The prevailing mood in the wake of Saturday’s 34-17 loss to Ohio State seems to be one of, “wow, Navy played great! Imagine what they’ll do to the rest of their schedule!” I’m not quite there.
Don’t get me wrong. There are some positives to take away from the game. The Mids rushed for 370 yards against what will likely be the most physically talented team on their schedule. The Navy defense held Ohio State to only 2 of 8 on 3rd down conversions and registered 2 sacks. Navy held a 7-6 lead at halftime and regained that lead at 14-13. It was a 3-point game into the 4th quarter, and until Ohio State scored a touchdown to go up 10, you felt that Navy could very well come out on top against the #5 team in the nation.
We’ve seen this before though, haven’t we? Last year Navy actually beat their opening Big Ten opponent, and while Indiana isn’t Ohio State, you didn’t expect Navy to follow that up with a loss to Western Kentucky two games later. If you want to get really dark you could point to the good vibes following the 2011 South Carolina game and what ultimately became of that whole season. No, I don’t think we’re in for a repeat of 2011. There is a point to be made, though, that you will be best served by keeping your expectations in check. Each game is its own unique matchup of players and coaches. What happens in one doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the others. Don’t let the fun of football season be ruined by your own wild and unrealistic expectations that were based on one hard-fought game against a tough opponent.
I tweeted immediately following the game that I was a little disappointed in the offense, and in retrospect that was probably a bit harsh. “Disappointed” is too strong of a word, although I’m not really sure what the right one should be. I probably shouldn’t be too hard on an offense that ran for 370 yards against anyone, let alone Ohio State. On the other hand, 390 yards of total offense isn’t exactly overwhelming. We’ll get to that in a minute.
It isn’t often that a coach just comes right out before a game and announces what his game plan is going to be, but that’s sort of what Urban Meyer did:
I love our plan, but you just can’t sim the same stuff, because they’ll find out what’s going on. More than trying to out-scheme them, after our homework, I remember the guys I respect said, ‘Do not out-scheme them. Out-technique and out-effort them. Just go as hard as you can. Play with your hands. Don’t get cut.’
For the most part, that’s what Ohio State did on Saturday. It’s sound advice, and it’s exactly what Buddy Green does against Army and Air Force. The more you try to out-scheme this offense, the more exposed your defense becomes in other areas. It’s better to concentrate on winning one-on-one battles on the field. When you’re Ohio State, you’ll win those kinds of battles against most schools more often than not.
The best example of this battle being won against Navy was at middle linebacker. The Mids had a hard time blocking the MLB all afternoon, and that is what drove a lot of Coach Jasper’s playcalling.
Even when it looked like a good play, the MLB kept it from being a great play. On this play, you can see one of the things that Navy tried to do to compensate. Coach Jasper had the tackle release outside of #1 instead of inside in order to get a better angle on the MLB. He still couldn’t make the block. While the MLB doesn’t make the tackle, he does force Keenan back inside. Both the #1 and #2 reads played the fullback, which usually means a big gain as the quarterback runs outside. Instead, he’s forced back inside and has to run through traffic.
In the triple option, it’s usually the playside tackle’s job to cut inside #1 in the count and block the middle linebacker in a 4-3. The problem is that the MLB’s inside-out pursuit was so fast that it was difficult for the tackle to get to him. Coach Jasper tried absolutely everything to make up for this. He used the heavy formation extensively, bringing both tackles to the same side of the line to have an extra blocker on the MLB. He used twirl motion to get the MLB moving one way while running the play the other way. Coach Jasper also used the midline and the midline triple. The midline attacks the A gaps, so if the MLB is too aggressive and gets himself out of position, it leaves a lot of room to run in the middle of the field.
By running the midline, Coach Jasper tried to get the MLB to respect the middle of the field. Indeed, most of Navy’s best option plays came when the MLB simply ran himself out of the play.
And that’s not all that the offense tried. They ran a double option and had the fullback block the MLB:
They also ran the fullback counter option. There’s a bit of misdirection here since the quarterback begins with his back to the direction of the play. It freezes the MLB just enough that the FB can get outside:
Navy’s best plays came on the inside handoff to the slotback. When a defense is very aggressive in running in the direction of the option, the inside handoff gets them moving in one direction but delivers the ball behind the flow of the play.
Coach Jasper went through just about everything in his arsenal to slow down OSU’s aggressive defense, and particularly the middle linebacker. For the most part it all worked too, which is why the Mids were able to run for 370 yards. The problem is that the Mids suffered from the same problem that they try to impose on other teams. Ohio State did just enough to prevent the big play and force Navy into long drives, and eventually the Mids would make a mistake. Early on there were problems with the mesh. Later in the game, there were dropped pitches. All afternoon the Mids (understandably) had trouble blocking the Ohio State defensive line, which led to drive-killing sacks and tackles in the backfield. Ohio State did a good job doing what Navy does best: bending, but not breaking. That’s why, as good as Navy’s 370 rushing yards were, the 390 total yards were a problem. Navy needed some big plays to make for shorter drives (and fewer opportunities for error), but they couldn’t get them from the passing game because the Ohio State defensive line was just too good.
In the second half, the Buckeyes actually did begin to stunt a little on defense. On this play, you can see that #1 and #2 exchanged responsibilities; #2 played the fullback, and #1 became the pitch read. The playside tackle released outside and made a block on the MLB. Keenan made the right read, and the result is a big ol’ gain:
Piece of cake. After that, though, Ohio State started running some variations on that stunt that confused the offense and led to big plays going the wrong way. On the long fumble return, the OLB (#2) made a first step like he was using the same stunt. That’s what Keenan read, so he kept the ball out of the mesh. When he went to pitch the ball, though, the pitch man was covered; #2 had faked inside and instead played the pitch man outside. When the ball hit the ground, he was there for the scoop and score:
Later, we saw another variation. This time, #1 stepped outside, and #2 came inside. Again, Keenan read this as a keep. The problem is that the defense gambled a little bit and ignored the fullback. Instead, #2 went straight for Keenan, who got thumped:
That is a very difficult read for the quarterback, and I think Ohio State’s coaches knew it.
Defensively, there was a lot to be excited about. I know that the Buckeyes were without Braxton Miller, but still… This is an offense that scores points. For Navy to hold them to only 27 is a big accomplishment. The Navy defense still got gashed at times, but unlike recent years, they were also able to get into the Ohio State backfield a bit to make plays of their own. Holding Ohio State to 2 of 8 on 3rd down is a good omen for the rest of the season. What Ohio State lacks in experience along the offensive line, they make up for with physical talent; Paul Quessenberry’s and Will Anthony’s ability to be disruptive up front is something we haven’t seen from a Navy defensive line against an opponent like this in a long time. The two of them combined for 8 tackles (including 2 for a loss), 2 hurries, and 1 sack. Those hurries directly led to Parrish Gaines’ interception; pressure forcing the redshirt freshman QB into mistakes is something we hoped to see before the game. Both outside linebackers were very active as well, with Chris Johnson and William Tuider combining for 20 tackles and leading the team. The fact that linebackers led the team in tackles as opposed to one of the safeties is further indication that the line was doing its job.
All in all, it’s hard to complain too much when you play a team like Ohio State. Navy made some plays. Ohio State just made more. The 2009 game was closer as far as the final score goes, but I think that was a case of the Buckeyes letting the Mids back into the game. This was the better overall Navy performance. Navy went toe-to-toe with Ohio State and was in it until the end. It was an admirable performance, but far from a perfect one. There are things to build on, but there are also mistakes that have to be corrected if this is going to be another great season of Navy football.