Navy football doesn’t have too much of a history with Colgate, but the Red Raiders still claim a couple of interesting footnotes from the not-too-distant past.
The Mids last played Colgate in 1998, overcoming a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter to win, 42-35. Brian Broadwater replaced the injured Steve Holley for his first career start, and it was quite the debut: eight of nine passes completed for 165 yards, 214 rushing yards, and four total touchdowns. The last of those touchdowns came on a 61-yard run with a minute left to clinch the game. Navy had 680 yards of total offense, setting a school record (since broken). That broke the previous record of 653 set in 1970 against… Colgate.
Navy and Colgate also played a year earlier, with the Mids cruising to a 52-24 win behind Chris McCoy’s five touchdowns. Navy finished the season with a 7-4 record. A few bowl games were interested in inviting the Mids, especially after they averaged 50 points over their last four games. Unfortunately, because of NCAA rules, they weren’t eligible. A few weeks earlier, Navy had defeated VMI, which meant that Colgate was their second win over a I-AA team that year. Under today’s rules, that would have been fine. In 1997, though, the rule was that a team needed six wins over I-A opponents to be bowl eligible, so Navy was left out.
Missing out on a bowl game because of playing Colgate caused a bit of an overreaction on Charlie Weatherbie’s part, and ultimately contributed to his downfall. Not wanting to face another situation where his team would be denied a bowl berth, Weatherbie decided to stop scheduling I-AA teams altogether. The vacuum was filled by more BCS-caliber opponents. By from 2000-2002, Navy scheduled games against Georgia Tech, Boston College, Rutgers, Wake Forest, NC State, Northwestern, and Duke, in addition to the annual matchup with Notre Dame. They went 0-15 in those games. Paul Johnson inherited these schedules in 2002 and knew that had to change:
To me, I think there’s a point where you face reality. For us to play Notre Dame and Boston College and N.C. State every year, how are you going to have a successful season if you schedule yourself six losses before you start?
You don’t schedule six games where you’re 29-point underdogs. If you do that and you play a 12-game schedule and you split the other six games, then your record becomes 3-9.
If you go back historically and you look at Navy’s schedule, they’ve always played one or two of those [I-AA] teams. Charlie decided he didn’t want to play any more because he wanted a bowl schedule and that’s when they dropped them. My take on that is let’s see if we can’t build a program before we worry about something that happens once every 20 years.
Navy did indeed build a program, and they (thankfully) go to bowl games a lot more often than once every 20 years. Like Johnson suggested, part of Navy’s renaissance was more sensible scheduling, including an occasional game against a I-AA opponent. Colgate, however, was not among them. In order for an FCS team to count toward bowl eligibility, they have to offer scholarships; the Patriot League didn’t start offering them in football until 2012. Now that they do, more of Navy’s Patriot League friends are making their way onto Navy schedules over the next few years. (cc: AAC basketball coaches)
The first of those Patriot League teams is, once again, Colgate. The Red Raiders last appeared on most Navy fans’ radar in 2013, when they opened their season with a 38-13 loss at Air Force. A lot has changed in Hamilton since that season, Dick Biddle’s last as head coach. Biddle was an institution at Colgate, winning at least a share of seven league titles and a national championship game appearance (at a non-scholarship school, remember) in 18 years leading the football program. Having found a winning formula, Colgate had no intention of going in a different direction when Biddle retired. They immediately named offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Dan Hunt as his successor.
Hunt led Colgate to a 5-7 record in his first season. After starting out 0-2 with losses to Ball State and Delaware, the Raiders were able to string together four wins in a row, including a 31-30 comeback over the defending Ivy League co-champions, Princeton. The star of that game for Colgate was quarterback Jake Melville, who threw for 303 yards and three touchdowns. It would be the sophomore’s last game before being sidelined for the next month with mononucleosis. Colgate went 0-4 without him. When Melville returned for the season finale against a Bucknell team that was playing for a shot at a playoff bid, Colgate returned to their winning ways with a 21-6 upset on the road.
That made the team 5-2 with Melville under center, which sets up what should be an interesting Patriot League season. Fordham is the preseason pick to repeat as conference champs in the league’s preseason poll, followed closely by Bucknell. Fordham will have to make up for some significant losses from graduation, though. Colgate, on the other hand, was very young in 2014 and should reap the rewards of that playing experience this season. That’s particularly true on offense, where the Red Raiders return nine starters. And while Bucknell should once again be a very good team, Colgate did manage to beat them last year. There’s every reason to expect Colgate to be in the hunt for the league crown come November.
The challenge now is interpreting what all of this means when it comes to Saturday’s matchup with Navy. The Patriot League is not the strongest conference in the FCS field. For comparison’s sake, last year’s champion, Fordham, fell to Army by a score of 42-31, although admittedly that game was a dogfight. On paper, you’d expect Navy to beat Colgate by a comfortable margin. For all the times we’ve looked at an opponent’s sideline and reminded ourselves that Navy doesn’t win many recruiting battles against those guys, this is one instance where they actually do. That said, this game is a little more complicated than that. Colgate’s strengths have an uncanny alignment to Navy’s biggest question marks heading into the 2015 season.
The Red Raiders were an average defense relative to the rest of the Patriot League last season, but they were second against the run, giving up only 145 yards per game. Colgate is similar to Navy in that they line up with 3-4 personnel but still show multiple defensive fronts. Their defense doesn’t have as many returning starters as the offense, but the guys they do have coming back are very good, particularly in the front seven. That group is led by Victor Steffen, a 6-3, 275 lb. defensive end that Hunt has described as being a pro prospect. He had 56 tackles in 2014, with 11.5 coming for a loss. Lined up behind him is a group of linebackers led by Kyle Diener on the inside and star sophomore Pat Afriyie on the outside, with both receiving preseason all-conference honors.
They will be facing a Navy offensive line that has only two starters returning. That isn’t always something to be overly concerned about; Navy rotates so many guys along the offensive line throughout the season that even if someone doesn’t start, he probably still gets a decent amount of experience. There’s been quite a bit of shuffling at the end of fall practice, though, driven in part by the need to replace injured center Blaze Ryder. Brandon Greene, who has plenty of playing experience at tackle, will get first crack at that job. In a somewhat surprising move, sophomore Robert Lindsey will get the start at right tackle over the more experienced Blake Copeland.
We don’t know how that lineup will be affected by the eventual return of Ryder, and the instability could be cause for concern. Navy’s offense has the potential to be very, very good this season. While the 2007 offense is generally considered the gold standard of the option era, the 2014 squad actually averaged more yards per play, even with Keenan Reynolds being hampered by a knee injury for half the season. The injury’s impact was largest in the passing game, with Keenan missing several open receivers he was able to connect with a year earlier. If a healthy Reynolds can return to form throwing the ball, the sky’s the limit with this offense. It isn’t all up to Reynolds, though; if he’s running for his life every time he drops back to pass, the effect will be the same as the injury. The line will eventually gel; they always do. How long it takes to happen will be the story to watch early in the season.
On the other side of the ball, Colgate led the Patriot League in rushing, averaging 181 yards per game running a spread offense that features a lot of zone read and inverted veer. It’s an offense that schematically will challenge a Navy linebacker corps that could start as many as three sophomores. Defending any zone running scheme requires gap discipline, which can be difficult for young guys eager to make a play. It also can open up opportunities in the passing game, especially for tight ends running against the grain. Colgate has a good one in John Quazza, a preseason all-conference pick who led the team with 400 receiving yards in 2014, including 92 against Ball State. Navy is the physically superior team, but that doesn’t mean they can afford to be reckless.
I don’t want to overstate things too much here. If Navy is the team that everyone thinks they’ll be this season– contenders in the AAC West division– then they should win this game regardless of what Colgate throws at them. But they haven’t proven anything yet. Getting it done on the field is a lot different from getting it done in the pages of a season preview magazine.
Step one is to bring home a win on Saturday.