You didn’t think I was going to sit this one out, did you?
It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Navy fans, what with conference realignment starting again and Arizona State receiving a bid to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. We’ll get to all that stuff in due time. Right now, only one thing matters. You know what it is.
- CBS has announced a partial 2012 TV schedule for football. We’ve known for a while now that Navy’s match-ups against Notre Dame and Air Force are going to be on CBS with morning kick-off times. The big news here for Navy fans is that the Army-Navy game will kick-off at 3pm EST.
— Sal Interdonato (@salinterdonato) June 6, 2012
I have to disagree with Sal here. It’s not a weird time. It puts kickoff at noon PST, making it that much more attractive to viewers west of the Mississippi. We all know the game got a bump by shifting to the weekend after conference championships. Perhaps we can get a few more viewers with this slight adjustment (last year the kickoff was at 2:30pm EST). With the Big East TV deal looming, any boost in Army-Navy ratings now will deliver more TV dollars later.
- Navy Baseball had two players drafted in this year’s MLB draft. The Blue Jays selected outfielder Alex Azor in the 10th round – putting him as the highest drafted Navy player of all time – while the Brewers took pitcher Preston Gainey in the 11th round.
- Navy’s Zack Duncavage, a Youngster, placed 16th in the discus at the NCAA track and field championships this week. His finish nets him 2nd team All-American honors.
- Finally, this one slipped through the cracks at the beginning of the week, but bears mention. The Navy Men’s Lightweight Four won the IRA National Championship this past weekend in Camden, NJ. This was the final feather in the cap of Coach Rick Clothier, who has retired after leading the crew program for 38 years.
I watched my first ever Army-Navy game in 1989. My cousin was a youngster at USNA so I thought I’d watch the game. Having grown up next to West Point, I knew the Army-Navy game was a big deal and I also knew that Army was pretty good. The year prior, Army played Alabama in the Sun Bowl where Alabama edged the Cadets 29-28. Army was led by Mike Mayweather, a stellar running back and one of the best Service Academy running backs in the last 50 years. Navy, on the other hand, hadn’t posted a winning season since 1982 and had lost to Army three times in a row. Army entered the game 6-4 and Navy 2-8, so I wasn’t expecting much of a game from the Mids.
Boy, was I wrong. Navy got out to a quick lead 9-0 lead and the game went back and forth for four quarters. With Navy trailing 17-16 lat in the 4th quarter, Alton Grizzard drove the Mids down the field. With 1 minute to go and facing a 4th and 2 on the Army 35, Grizzard barreled his way to a first down on a QB keeper. Grizzard then drove Navy to the Army 15 and stopped the clock with a mere 15 seconds to play. Navy Head Coach Elliot Uzelac called Frank Schenk from the sideline: “This is what you and I talked about. This is it! Piece of cake!” Army Coach Jim Young then called time out in an attempt to ice Schenk. As Schenk trotted back to the sideline, Uzelac grabbed him and barked, “give me a 7 Iron and you and I are dancing and drinking champagne tonight.” A minute later Frank Schenk split the uprights and put Navy on top for good 19-17. It was a huge win for Navy and a dream come true for Midn 2/c Schenk.
I had the opportunity to speak with now Captain (sel) Frank Schenk, USN this weekend. He’s had quite a career since graduating from USNA with the Class of 1991.
Navy’s streak of eight consecutive bowls is over. But with Thanksgiving on the horizon, it’s time to give thanks for the streak that was and look for positives amid its end.
1. Army-Navy has its own day
I wasn’t always a fan of the decision to move Army-Navy back one week. I worried about being one week colder in the stands; about Navy having one week less prep time/healing time for the bowl game; and about my brother, whose wedding anniversary is the once-safe Dec. 12.
The move sure looks smart this year. Even with the recent, and welcome, surge in patriotism in our country, I’m not liking the chances that Army-Navy would get the attention it deserves if it were on the same day as the SEC championship, the Big Ten championship, the ACC championship and, this year at least, a couple pretty compelling Big 12 games (Texas-Baylor and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State).
2. Navy has basketball teams
There is much new energy around the Navy men’s and women’s basketball teams this season. The Navy men’s team appears back to the defense-and-rebounding-first approach that made Patriot League games fun to watch (and somewhat winnable) under Don DeVoe. The women’s team is coming off an historic season with an NCAA tournament berth.
I lost Navy men’s and women’s basketball on my radar in recent years. It was still football season into late December with the bowl, then bowl recovery/analysis/handwringng/celebratory hangover. So by the time I turned attention to hoops, Navy usually had a sub-.500 record from nonconference games and lacrosse was dipping its toes into the frigid outdoors for preseason workouts.
It’s time to be reintroduced to Navy basketball and the excellent Pete Medhurst on the radio play-by-play.
3. The streak that was
How great was that eight-year bowl streak? The long drive against New Mexico. Slotback Frank Divis’s passes against New Mexico. Reggie Campbell’s touchdowns against Colorado State. The Navy defense going head-to-head against Matt Ryan of Boston College. The Navy offense going head-to-head against BJ Raji of Boston College. The successful onside kick in the final minute against Utah. For a D.C. native like myself, even the bowl game at RFK Stadium was enormous fun. The crushing win over Missouri.
And I still haven’t forgiven Mike Leach for the cheap touchdown celebration Texas Tech did in the fourth quarter of the 2003 bowl game. (What ever happened to Leach? Oh, wait a minute…)
So the bowl streak is over. And the CIC trophy streak. Neither was going to last forever! One streak that will resume next year is the streak of our enjoyment of Navy football continues. Maybe this dip will make all of us a little more hungry, a little more focused.
“Let us learn to appreciate there will be times when the trees will be bare,” Anton Chekov wrote, “and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit.”
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.
One of the hidden gems of the college football blogging world is Michael Felder’s In The Bleachers Podcast, a regular roundup of special guests discussing hot topics throughout the year. The hot topic this week is Army-Navy; a fringe benefit of moving the game back a week to be by itself. ITB hooks you up with a podcast doubleheader to talk about the game: first with Patrick Stevens, formerly of the Washington Times and author of the D1scourse blog, followed up by a second podcast with a slightly less reputable contributor.
We have the whole week to ourselves now, so I should probably write something.
By most measures, this season has already been a success for Army football even with two games left to play. The fact that they actually have two games left is why. At 6-5, Army comes into the Navy game with a winning record and have already secured their first bowl berth in 14 years. Some might point to Army’s schedule as being the reason for their turnaround, and it’s true that they haven’t beaten anybody good. Probably not coincidentally, Army’s schedule is filled with teams like Eastern Michigan, Tulane, Kent State, and North Texas that once appeared on Navy’s slate, but don’t want to play the Mids anymore. Lightening the schedule load has helped to jumpstart the renaissance, but don’t let that fool you. Army is better. Simply being better, though, isn’t what the Army program has in mind. Making a bowl game is great, but to truly feel like Army is back on the right path, they have to beat Navy.
On paper, they shouldn’t. Navy is the better football team, coming into the game at 8-3 with wins over bowl-bound SMU, ECU, and Notre Dame teams. Ricky Dobbs is healthy and playing the way everyone was hoping he would over the summer. Alex Teich and Gee Gee Greene have emerged as bona fide stars. Greg Jones is a legitimate downfield threat in the passing game. Aaron Santiago, who sat out most of the first third of the season with a lingering hamstring injury, is back in the starting lineup and has been a jack of all trades, blocking, running, and catching. The defense, after seven straight games of seeing spread offenses that threw the ball all over the field, is undoubtedly looking forward to playing a running game that looks more like Georgia Southern and Air Force– their two best performances of the year. The Mids have every advantage going into Saturday’s game, but as the cliché goes, games aren’t played on paper. It isn’t hard to find Navy victories over teams that they usually lose out to in recruiting. Army isn’t as talented as Navy, but they don’t have to be to win this game.
Before the season started, I felt that Army was capable of winning 6 games against their schedule. That Army sits at 6-5 right now is no surprise. What is a bit surprising, though, is how they’ve done it. Army football for the last 5 years has looked pretty much the same: very good defense, terrible offense. Last year was no different, and with the defense returning 8 starters, this year’s team appeared destined to follow in the footsteps of its predecessors. That hasn’t been the case. The Army offense was retooled to take advantage of the Black Knights’ strengths, and the change has worked fairly well. Somewhat surprisingly, it’s the defense that has struggled at times. They’re still a top 30 unit, giving up a service-academy-best 332 yards per game. In scoring defense, though, the Black Knights fall to 55th in the country, giving up 24.64 points per game. That’s not terrible, but it’s something that has haunted Army all year. The typical Army game has them racing out to an early lead, then trying to hold in the second half. Army has outscored their opponents 257-169 through three quarters, but have been outscored 102-56 in the 4th quarter and in overtime. Army went into the 4th quarter with leads against both Temple and Rutgers only to be outscored 41-10 the rest of the way to lose both games.
We’ll get to Army’s new offense later in the week, but for now let’s take a look at what makes the defense tick.
Despite being hired as an “option coach,” Rich Ellerson has spent the bulk of his career coaching defenses, and coaching them well. His trademark is the “Double Eagle Flex” scheme that he helped make famous at Arizona. Take a look at the picture:
In most defenses, there are “levels.” The line is the first level, the linebackers the second, and the secondary the third. What the Double Eagle Flex does is scrap the “levels” concept in favor of more hybrid positions. You have defensive ends on their feet, ILBs that double as nose guards, linebackers that double as defensive backs, and linemen aligned to force double-teams by the offensive line. By doing this, the defense attempts to have its cake and eat it too, especially against the run. It looks like there’s room to run up the middle, but the ILBs can easily step up to fill the gaps. But if you run outside, those ILBs are far enough off the line of scrimmage that they can pursue inside-out without getting tangled up with the offensive line. And when it works, that’s exactly what happens:
The Air Force game plan was dedicated, then, to handling Army’s inside-out pursuit. Air Force doesn’t run the same offense as Navy, but they do things similarly enough that you can get a feel for how the Mids might attack the Army defense. Surprisingly, Air Force ran very little triple option against Army. To counter the inside-out pursuit of Army’s linebackers, the Falcons ran a lot of double option, using the fullback as a lead blocker. Army’s secondary played the “wishbone” defense; cover 3, with the safety playing the pitch. It’s a defense that the Navy offense has done very well against. Air Force’s success out of their flexbone set depended on who the fullback ended up blocking. If he’d block the safety, sometimes he would get far enough into the backfield to slow the runner and allow the rest of the defense to catch up to make a play. Sometimes an Army lineman– usually Mike Gann– would fight through the double team to make a play. If he didn’t, though, Air Force would get a decent gain out of the play.
Navy probably wouldn’t have the fullback block the safety. Coach Jasper would likely use the fullback to block the scraping linebacker and have the playside slotback block the safety in this situation.
Other than the double option, Air Force tried a few other things to deal with Army’s linebackers. One was the short trap. When Air Force would motion a tight end, Army’s defense wouldn’t shift to account for the new formation. By moving the tight end and pulling the playside guard outside, Air Force simply had more blockers on the play side of the formation than Army had defenders.
One of the weaknesses of Army’s defense is that by relying on linebackers to read and react, they aren’t playing gap control. Having their eyes in the backfield makes them prone to misdirection. Air Force took advantage of this by running the zone stretch play in one direction, but sending the fullback to block in the other direction. The linebacker would follow the fullback, thinking that was the direction of the play. Instead, the tailback followed the line and ran right where the ILB used to be.
Air Force also capitalized on misdirection in the passing game with two long TD passes. Navy was able to do that against Army last year too, but had plays called back due to penalties. The passing game might be a big part of the Navy game plan. One of the weaknesses of the Double Eagle Flex, and one of the reasons you don’t see it very much in the college game, is that it’s not the best way to defend against spread offenses. It makes sense, if you think about it. A defense that’s based on showing an 8-man front and pursuing from the inside-out is going to have a hard time stopping offenses designed to get the ball to playmakers in space as quickly as possible. Linebackers can’t run outside faster than the quarterback can throw the ball there. The short passing game is one way Coach Jasper can take advantage of this.
Army won’t necessarily play the same way against Navy as they did against Air Force. In fact, they’ll probably do things a bit differently. That was the case last year, when Army came out with a different game plan against VMI than they did against the Mids despite both teams using spread option offenses. Even if the tactics are different, though, the Black Knights aren’t going to stray from their base defense. They’re still going to come at Navy with a different look than what they’re used to seeing. In that sense, having three weeks between games probably helps Navy more than it does Army. The built-in advantage that Army gets from teams having to prepare for an unusual defense is diminished when they have so much time to practice for it.