Statistically, the game was pretty much everything that we like to see.
Navy had 371 rushing yards, led by Chris Swain, who rumbled for 126. As a group, the fullbacks ran for 192 yards and four touchdowns while averaging a fantastic 9.1 yards per carry. Jamir Tillman caught three passes, including one for 44 yards. The starting defense gave up only 214 yards before being replaced in the fourth quarter, and held Colgate to a field goal after the offense stuck them with a short field on their first possession. The first quarter was a debacle, but the game was delightfully boring after that, and the Mids won easily.
These are all good things, but frankly, they should be expected. Colgate is a well-coached squad that should contend for the Patriot League crown, but they don’t even have any seniors on scholarship. It’s a different world from Navy, which is expected to be in the mix for the American Athletic Conference title. Statistical benchmarks in games like these are only going to tell us so much. Moving beyond the stats, Navy still played well, but they weren’t perfect.
In terms of Xs & Os, this wasn’t the most complicated game. Colgate lined up in a 4-4, with the safety in the middle of the field following tail motion to play the pitch. Against this defense, the first goal of the offense is usually to manage that safety. We’ve seen this done in a variety of ways in the past, with misdirection, passing, different formations, etc. Against Colgate, the plan was pretty simple. First, Coach Jasper ran the fullback to force the safety to respect the middle of the field:
Note that these weren’t option plays; the ball went to the fullback by design. The option plays were called once the safety had to account for the fullback. The way the Raider defense was keying on Keenan Reynolds, the ball usually ended up being pitched. The safety had pitch responsibility, but was slow to react because of the success of the fullback:
It basically became a guessing game for the safety, and the big plays happened when he guessed wrong. On these two runs, the fullback had nobody to stop him in the middle of the field because the safety was following tail motion:
Navy did a couple of different things in the second half, including lining up in some formations that I don’t remember seeing before. For the most part, though, this inside-outside combination was the offense’s bread and butter.
That brings us to what is probably the most positive takeaway from this game, which is the play of the fullbacks. Well, after the first quarter, anyway. Once things settled down, the trio of Swain, Ezell, and White responded well to having the game plan revolve around them. The offensive line certainly gets some credit for that after dominating the line of scrimmage for most of the game. But the fullbacks deserve recognition too; if they weren’t making the right reads on the zone dive, they wouldn’t have found themselves on the second and third levels of the defense all afternoon. It bodes well for the rest of the season.
Perhaps the biggest question about the offense entering the 2015 season was about their pass blocking, and while the quarterback wasn’t running for his life every time he dropped back, there were still a couple of sketchy moments. In the first quarter, Swain had a holding penalty that was probably the easiest flag that ref ever threw:
I’ll chalk that one up to nerves, since everything else went wrong on that first drive. Both Swain and the slotback seemed to be caught out of position before the former pulled out the ol’ vaudeville hook. (On the plus side, that was a pretty great throw!)
Keenan’s sack was even more dicey:
That’s just getting beat one-on-one there, albeit against a defensive end with some skill.
Neither of these are enough for anyone to hit the panic button. It’s only two plays, after all. It is something to keep an eye on as the Mids enter their conference schedule, however. Navy lost games last year because they weren’t able to take advantage of open plays in the passing game. Some of that was due to Keenan’s injury, but some of it was due to a lack of protection when he tried to throw. The return of Blaze Ryder means that there will be some more shuffling around on the offensive line, so it might be a while before this unit truly finds its sweet spot.
Defensively, the Mids played well at every position. The line got a good push and was unusually active, with Will Anthony and Amos Mason combining for 10 tackles and two passes batted down. The linebackers are the team’s least-experienced unit, but played a very sound game for the most part, led by Micah Thomas’ seven tackles. The secondary was never tested with any deep balls, but they did keep everything in front of them while limiting Colgate to only 127 passing yards. Again, it’s difficult to say what all of this means coming against a team like Colgate, but it’s certainly better than the alternative.
One of the bigger stories coming out of fall practice was that Navy was going to shake things up a little bit by bringing some more pressure on defense. We saw some of that on Saturday, but what we didn’t see were any sacks coming as a result. Coach Niumatalolo touched on this a little bit after the game:
I think people thought when we said we were going to blitz, that we were going to blitz 11 guys and be crazy. I’ve been here long enough to recognize who we are. But we had to pressure them, and I thought our pressure was just enough to keep them off-balance. We were stout in the run game, our eyes were perfect in the secondary. I’m just really happy the way we played defensively.
That’s fair enough; I don’t think that anyone could argue that Colgate wasn’t off-balance. Still, you’d like to see the quarterback get wrapped up at least once or twice; the offenses the Mids will be facing are only going to get better from here on out. When you consider division games against teams like Tulsa, SMU, and Houston that are on the horizon, plays that can end drives will be more crucial than ever.
Even if they didn’t end in sacks, there were a few examples of the Mids bringing pressure that are hopefully signs of things to come. On this play, the Mids only rushed four, but timed the snap count so well that they got a good jump on the outside:
The Mids only rushed four on this next play too, but did a good job of masking who the fourth rusher was going to be. The best part about this play was that the linebacker started his blitz from pretty far away, but was fast enough to get into the backfield fairly quickly.
Finally, we have the defense making it look like two guys were going to blitz before rushing two different guys:
There was one instance of a linebacker overpursuing on a run, leaving a cutback lane open for the running back:
Hopefully, that lesson was learned. All in all, though, it was a solid performance by the defense.
I’ve been a Navy fan long enough to know better than to take any win for granted, even one against a Patriot League opponent. The Mids are one step closer to a winning record and a bowl game, and that’s a great way to open any season. As pleased as we all are with the result, though, it’s difficult to say how much we actually learned about the 2015 Navy team. At the very least, there weren’t any glaring problems. For now, that’s good enough.