Navy Notables – 11/21/14

Navy men’s basketball dropped their third consecutive game, 88-51 at the Providence Friars on Thursday night.  After opening with a 5 point home loss to Michigan State, Navy has been outscored by a combined 180-104 by Providence and Notre Dame.  Perhaps the most telling stat of the game was the dichotomy in shooting 3′s.  Providence was 11-21 from beyond the arc, while Navy was struggled to 4-17.  But before we get too worried, let’s remember that this is the a Providence team that won the Big East last year and returned several key contributors, while Notre Dame is in the top half of the extremely deep ACC.  Navy heads to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn to face a the CAA-favorite Northeastern Huskies on Saturday night.  The Huskies are fresh off a win at Florida State and looking to push their record to 3-0.

On the women’s side of the hardcourt, Navy blew past Mary Washington in the 2nd half last night to notch their first win of the season.  Trailing by three at the break, Navy opened the 2nd half on a 21-4 run en route to a 79-59 victory.  Contributing to the dominant performance in the game was Navy’s out-rebounding the Eagles 33-14 in the 2nd half.  But there is certainly room for the team to improve as the ladies shot just 4-of-21 from three and 23-of-40 from the free throw line.  Navy continues a 6 game home stand on Saturday night against the Penn Quakers.

It was announced earlier in the week that two Navy football players have been selected for leadership roles for the second semester.  Linebacker Joe Worth has been chosen to lead the Brigade of Midshipmen as the Brigade Commander.  He becomes the first football player to hold this position since Zerbin Singleton served in the role in 2008.  Additionally, safety Shakir Robinson has been selected as First Regimental Commander for the spring.

Quick hits:

Navy Notables – 11/20/14

Glass half full vs. empty test – senior forward Worth Smith is going to miss the next 6 weeks of basketball due to a dislocated kneecap suffered in the first half of the Michigan State.  Given what it looked like when he went down, this is probably the best case scenario.  It is anticipated that Smith will be able to return by the time Patriot League play starts in late December.  This is the 4th major injury of the season for the Navy basketball team, joining Tim Abruzzo (ACL), Michael Brown (broken jaw), and Kendall Knorr (tendinitis).

Austin Grebe was named the ECAC special teams player of the week for his performance against Georgia Southern.  He was perfect from the field against the Eagles, connecting on all 7 extra point attempts and converting his only field goal attempt (from 36 yards).  Grebe, who won the kicking job before the VMI game, has yet to miss.  For the season, he’s 23-23 on extra points (yes, Navy has scored 23 touchdowns in the last 4 games) and 4-4 on field goals.

If you were at the football game on Saturday, you would have seen the Varsity Offshore Sailing Team recognized for their season on the water, which included many regatta victories.  But the single most notable moment of the season wasn’t marked with the raising of any silver in victory.  It was the successful recovery of a man overboard during the Annapolis Yacht Club Fall Series.  The crew, firmly in the lead of a distance race, reacted swiftly when a lifeline broke on an opposing boat and recovered the person in the water in a scant 4 minutes, averting possible disaster.

Quick hits:

THE DAY ANNAPOLIS WAS THE CENTER OF THE BASKETBALL UNIVERSE

I don’t take vacations as often as I should. Not that I’m a workaholic or anything, but my wife has a weird schedule that doesn’t sync up very well with mine when it comes to taking time off. The problem with never taking vacations– other than the obvious– is that on the rare occasions when we do take one, we feel a lot of pressure to make sure we’re packing in as much fun as possible. Every second just has to be filled with excitement, and we can’t miss out on anything our destination has to offer since we don’t know when we’ll be able to take another trip. Ironically, the pressure to have fun ends up adding a layer of stress that makes everything less fun.

The same thing happens to me when I make it up to Annapolis. I don’t go anywhere near as often as I should; the last time I attended a home football game was against Central Michigan in 2010. I was determined to go to a game this year, and considered San Jose State since my class was having our reunion that weekend. Then the Veterans Classic was announced, and after that the choice was obvious (sorry, ’99). This was an event I had to see, and by the time last week rolled around I could barely contain my excitement for it. But as my trip grew closer, I started wondering: was I setting myself up for disappointment? Was I putting too much pressure on myself to have fun at this event? Was there any chance the Veterans Classic could possibly live up to the expectations I had built up in my head?

As it turns out, it blew them away.

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Veterans Classic – a Navy experience like none before

I was born in Durham, NC and grew up on Tobacco Road (seriously – we had tobacco fields right behind my childhood home). My parents went to Duke, my dad spent some time as an adjunct at Wake Forest, and my brother graduated from NC State. Cliques formed around ACC basketball school fanbases in schools to the point that the different colors could have been mistaken as gang colors. I might like to talk about football around here, but I was raised on basketball.

The Quicken Loans Veterans Classic would have fit right in with the basketball culture that rules North Carolina. And much like the cozy confines of Cameron Indoor, Alumni Hall provided an intimate evening for nearly 6,000 fans to watch Navy play host to Michigan State, VCU, and Tennessee.

The first matchup of the evening saw VCU, lead by Shaka Smart, open up an early lead on Tennessee that was not relinquished. There were some kinks with the shot clock early on, and a scary moment when VCU guard JeQuan Lewis went down hard and appeared to have a seizure on the court. But the real story was that Smart’s Havoc is real and it is spectacular. VCU seemed to swarm the court on both ends, creating opportunities on offense and confusion for Tennessee on defense. Oh and the VCU pep band is extremely fun. Anyone who has 7 tubas shaking it in the aisles gets a big thumbs up from this former band nerd.

But enough about VCU-Tennessee. Let’s talk about the amazing experience that was Navy vs. Michigan State.

First up: the crowd. I have never heard Alumni Hall sound like that. The Mids in attendance were loud all game long, being relentless when Navy needed to get stops and giving plenty of love for great offensive play. It was something to see when compared with the relative quiet of the mandatory fun Army-Navy games. I can only imagine what Halsey Field House was like when David Robinson was on his way to becoming the Admiral, but I would guess that Friday night came pretty close to matching that intensity.

And the Sparty fans that were around were a lot of fun. Everyone I met was eager to talk, swap stories, and offer up opinions on the event and the play on the court. Granted, they were doing their best impression of Ohio State fans at the Horseshoe in 2009 – quiet consternation and a general “is this really happening” feeling oozing from their clenched hands.

And the consternation was well deserved, because Navy played a complete game and took Michigan State to the wire. Let’s be perfectly clear, this was not a case of Navy hitting miracle threes to keep it close and entertaining. Navy simply went toe-to-toe with Michigan State, capitalized on MSU mistakes, and made a run when they had to. And they did this all with Worth Smith leaving the game with a knee injury in the latter parts of the first half, after already racking up 7 points and a pair of steals and rebounds.

Sure, Michigan State had the highlight reel plays. On a few occasions, Sparty got odd-man breaks on a turnover or steal and shook the court with some high-flying alley-oops. But Navy was never intimidated. We joked about taking pictures of the scoreboard when the Midshipmen held leads early in the game. We were all happy when it was a seven point game at the half. And when Michigan State went on a run to open it up to a 13 point lead in the 2nd half, we all seemed to sense the inevitable blowout upon us. Before the game, I asked Mike if we could keep it to 20. Seemed pretty prescient at the time.

Then Navy went on a 10-0 run to close it right back up.

From there on out, Navy couldn’t get closer than three. But Michigan could never open it back up, either. Over the course of the 2nd half, Navy outscored Michigan State by 2 and held their own on the boards (losing the rebound battle by one). Perhaps the most shocking stat of the game was that Navy’s bench outscored Michigan State’s by a 17-16 margin.

It should be noted that Navy got over 100 minutes of play out of plebes and youngsters. Ed DeChellis has struggled through his first 3 seasons for consistency and depth. But after one game, it looks like the Midshipmen may finally have some. For my money, the Navy player of the game was Edward Alade. He led all Navy players with 12 points on 5-of-6 from the field and a couple of free throws. He went against the trees of MSU under the basket and held his own.

There were multiple stories to come out of Friday night. That Navy took a nationally ranked team to the final minute of the game was the biggest. But right behind it was the quality of the even and the bright future for the Veterans Classic. Some of the biggest names in the country are clamoring to attend (John Feinstein reported on Saturday that Notre Dame will play Navy next year while North Carolina and Temple face off in the other game). With another 3 years left on the current contract, it looks like CBS and Navy have a winner on their hands.

If you passed on the event this year, don’t make the same mistake in 2015. This event matched the energy I’ve felt in attendance at ACC basketball games. It reminded me of the pure fun of watching Tobacco Road teams square off. And it let the nation know that there is a great new event taking place every November in Annapolis. And it let me know that I need to get to more Navy basketball games this season (and write about them). You should come out, too. Looks like it’s going to be a fun year.

Postgame Haiku, Vol. 84

In option battle
Navy football reigns supreme
Seniors out on top

GAME WEEK: GEORGIA SOUTHERN

I apologize for my mini-hiatus, although I’m sure you’re all used to it by now.

There was a lot to feel good about when it came to Navy’s performance against Notre Dame. The team fought back from a first-half deficit to take a lead, and was in the game until the end. That felt more like the Navy team that won 9 games a year ago instead of the team that went on a 3-game losing streak.

Those good feelings didn’t last long, though. As good as the Mids played, they still lost. Now they sit at 4-5, and the margin of error for achieving a winning regular season has evaporated. It’s a single-elimination tournament from here on out, and first up in the bracket is Georgia Southern.

There was a time where it appeared that the Georgia Southern game might arguably be the most interesting on Navy’s schedule. There are certainly higher-profile games, obviously, but the shared coaching history between these two schools has bred a certain familiarity between the two programs (I will neither confirm nor deny once being a member of the Southern Boosters). Jeff Monken coached the Eagles back in the 2010 meeting, and for a while it looked like this would be another mirror-image game. Monken, however, was hired away by Army. Then it looked like things would get REALLY interesting when Ivin Jasper was on GSU’s short list to replace Monken, but the powers that be in Statesboro decided to go in another direction, hiring Willie Fritz from Sam Houston State. Now the game is interesting simply because Georgia Southern is really good.

The Eagles are 8-2, including a 7-0 mark in their inaugural Sun Belt season with one conference game left to play. For a program that has debated for years whether or not to make the jump to the FBS level, the decision is looking pretty good in the short-term. People have taken notice, too; GSU has become somewhat of a media darling. The team’s success is largely thanks to Fritz’s own flavor of option offense that he brought with him from Sam Houston State. Georgia Southern has been an offensive powerhouse, averaging nearly 500 yards and 43 points per game.

Fritz’s offense is different from the option of the Johnson-Sewak-Monken years, but it’s a scheme that was easy (both physically and conceptually) for Georgia Southern’s players to fit into. Run primarily out of pistol formations, Georgia Southern uses more zone blocking as opposed to the inside veer that is the foundation of past GSU offenses. For the quarterback, it’s not too much of a change; he still progresses through his reads like he did before. Zone blocking is different for the offensive line, but it still favors quicker linemen that can get to linebackers quickly. That’s what GSU’s line was already built for under Monken. Besides, it’s not like they had never used zone blocking before. It’s just a different focus. The zone read is hardly a concept unique to Georgia Southern. Everyone runs it at least a little bit. What’s unique about Georgia Southern is more how committed they are to it. They are very much an option offense as opposed to an offense that dabbles in the option once in a while.

You can imagine why this offense is so difficult to defend. Think about what zone blocking means for a minute. Running backs don’t necessarily have a predetermined gap to run through. The playside offensive linemen will double-team a defensive lineman. Based on how that DL reacts, one of the two OL will then move on to a linebacker. Whichever lineman moves on to the second level is what determines the gap that the RB runs through. That’s why you hear that patience is so important for RBs in zone schemes; it can take time for that running lane to present itself, and it’s hard not to get antsy when you’re spending that much time behind the line of scrimmage. The way to defend this is with gap discipline. The defense can’t be over-zealous in defending a particular gap, because the running back is reading which gap to run through. Where the defense zigs, the RB will zag. In order to stop a zone running game, then, you have to cover all your gaps so that the RB can’t read which one to run through. The RB has to be strung out long enough for a defender to shed his block and make the stop.

That’s difficult enough, but now imagine adding the option on top of it. In the zone read, the zone runs I just described are simply the first option. If you leave the defender responsible for the backside gap unblocked, you can option off of him. Now you force the defense to cover the entire field from sideline to sideline; not only do you have to cover the zone run going one way, but you have to cover the quarterback and the pitch going the other way. If most of the defense has to follow the direction the offensive line is moving in order to maintain gap control, who’s left to cover the quarterback and the pitch going the other way? Usually it’s the secondary, and you can see how that’s a problem. Now it’s a pick-your-poison situation. Do you step up to defend the run? If you do, you open yourself up to play-action. If you don’t, the offense will rip off huge chunks on the ground. Georgia Southern’s results so far speak for themselves.

That cuts both ways, though. Indeed, GSU’s numbers are tremendous, and they’re averaging more yards on the ground than even Navy. But who are they getting these numbers against? If you want to get a feel for Georgia Southern’s schedule, start at the bottom of the Sun Belt standings and work your way up. It is, to put it delicately, a bit light. The Eagles miss out on the conference’s two best teams (UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State) while maintaining their quasi-traditional bodybag game against Savannah State. Now, I am by no means a schedule snob, but in Georgia Southern’s case there are some stark contrasts between the teams they’ve played that have a pulse, and those that do not. The Eagles have played two ACC teams (NC State and Georgia Tech) and two conference teams with winning records (South Alabama and Texas State). Against everyone else, they’re 6-0 and averaging 462 rushing yards per game. Against those four, though, they’re 2-2 and averaging only 272 rushing yards per game. Not bad, but not nearly as other-worldly.

It’s no great revelation that it’s harder to play well against better teams, but that kind of contrast between the good and bad on Georgia Southern’s schedule underscores what it takes to beat this offense. The better teams have more success because they’re able to win more one-on-one physical battles. This is definitely a “Jimmies & Joes, not Xs & Os” situation. Like Navy’s offense, if you try to out-scheme Georgia Southern, you’ll do something to leave yourself vulnerable. You have to win with technique and individual effort. Is Navy’s defense up to the task? I don’t know.  It’s easy to point out that a couple of ACC defenses had decent statistical games against Georgia Southern, but Navy isn’t an ACC defense. The Mids had trouble containing the zone running of Rutgers, Notre Dame, and WKU, but had success at times against Air Force and Temple. It’s debatable whether GSU is physically superior to the latter two, but with 9 of the 10 OL on their 2-deep being juniors or seniors, there’s no doubt they’re more experienced. That’s the unit that will decide this game. The key for Navy will be the discipline of their linebackers and the defensive line’s ability to beat that OL and get into the backfield.

You can sometimes get a pretty good feel for how a game is going to go beforehand, but this one is a much tougher read. Could it be a shootout? Georgia Southern gave up 536 yards of offense to Georgia Tech thanks to using the 3-deep 4-4 we love to see. Will they use that same scheme again? If so, Navy will run wild. If not, what will GSU do instead? Will this be a pair of offenses cranking out the yards, or will defenses that know what they’re doing against the option rule the day? I could see it going either way. That’s what makes this game so exciting, and given its importance to Navy’s hopes for a winning season, so nerve-wracking.

 

Postgame Haiku, Vol. 83

ANCHORS ON HELMETS
We lost to Notre Dame, but
ANCHORS ON HELMETS

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