy from connecting on too many big plays, the Mids were able to grind their way to 366 rushing yards and led from wire-to-wire.
There were a lot of similarities between this game and the 2012 Middle Tennessee-Georgia Tech game that we looked at in the bowl preview. From the very first play, we could see that MTSU was using the same game plan. Against Georgia Tech they stunted so that #1 and #2 in the count traded responsibilities; the OLB played the fullback, and the DE went outside to take either the quarterback or the pitch. They did the same thing against Navy:
To take advantage of this, Coach Jasper called a lot of the same plays that Georgia Tech did. The cross charge stunt presents an opportunity to run the fullback off tackle. The outside linebacker’s stunt essentially runs him out of the play; he gets pinned inside by the playside tackle while the fullback runs right behind him. The playside slotback load blocks from the DE (#1) to the middle linebacker. What that means is that he first checks the DE to see if he’s stunting outside. If so, then the PSA moves on to block the MLB. If not, then the PSA blocks the DE.
The fullbacks combined for 108 yards, with Noah Copeland accounting for a little more than half of that total. With the linebacker on an outside-in stunt, though, the bulk of Navy’s rushing yards came from plays designed to get to the perimeter. Coach Jasper called the counter option a couple of times. It worked once, but on the second try the defensive end read the play and got into the backfield before the pulling guard could block him. That forced Keenan back inside, where he was stopped for a minimal gain.
After that, Navy stuck to running the double option with the fullback as a lead blocker. They ran the play out of both spread and flex formations and mixed up the blocking assignments depending on how they wanted to block the linebackers.
The inside-outside combination of off-tackle and double option made up the bulk of Navy’s offense in the first half. That ended after the Mids’ second fumble. With Navy on a promising drive inside the red zone, the outside linebacker again stunted inside. This time, however, he was able to use Navy’s tail motion to time the snap count and get to the quarterback before the play had a chance to develop. Compounding the issue is that he was apparently able to do so because of a blown assignment; the stunting OLB was left unblocked while the DE was double-teamed by the PST and the PSA.
Someone blocked the wrong guy.
With the linebacker having figured out the snap count, Coach Jasper spent the second half running mostly triple option. He still ran the play out of both flex and spread formations and continued changing blocking assignments. Most importantly, by running the triple, Navy was able to do away with tail motion. Because the quarterback has to read the dive key first, the slotback has enough time to run past the mesh to create a good enough pitch relationship with little or no tail motion before the snap. That’s not the case on the double option, where the quarterback’s goal is to get outside as quickly as possible. Without tail motion, the defense couldn’t time the snap count, and Navy was able to move the ball just as effectively as they had in the first half.
Navy didn’t completely abandon the use of tail motion, though. Since the Mids were running so many plays designed to go outside, the defense started to cheat a little bit. Backside defenders started to follow the tail motion to get a jump on the play.
Navy was able to take advantage of that when they needed to by using tail motion to set up counter plays in the opposite direction. Twice in the first half they ran a slotback on a drag route back the other way. In the second half they were able to run counters off of toss sweep motion for big gains:
It wasn’t the most spectacular performance by the Navy offense, but it got the job done. The two possessions that ended in lost fumbles hurt, but even those drives were a big part of Navy’s success. Time of possession is usually overrated as a statistic, but it was very important in this game. Navy dominated TOP by nearly 14 minutes. Middle Tennessee State was only able to sustain one drive longer than 4 minutes. Navy had six, including one that took up half of the third quarter. When MTSU gave the ball up, they didn’t know when they’d get it back. It was still only a 10-6 game going into the 4th quarter. Keenan’s second TD made it 17-6 with 10:48 to go. In most games that would be plenty of time to come back from a two-score deficit, but not the way Navy was able to eat the clock. That forced MTSU into throwing downfield to score as quickly as possible, which isn’t their strength. Their next two possessions consisted of 5 plays combined, including 3 incomplete passes and an interception. Navy scored again in between those two drives to put the game out of reach at 24-6.
Middle Tennessee State wasn’t the best team on Navy’s schedule. They were, however, a good team that came into this game playing their best football. MTSU came into the Armed Forces bowl averaging 42 ppg over their previous 5 contests, including hanging 51 on a Marshall team that won 10 games. Navy responded by holding them to their lowest score of the season. Last year, they held Georgia Tech to only 238 rushing yards in a 49-28 win. Navy ran for 366. There is a lot to be proud of in this win, and it was a great way to end a special season.