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.
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.
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.