It’s time for another season of Navy football. Are we ready for the Mids to lay siege to our emotions for the next four months?
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.
Navy is joining the American Athletic Conference in 2015, and the move has received mixed reviews. There are those who lament the loss of Navy’s 135-year tradition as an independent, although I’d argue that independence is less of a tradition and more just the way things worked out (we know conference membership had been considered before). I think by now, especially given how quickly things are changing in college sports, the only people who don’t understand the decision are those who choose not to. Most people seem to at least accept the reasoning behind the move even if they don’t necessarily like it.
One of the main reasons why some people are less than enthusiastic about joining the American is scheduling. With 8 conference games plus Army, Air Force, and Notre Dame locked in every year, Navy’s schedule is set for the foreseeable future. That’s a little sad for fans who have enjoyed some of Navy’s higher-profile matchups over the years, whether it’s more recent games against Penn State, South Carolina, Stanford, Pitt, and Maryland, or even going back to games against Virginia, West Virginia, Boston College, and Georgia Tech. Schedule variety was always something fans could look forward to as an independent. That won’t be the case anymore. Actually, with “Power 5” conferences moving toward 9-game schedules and focusing more on playing games against each other, it wouldn’t be the case even if Navy wasn’t joining a conference. Either way, games like Saturday’s opener against Ohio State are about to be a thing of the past.
That might make fans a little sad, but we aren’t the ones that have to put together a game plan. I doubt any of the coaches will be shedding tears over not playing Ohio State anymore. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Ohio State is really, really good.
The Buckeyes are a bad matchup for Navy. You’re probably reading that and thinking, “duh,” but it’s true in more ways than just the obvious. Clearly, Big Ten title contenders and service academies operate in different worlds. Ohio State might be dealing with injuries and suspensions and whatnot, but what are they replacing these guys with? Slightly younger future all-conference players that Navy had no hope of recruiting? Yeah, ok. Maybe it’s a problem for Ohio State’s national championship ambitions, but I’m not sure the task becomes any easier from Navy’s point of view.
Ohio State has a lot to replace on offense, especially after Braxton Miller’s injury. Wide receiver, however, should be fine, led by returning starter Devin Smith. Smith has 88 career receptions for 1572 yards and 18 TDs. Those are all impressive numbers on their own, but what’s truly remarkable is Smith’s big-play ability; those 18 TD receptions have come from an average distance of nearly 40 yards per score. That’s incredible, and for a Navy defense that revolves around limiting the big play, it will be tough to contain. The Buckeyes also boast a pair of big targets at tight end with 6-5 senior Jeff Heuerman and 6-6 junior Nick Vannett. If you’re starting a freshman at quarterback, having these guys to throw to helps to ease some pressure. Knowing you have guys who can win jump balls or make big plays means you don’t feel like you have to do everything yourself.
The strength of the Ohio State defense is their line, a unit that USA Today considers the best in the nation. Everyone is back from last year, although all-conference junior DE Noah Spence will be suspended for the Navy game. The unit is led by DT Michael Bennett, a 288-lb. force of nature that appears on every defensive watch list of significance. He leads the team with 11 sacks and recorded 11.5 TFL in 2013. He’s joined by Joey Bosa, a 2013 freshman All-American who had 7.5 sacks last year, good for 6th in the Big Ten.
Like I said, though, the challenge facing Navy goes beyond Ohio State’s obvious talent.
Back when Paul Johnson would make the rounds talking to Navy alumni each summer, he used to tell a joke about how he’s good friends with Urban Meyer. The story involved a golf tournament in which Johnson was paired up with ESPN’s Mark May. Johnson called Meyer on his cell phone during the round and said, “Hey Urban, guess what? I’m playing golf with Mark May right now! Yeah, I’m telling him about how you’re such a great option coach!” The way Johnson tells the story, Urban’s response went something like this. That’s because Meyer, who was still at Utah back then, knew the joke that Johnson was pulling on him. Both coaches knew that there was a stigma around being an “option” coach. Schools didn’t want to hire option coaches. They wanted to hire innovators with high-flying offenses. The last thing Meyer wanted was to get the “option” label attached to him in the national media.
The point of this story is that no matter how much Urban Meyer disliked the label at the time (I doubt he cares at this point), he is most definitely an option coach. That’s a problem for Navy; being an option coach himself, Meyer should have a pretty good idea how to slow down option offenses. I’m not sure what that plan will be, though. Neither coordinator offers much of a hint. Luke Fickell was the defensive coordinator in the 2009 OSU-Navy game, and while he’s still there, I doubt that we’ll see the same game plan this year. Fickell now shares coordinator duties with Chris Ash, who is in his first year in Columbus after spending his last three with Bret Bielema at Arkansas and Wisconsin. Ash spent some time at San Diego State, but considering that the Aztecs gave up 90 points to Air Force in the two seasons Ash was an assistant, I don’t think that’s a game plan he’ll be looking to replicate either. Whatever plan the two of them come up with will undoubtedly lean heavily on Meyer’s expertise.
Whenever Navy plays a team the caliber of Ohio State, the game plan is always the same: try to shorten the game. Keep everything in front of you on defense and prevent the big play so that even if the other team scores, at least they’ll take a long time doing so. Longer drives mean fewer possessions, which makes it difficult for anyone to pull away. If the defense can get a turnover or two, and if the offense does its job in keeping pace, then with any luck you’ll be in a position late in the 4th quarter to drive for a winning score. See: Notre Dame 2013, South Carolina 2011, etc.
Meyer’s defense could make this template difficult. I have no doubt that Navy’s coaches can counter whatever Meyer throws at them, but it might take a drive or two for the team to adjust to it. In a game where it will probably be vital for Navy to hold serve on offense, one or two drives might be all Ohio State needs. It’s a common misconception that getting an early lead on Navy will force them out of their usual offense and into a more pass-heavy look. That’s not true, but what is true is that getting behind early can cause problems to spiral out of control. An offense that feels like it has to make something happen is more likely to force things that aren’t there and make a mistake. I don’t think this will happen with all of the returning experience that Navy has on offense, but it would be better not to find out.
Then, of course, there’s Ohio State’s offense. The Buckeyes are tough for anyone to defend, but they’re especially well designed to put pressure on the one part of the Navy defense that lacks experience: inside linebacker. Inside zone, outside zone, option, play action… Few offenses require the kind of “eye discipline” that Ohio State’s demands. If Navy’s new ILBs aren’t ready to go from the first snap, it’s going to be a long afternoon.
If Navy is going to keep themselves in this game, they’re going to have to do a couple things:
1. Get to the quarterback. Most of the national media attention surrounding Ohio State has been concerning the loss of Braxton Miller for the year. Miller will be replaced by redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett. While Barrett is young and inexperienced, this isn’t one of those situations where the offense will have to be scaled back to accommodate him. He was the #1 QB through the spring, and the coaches are reportedly fully confident in his knowledge of the offense. That said, you don’t replace a Heisman contender with a redshirt freshman and just assume that everything will be the same. Even if he knows the offense, he will most likely be more prone to mistakes as well. That’s why it’s critical for the Mids to find some way to pressure Barrett and force those drive-killing errors. In the 2009 game, Navy was actually able to get through to Terrelle Pryor more often than you’d think. The problem was that the 6-6, 230 lb. Pryor was bigger than the guys who were trying to tackle him. Tacklers would bounce off of him, and he’d scramble for 8-9 yards and keep the chains moving. Barrett isn’t the same player physically, and Ohio State’s offensive line, despite all their talent, is lacking in starting experience. This is about as vulnerable as Ohio State is ever going to get, and the Navy front seven needs to take advantage.
2. Play fast on offense. Ohio State’s defensive line is as good as Navy has ever faced. One of the problems this offense has when playing an elite defensive line is backside pressure. Fast defensive ends can sometimes track plays down from behind, tackling the QB for a loss or causing a fumble. The Mids can’t afford to get off schedule, which means that Keenan is going to have to move with a purpose after the mesh. Any hesitation on his part, and he risks getting whacked from behind.
When we last saw Ohio State, they were losing a heartbreaker in the Orange Bowl. They’ll be anxious to get that taste out of their mouths. The Mids will have their hands full, but if there’s any Navy team that can rise to the challenge, it’s this one. Go Navy!