Do we even need to see a breakdown of this game?
Sometimes it’s tough to tell how games are going to go. Sometimes it’s not. With teams and coaches as familiar with each other as Rutgers and Navy, Saturday’s game was most definitely a case of the latter. Were there any elements of that game that we didn’t see coming in the preview?
Ralph Friedgen running the ball all day? Check.
The Rutgers defense lining up in a 4-4 with the free safety playing the pitch? Check.
Navy throwing the ball because of it? Check.
Rutgers being very tough to block? Check.
Everything we thought would happen, happened. And if a dummy like me can see what’s coming, you know the coaches did. That explains what we saw out of the Navy offense early in the game.
One of the stories all week had been how well Rutgers has fared against Navy’s offense in the past. They use the same scheme every year, so Navy’s coaches knew what to prepare for. That gave them a chance to tinker with things. After scoring a quick touchdown following a fumble on Rutgers’ opening drive, Coach Jasper decided to give Rutgers a look they hadn’t seen out of Navy, lining up in the shotgun. Well, that’s not entirely true. Navy did use the shotgun a little bit in Piscataway in 2011, but only in obvious passing situations. On Saturday, Navy ran an entire series from the gun.
The Mids started with a full house backfield, which enabled them to use a bit of misdirection on their first play. Rutgers’ defense against Navy’s triple option has always revolved around an aggressive secondary. Since the deep safety is responsible for getting outside to cover the pitch, Navy’s first play had backs running in every direction to make it harder for him to tell which way to go:
Notice that at the snap, the safety is nowhere to be seen. He eventually makes the tackle, but 7 yards downfield. Maybe it was because they had only seen Navy pass out of the shotgun, but for whatever reason, Rutgers reacted to Navy’s shotgun formations by having their safeties line up uncharacteristically deep. Upon seeing this, Coach Jasper changed his plan. Instead of trying to slow down the safeties by confusing them, he ran right at them. With the safeties so far back, there was a lot of open space for the fullback if he could get past the first level:
With Navy having such an easy time gaining chunks of yards right up the gut, Rutgers called timeout to regroup. They apparently realized that “shotgun” did not mean “pass,” and adjusted accordingly. With Navy only using the shotgun to run essentially the same plays they always run, Rutgers started using the same defense they’ve always used, and had the secondary step up in run support:
Once that happened, the advantage that Navy gained by lining up in the shotgun more or less went away. He only used it through the rest of the game, primarily in passing situations.
Coach Jasper then settled into the meat of his game plan, which revolved around managing the Rutgers secondary. If you look again at the second video, you might notice that Rutgers was firing the corners. They didn’t do it on every play, but with they did it often enough that it was necessary to change the perimeter blocking assignments. When the defense fires the corners, it’s difficult for the WR to block him. The responsibility falls to the playside A-back, or depending on the formation, the playside tackle. We saw the latter when Navy used the trips formation. With the PSA/PST blocking the corner, it was the WR’s job to block the safety. The problem when the receiver was split wide, though, was that he couldn’t get to the safety in time if Keenan got a “keep” read:
Coach Jasper adjusted by moving to the double flex, which brings the WRs in tighter to the formation. That allowed the receivers to get a better blocking angle on the safeties:
This adjustment is also what created some of the Mids’ best opportunities in the passing game using play action. The safety would see the wide receiver running towards him and think that he was about to get blocked. Instead, the receiver would turn upfield and be wide open:
Coach Jasper was able to use a variant of this later in the game when he switched to a heavy formation. In the heavy, both tackles are lined up on the same side of the formation, while a wide receiver is lined up in the tackle spot on the other side. In the option game, that gives the receiver the same kind of blocking angle on the safety that he gets in the double flex. In the passing game, that receiver is still eligible as long as he’s uncovered, which means you can use the same type of play action. It also creates an opportunity for the fullback out of the backfield. The playside cornerback is left unblocked as #2 in the count. If he steps up to play the pitch, that means the inside linebacker is stuck in man coverage on the fullback. Once that ILB bites the cheese on the play action, the fullback will run right by him:
With all of these passes going over the safety’s head, you’d think that at some point he would be a little more hesitant to step up in run support. However, that wasn’t the case until Navy’s last drive of the game. If the safety could be slowed down a little, then he could be left unblocked. That would give Coach Jasper an extra blocker outside, creating a numbers advantage. It never happened, though. Whether it was the passing, twirl motion, the counter option, or anything else Navy typically uses against this scheme to make the safety hesitate, it didn’t matter. He just kept on coming:
That’s why the Mids threw so much. 22 passes might be one half for a typical spread offense, but for Navy it’s more like one half of a season. If Rutgers was going to keep giving the pass to Navy, though, the Mids had to take it.
That’s all fine as far as scheme goes. Coach Jasper had plenty of answers for Rutgers’ coaches. As usual against the Scarlet Knights, though, it was a lot more difficult to come up with answers for Rutgers’ players.
The obvious problem with throwing so many passes is that Rutgers is one of the top teams in the country when it comes to rushing the passer. They lived up to their reputation against Navy, tallying 4 sacks. The defensive line also proved as effective as past Rutgers lines in fighting off cut blocks and running plays down from behind.
The linebackers were also good at fighting off blocks, with the slotbacks having difficulty getting them on the ground all afternoon:
And that was the problem for the Navy offense. It wasn’t about the plays; it was about the players. Rutgers has good ones, and they’re well-coached in the fundamentals. The Scarlet Knights had 9 tackles on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage, and sometimes it only takes one play to get the offense off schedule and kill a drive.
Despite all this, the Mids still executed well enough to have a chance to tie the game at the end. Getting the ball at their own 25 with a little more than 3 minutes left on the clock, the Mids were able to drive all the way to the Rutgers 6 with 54 seconds left. The drive featured some of the Mids’ more successful running plays of the game, thanks in large part to the Rutgers secondary finally being concerned with the possibility of the deep ball. Coach Jasper called a fullback dive on the first play, which is something he likes to do to get a feel for the defense’s approach at the beginning of a drive. You can see right away that the safety isn’t nearly as aggressive against the run. That told Coach Jasper that he could still run the option, even with the clock ticking. As the drive progressed, the safety did step up in run support, but now the corner would step back into coverage instead. All Jasper had to do, then, was block the safety and run right at the backpedaling cornerback:
That brought the Mids down to the 6, which is where it all fell apart. Incomplete pass, sack, sack, incomplete, fin. Coach Jasper has taken some criticism for turning to the pass once the offense got inside the 10, but I’m not sure that’s warranted. The Mids were able to run the ball effectively on that drive because the cornerback was dropping back into coverage. Once the offense was inside the 10, there was no reason for the corner to drop back anymore; he wasn’t worried about the ball going over his head because there was no more field left. While I don’t think anyone would fault Navy had they gone with their bread and butter in that situation, the conditions that led to Navy being able to run the ball effectively on that drive were no longer present. Over the course of the game, Navy had actually been more effective throwing the ball against the aggressive DBs than they were running. Coach Jasper might have also felt that with one timeout left, he had a better shot getting 4 shots at the end one by throwing the ball than by running it.
While the Navy offense relied on the pass to move the ball, Rutgers kept the ball on the ground, running for 284 yards. The run-heavy attack was reminiscent of the last time Navy faced a Friedgen-coached team, although the details were a little different this time around.
Maryland’s ability to run the ball against Navy back in 2010 was mostly due to linebackers being out of position and not playing their gap assignments. While that did happen once in a while on Saturday…
…it wasn’t nearly the problem that it was 4 years ago. In fact, when Rutgers stuck to basic inside/outside zone plays, the Mids actually did OK:
As expected, the Rutgers offensive line was outstanding. Navy’s problem wasn’t with carrying out their assignments, it was mostly in being unable to shed their blocks. Sometimes you can compensate for that if the secondary is aggressive in run support, although you leave yourself open to play action that way. With Gary Nova’s 5 interceptions against Penn State, though, I don’t think Coach Friedgen wanted him throwing too many deep balls. Instead, Friedgen’s solution was similar to Navy’s in that it involved managing the secondary.
Once in a while we talk about the defense’s keys, but we never really go into detail about what those keys are. Usually it involves reading the offensive line. Linemen can’t be downfield on a pass play, so if you see them running to the second level of the defense, you know it’s a run or a screen (in college, linemen can be downfield on a pass if the intended receiver is behind the line of scrimmage). If the linemen drop back or run left or right without stepping downfield, then you know it’s a pass. Knowing what the defense was reading, Rutgers was able to use that to their advantage.
Friedgen’s bread and butter play gave the defense two different looks on the offensive line. One side of the line stepped back, making it look like a pass. The secondary and OLB read that and dropped into coverage, giving the RB plenty of room to run. Basically, a draw:
When Rutgers ran the play the in the other direction, the safety was able to recognize the offensive line playing run, and reacted accordingly:
Friedgen responded in a similar way to how Coach Jasper did, by having the wide receiver block the safety. The cornerback’s first responsibility is to cover the receiver, so leaving him unblocked isn’t really an issue since he steps back in coverage. He makes the tackle, but it’s after the RB already gained 7 yards:
Coach Green responded by dropping the safety into coverage and having the cornerback play run support. The problem, though, is that he couldn’t walk the CB up too close to the line of scrimmage without risking a pass going over his head. The CB was still lined up far enough back from the LOS that the WR was able to read which of the two secondary defenders were playing run support, and block him.
The Mids were able to make it a 17-14 game near the end of the second quarter. Had Navy been able to stop Rutgers on their ensuing drive, the game would’ve felt a lot different heading into halftime. As it was, Rutgers was able to march down the field with relative ease to go into the locker room with a 10-point lead. The drive started innocently enough; you can see the safety stepping up in run support on the drive’s first play. On the next play, though, Rutgers connected on their one long pass of the game. They ran play action off of the bread & butter running play, and the offensive line on the play side did a good job of not dropping back into pass protection but instead making it look sort of ambiguous as to their intentions. It confused the safety just enough that the wide receiver was able to get behind him for a big play.
The safeties were hesitant to step up in run support for the rest of that drive, and Rutgers had plenty of time to run right down the field and punch it into the end zone.
So what can we take away from this game? Are there any silver linings?
I think there are. In the realm of “it’s never as good or as bad as it seems,” I don’t feel nearly as down on either the offense or the defense as I did on Saturday. It’s funny… Everyone (but me) was singing the offense’s praises after the Ohio State game, but they had more total yards against Rutgers. They just weren’t rushing yards, which is what we’re all conditioned to care about. Passing yards count just as much, though. For the offense to top 400 yards on a day when the option wasn’t really clicking is a good sign. Rutgers will not be the last team to be super-aggressive with the secondary and dare Navy to pass. Shoot, we’ll probably see it again this week. I think that the Mids showed that they can get it done through the air if they have to, though. Other schools aren’t going to have that defensive line.
The same goes for the defense. It wasn’t mental errors that did them in. The Mids actually did a pretty good job playing their assignments; they just couldn’t get off of their blocks. The Rutgers offensive line might be the best that Navy sees all year, though, and the Mids were still able to hold them to one score in the second half. Notre Dame might be able to do what Rutgers did, but the rest of the teams left on the schedule will likely need a different approach.
A lot of the angst that I’ve seen among Navy fans after the game strikes me as being rooted in a lack of respect for Rutgers. Think about it for a second. Take the name off of the jersey, and what do you have? You have a power conference bowl team from last year that was returning their entire offensive line, has a fast and athletic defensive line, and coaches that know a thing or two. Isn’t Navy’s game plan against teams like that to try to hang around long enough to have a shot at the end? Isn’t that exactly what happened? This is basically the Pitt game from last year but with a less favorable result. I don’t know if it’s because of familiarity, or because Rutgers has been the butt of so many jokes on the national scene lately as a Big Ten misfit, but people I’ve talked to don’t seem to be giving the Scarlet Knights their due. No, Rutgers isn’t Ohio State, but they aren’t Texas State, either (no offense to the Bobcats). It’s a challenge whenever Navy faces a BCS-conference team, and Rutgers is no exception.
Being 2-2 after 4 games is always going to leave you with an uneasy feeling, but I’m actually feeling a little more optimistic now than I was even after Navy’s wins. Hopefully that optimism proves to be justified.