Georgia Southern picks a coach

From a Navy fan’s point of view, the Georgia Southern head coaching search boiled down to Ivin Jasper vs. Not Ivin Jasper. In the end, it was the latter that won out, as the powers that be in Statesboro chose Sam Houston State head coach Willie Fritz.

I don’t follow Georgia Southern closely enough to have too much of an opinion on the hire, but I am a little surprised that Coach Jasper didn’t get the job. He seemed like the natural pick to keep the momentum going after Jeff Monken returned the program to its option-running roots. Then again, perhaps Jasper’s background worked against him instead of for him. Jasper was probably seen as the “safe” pick. Maybe the AD wanted to make a splash instead, to put his own stamp on the program. Maybe the school’s leadership felt that the new FBS era called for a new approach. Or maybe they just plain liked Fritz more. Certainly his record as a head coach speaks for itself, and there are plenty of football programs that would feel lucky to have him.

Whatever their reasoning, Georgia Southern’s loss is most definitely Navy’s gain. I’m pretty sure that anyone reading this blog already knows what I think about the Navy offense under Jasper. Not quite as obvious is how good he is as a quarterbacks coach. He’s so good at teaching quarterbacks how to run the option that Navy feels they can go after any quarterback, not just guys who ran the option in high school. Without Coach Jasper, there is no Ricky Dobbs or Keenan Reynolds. He single-handedly increases Navy’s recruiting pool. All of that really only scratches the surface on everything he does for the Navy program.

Football is just fun for us fans, but it’s a career for these coaches. I know that. Coach Jasper has earned the chance to run his own team. That said, my emotions here are not mixed. I’m thrilled that he’s still in Annapolis. Yeah it’s selfish, but I don’t care. Coach Jasper is awesome, and I like when awesome people are at the Naval Academy. It’s only a matter of time before someone does give Jasper a head coaching job, and whoever does will probably become my second favorite team. Until then I’m just going to be thankful for every season this coaching staff sticks together.

Three Things I’m Watching: Air Force at Navy

Work is preventing me from getting up to Annapolis for the game this weekend, but I’ll be alert and focused from my couch as Navy attempts to avenge last year’s 14-6 loss in Colorado Springs. This game is getting broken down from literally every angle you can think of, but here are three storylines I’m going to be keeping an eye on for Saturday.

Orange Zone Playcalling: Navy’s offensive struggles in the red zone during last year’s game have been well documented, as has the apparent turn-around through the early part of this year. But can you really call it a turnaround after just three games? Navy has been six for eight in the redzone this year in terms of coming away with touchdowns, but the offense has also scored seven touchdowns from outside the redzone. Given the familiarity of the Air Force defense with the option and the usually solid play of the Air Force cornerbacks in supporting the run while in the redzone, I’m curious to see if Niumatalolo and Jasper roll the dice in what I’m dubbing the “Orange Zone.” I’m talking about the area between the opponent’s 20 and 40 yard line, or as it’s better known, “field goal range.” Think about it; John Howell and Gee Gee Green have proved themselves as a big play slotbacks who can score when they get to the outside, while the Navy passing game – on somewhat questionable footing coming into the year – has already produced three receiving touchdowns. If Air Force is firing the corners and cheating a safety, I would not be surprised to see Navy’s offense become especially aggressive in trying to score while in my so-called “Orange Zone.”

Alexander Teich: I’ve been in my share of Navy press conferences after losses, but until the post-game press conference after the loss at South Carolina, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Navy player as mad about a game as Alexander Teich was. It’s one thing to be disappointed. It’s one thing to be heartbroken. But when your team captain is – and please excuse my somewhat vulgar nature here – straight-up pissed off, you can’t help but think to the next game and wonder how he’ll play. Teich is the kind of emotional leader who has always used that kind of fire to fuel his performance, and I’d expect nothing less in arguably the biggest game of the season. At the same time, Navy-Air Force games have hardly been conducive to breakout fullback play in the recent past. Last year Teich had just 38 yards against Air Force, and the year before that he and then-starter Vince Murray averaged just under 3.0 yards per carry between them on 29 combined carries. Actually, Navy has gone five seasons without a fullback or fullback tandem running for over 100 yards against Air Force (Adam Ballard had 134 yards in 2006), a stat that something tells me Teich knows all too well. He won’t need to rush for over 100 yards to make his presence felt, but he’s going to have to make an impact if Navy wants to come out on top. Whether it’s leading the way for Proctor and blowing up the ‘backer on a midline, or catching, turning, and getting upfield on a screen, Teich has the opportunity to live up to his captain status this Saturday, and prove that he was more than just a fuming player after the tough loss to the Gamecocks.

Defensive Substitutions: Bill Wagner posted an interesting tidbit on his blog about defensive end Wes Henderson getting the nod over Jamel Dobbs at defensive end for Saturday’s game. Henderson had a pretty rip-roaring game against USC two weeks ago when he recorded five stops, so much so that I honestly mistook him for Jabaree Tuani at times. Henderson getting the nod might just be a case of a great game rewarded and coach Pehrson going with the “hot hand,” but I think it also speaks to what has silently become a surprisingly deep Navy defense. With all three injured outside linebackers returning this week – and with Brye French having played well against South Carolina – I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see Buddy Green rolling guys in and out on a regular basis Saturday to keep them fresh. On the other side of the coin, you’ve got to wonder if the Air Force defensive injuries will be felt hardest in the second half, when the attrition of a *hopefully* successful Navy run game could really take its toll.

Ok, that’s what I’m going to be checking out, in addition to the “usual” storylines of special teams, extracurricular activity, and amount of times coach gets caught on national television mouthing “SON OF BISCUIT.” Any particular storylines you’re checking out?

The Science and The Art

The end result of a plan coming together.
The end result of a plan coming together.

Ivin Jasper has some big shoes to fill.

Not that he really needs anyone to remind him. The future of Navy’s offense in the post-Paul Johnson world has been on everyone’s mind since the former head coach in Annapolis moved on to face new challenges at Georgia Tech. The offense has been Navy’s calling card; it’s what made Navy, Navy. Under Johnson, the Mids never finished lower than third in the country in rushing, and they became the first team to lead the country in that category for three consecutive years. So far, Ken Niumatalolo has fielded most of the questions from the press about the future of the offense. But when Towson comes to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on August 30 it’ll be Jasper that’s under the microscope. The new offensive coordinator is, after all, carrying out the gameday duties Navy’s former offensive messiah. Paul Johnson was a master of both the science of designing plays for his offense, and the art of knowing just how to unleash those plays at the right time. Fortunately, while Jasper might not have been calling the plays, he was already a significant factor in Navy’s recent offensive success– both as the quarterbacks coach and as Paul Johnson’s gameday eyes in the booth. Jasper would relay what he was seeing from his perch above the stadium to Johnson, who called plays based on that input. Jasper was part of the decision-making process. That, plus his experience as a player in this offense (at two different positions), makes Coach Jasper about as prepared as one can be to get behind the wheel of Paul Johnson’s offensive machine. So it will be both nerve-wracking and exciting to see where the similarities and differences will be with Jasper running the show on game day. His X & O mastery is without question. But what about his style?  His creativity? How will he make this offense his own?

Some people don’t think it’s possible to have much style or creativity in such a “boring” option offense, but style is something that sets Paul Johnson apart. One of the more fascinating things about the way Paul Johnson calls games is seeing how far ahead he thinks. He’ll spend an entire game– hell, sometimes an entire season– setting up one play. He is very conscious of what he puts on film, and knows what his own tendencies are. He uses that to his advantage. I remember reading one of his press conference transcripts after the Notre Dame game a few years ago, talking about a play he called on third & short. He commented that he made a point to do repeat one particular play in that down & distance situation all year in order to give the Irish coaches something to pick up on in the film room… Just so he could call something different on that day and hopefully catch them off guard. It didn’t work in that case, but sometimes it works to absolute perfection. Perhaps the most easily illustrated example of this is the 2006 game at Connecticut.

Navy fans remember the game, but I’ll give a quick recap for the Georgia Tech fans that will inevitably find their way to this post. The Mids had over 600 yards of offense against the Huskies in their 2006 meeting. Quarterback Brian Hampton and slotback Reggie Campbell both had over 100 rushing yards, with Campbell’s yardage coming on only 5 carries. Navy was plagued by penalties, but still rolled to a 41-17 win thanks to big plays. The Mids’ first play from scrimmage was a 77-yard TD pass from Hampton to Campbell. Reggie followed up on that play with a 68-yard TD run on the first play of the second half. (WARNING: GRATUITOUS HIGHLIGHT)

Fullback Adam Ballard had an 81-yard run. Shun White caught a pitch and took it 27 yards. Brian Hampton had three touchdown runs, the longest coming on a counter option in the 4th quarter that went for 52 yards.

It’s that last play that is the subject of this post. Paul Johnson spent an entire quarter setting up that play. How did he do it? Let’s begin with breaking down a basic Navy counter option play to find out.

The Science

Before every game, opposing coaches and players are asked about what it takes to stop Navy’s option offense. The answer is always the same: “discipline.” But if that was the case, shouldn’t Navy’s offense get shut down more often? How hard is it to teach defenses a little bit of discipline? The truth is that it’s a lot easier said than done. To demonstrate this, we’ll start with Navy’s bread & butter, the triple option:

So here’s your basic triple option play against an even front, being run to the left (my apologies for the crude diagram). The backside slotback begins his tail motion based on the quarterback’s cadence, usually a second or so before the snap. This happens right in front of the face of the backside 5 technique, in this case a defensive end. When the 5-tech sees the slotback go in motion, he knows that the play is going to go in the same direction. So what does he do? He starts to cheat that way, especially if the fullback keeps getting the ball. It’s hard not to when you see the same thing happening over and over and over again. This is why disciplined defense is so challenging. You can preach it to death in practice, but during the game, when you’re on the field for 5-6 minute drives as the offense in front of you is gaining 3-4 yards on every play, you start thinking that maybe it’s up to you to do something to force a 4th down. Or maybe you just get tired from being out there for so long and lose your concentration. Either way, that DE starts cheating inside, sometimes without even realizing it. And when that happens, Ivin Jasper sees it from his press box perch. Enter, the counter option:

Once that 5 technique starts cheating inside, he becomes an easy target for a pulling guard to seal off and trap. And that’s the heart of the counter option play. The numbering for reads is done the same way as with the triple option (if you haven’t already, I suggest reading this post from last year for an explanation on the numbers). The same A-back goes into tail motion just as he did on the triple option play. But this time, he pivots and reverses direction on the snap. Instead of being the pitch man, he carries out an arc block to the run support (#3). The playside 5 technique sees the tail motion before the snap and cheats inside. When he realizes that the play is going the other way and changes direction to pursue, he’s met by a pulling guard that traps him. This leaves the quarterback free to get upfield and read his pitch key.

The quarterback has his own set of concerns. At the snap, he turns in the same direction as the tail motion to carry out the triple option look. At this point, he has his back to the pitch key. This makes him vulnerable; the pitch key is unblocked and can uncork a monster hit on the quarterback if he comes in on a blitz. Because of this, the quarterback should find a “soft” #2 to run the play towards. “Soft” meaning that before the snap, he doesn’t look like he’s going to blitz (speaking of easier said than done). If the pitch key does come in and attack the quarterback, the QB will pitch the ball to the backside slotback.

The Art

It’s one thing to just take what the defense gives you. On this day, Paul Johnson pulled a playcalling rope-a-dope that made the defense give him what he wanted, and then delivered the knockout blow. After Reggie’s touchdown run to open up the second half, the Mids began mixing in plays on from a new formation on their next couple of posessions, with twin wide receivers on one side. Like so:

Other than a couple of pass attempts, Navy almost exclusively ran option plays out of this formation. And on every single option play, they ran the play towards the side of the field where the wide receivers were lined up:

This went on for a whole quarter. But on Navy’s first full 4th quarter drive, PJ dropped the bomb. The Mids ran the counter option, faking towards the wide receivers then turning around and running the play the other way. You’re going to have to watch this clip a few times. The first time, watch the playside defensive end (towards the top of the screen) bite hard on the fake and charge towards the fullback. Antron Harper is the pulling guard and completely cuts him off. The second time you watch the video, notice how the linebackers and safety also completely buy into the fake. It leaves them so off balance that the outside linebacker gets blown away by a beastly block from the left tackle, while the safety panics and overruns the play, whiffing on the tackle.

The fake was so good that even though the play wasn’t perfectly executed (Zach Gallion couldn’t maintain his block and Matt Hall couldn’t get through the line of scrimmage to block the backside linebacker), it still went the distance. With a little bit of speed and the ability to make people miss, that’s the sort of thing that can happen in this offense when a play is set up so beautifully.

And that was PJ’s style. In his best games, he didn’t just take what the defense gave him. He found ways to indirectly control the defense. We saw games where PJ liked to grind it out, and games where PJ would swing for the fences. Now it’s Coach Jasper’s turn in the lab, and we’ll probably see the same thing– at least on a macro scale. But the beauty lies in the details of just how to set up for that home run, and that’s where style comes in. Coach Jasper finding his style– his way of dictating the game–will be the story of the offense in 2008.