In his first season as head coach at the Naval Academy, a frustrated Paul Johnson once said of his offense’s speed, “We lead the country in players who can turn a 50-yard gain into a 12-yard gain.” Years of recruiting under Charlie Weatherbie had taken its toll. Weatherbie, as a service academy coach, was convinced that he couldn’t go head-to-head with other schools for Division I-caliber players. Instead, he cast as wide a net as possible, making offers to dozens of kids that weren’t that highly recruited. His hope was that there would be strength in numbers; the more players he brought in, the greater chance of finding a few diamonds in the rough that could turn into stars. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. He’d get a few. He didn’t get nearly enough to fill out 22 positions on a football team. The 3-30 record from 2000-2002 reflected that. The first task for Johnson and the rest of the new Navy staff was to overhaul recruiting.
That’s sort of where the Army program is now. Bobby Ross didn’t have the energy to recruit effectively, and Stan Brock leaned more towards quantity rather than quality. One of the effects of Army’s switch to a spread option offense last year was that it shattered the long-held belief of many Army fans that there was no difference in the talent between Army and Navy. In their eyes, they were both getting the same caliber of player; all Army needed was a better coach to take advantage of them. Once Army’s offense more closely resembled Navy’s in scheme, though, it became easier to make an apples-to-apples comparison of the talent between them. Anyone who still felt that Army and Navy were equal in talent before the season didn’t take long to change their mind. Army has a ways to go.
Army isn’t going to achieve Navy-like results doing the same thing as Navy, but with players that aren’t as fast. If they want to win, they are going to have to do things differently while they try to upgrade the roster. Army’s coaches retooled their offense over the offseason, and the result is the installation of the Wing T, coupled with some split-back veer. Army’s offense looks less like Navy’s and more like the old Delaware offenses under Tubby Raymond.
It has worked well for the Black Knights, who have improved from rushing for 203 yards per game in 2009 to 260 yards per game going into tomorrow’s contest.
Army’s depth chart still lists two “slotbacks,” but one of the two (usually Patrick Mealy) isn’t lined up in the slot at all. He’s usually lined up in the backfield, making him more or less a second fullback. Mealy was Army’s best runner last year, but he isn’t very fast. By lining him up in the backfield, Army’s coaches can just as easily run him between the tackles– more his strength– as they can run him outside. With Mealy and standout fullback Jared Hassin paired up behind the quarterback, it allows Army to do a couple of different things, like the outside veer.
The outside veer is a triple option play, but rather having a fullback running to the B gap, one of the two split backs runs off tackle. The quarterback actually has to start moving down the line to get to the mesh point, giving the split back a different dive angle then we see in the Navy spread.
With the split back veer, either Mealy or Hassin could be a dive back or a pitch back on any play.
The other thing that Army gets from having its two best runners in the backfield is misdirection. Army is comfortable with both Mealy and Hassin carrying the ball, so fakes to one before handing off to the other is a staple play for their offense. They run a lot of jet sweeps as well, which also sets up counter plays. Here, as the safeties follow the motion and the threat of the sweep, Army runs a counter in the other direction:
The problem for Army is that they have the players to make these plays work against North Texas, but not against some of the upper-echelon teams they’ve faced. Notre Dame played the same basic defense as North Texas; 4-4, cover 3, with the free safety playing the pitch.
We’ve seen how Navy and Georgia Tech have shredded this defensive scheme before. This is the defense that East Carolina and Arkansas State used against Navy this year, and what Rice used last year, among many other examples. When North Texas tried this defense, Army ran for 292 yards in a 24-0 win. Against Notre Dame, though, Army just didn’t have the horses to compete. The same misdirection plays against that defense didn’t seem to work as well against Notre Dame’s athletes:
That’s the result of linemen not being able to make blocks inside, and backs not being fast enough to even get to their blocking assignments outside.
Army started their first drive by throwing the ball. Trent Steelman is not a good passer at all, but the Army coaching staff does a good job finding plays that he can execute. Their staple play is play action in one direction, with Steelman rolling out in the opposite direction. This is a perfect play against Notre Dame’s defense because the play action gets the safety moving away from the direction of the pass. On the first play, it worked just the way it was drawn up. After that, not so much. Notre Dame shifted to a 4-3 cover 2 in obvious passing situations (3rd & long and most of the second half) and had it well covered.
On that last play, the motion drew the safety away, leaving a 1-on-1 matchup for the wide receiver. That was Army’s bread & butter pass play with Ali Villanueva, but it was slightly less successful without a 6’10″ receiver to throw to.
Army didn’t fare much better running the option, where their lack of speed was painfully obvious. Notre Dame’s safety actually wasn’t assigned to cover the pitch right away; his job was really to read the quarterback first, then chase the pitch man down if the QB got rid of the ball. If Army’s running backs had any speed, they would’ve blown by the safety, who was getting a late start on his pursuit because he was waiting for the QB to pitch the ball. Instead, the plays resulted in modest gains at best, and getting blown up at the line of scrimage at worst.
(Buddy Green actually used this defense against Georgia Southern, too, most likely due to Navy’s similar speed advantage.)
Army’s adjustment was to have their playside wide receiver block the safety. It worked well at first, as the cornerback playing man-to-man defense on the WR followed him, and essentially ran himself out of the play.
When the cornerbacks started realizing that the wide receivers were leaving them unblocked, they stopped running downfield with them and just teed off on the ballcarrier.
If Steelman was more of a downfield passing threat, that might have forced the corners to honor the receivers in coverage. Instead, it was open season on running backs.
Something else that Notre Dame did that Army had no answer for was a simple C-stunt. A C-stunt is just what the name implies; an inside linebacker that normally covers the B gap trades responsibilities with the defensive end and instead covers the C gap. The DE squeezing inside coupled with the pitch read running outside with the playside slot gives the QB a read to keep. When he does, he’s met by the unblocked linebacker in the C gap.
On that last play, watch Mealy as he blocks absolutely nobody. Army’s slotback had a very bad day blocking against the Irish.
Army runs a different offense than Navy, and Notre Dame used a different defensive game plan than they did against the Mids. Still, it is a game plan against which Navy’s offense has had some of their biggest games of the last seven years. Army still might not have beaten Notre Dame, but they should have at least moved the ball. Army’s best runner, Jared Hassin, couldn’t do anything with the ball because Notre Dame’s defensive line owned the line of scrimmage. Because they didn’t have to worry about the fullback, the Irish inside linebackers were free to scrape outside to stop the quarterback. And since there was no downfield passing threat, safeties and corners felt free to attack the line of scrimmage in run support. Of course, neither team is playing Notre Dame’s defense tomorrow, so Army probably isn’t going to face the same physical challenges from Navy. Nevertheless, Army’s struggles against Notre Dame highlight the personnel differences between the two teams.