Split seasons are common in minor league baseball. That’s not how college football operates, but it sort of feels that way for Navy. Nobody was happy when the Mids fell to 2-4, but after cruising to a win over VMI and getting a week off, Saturday’s game against San Jose State feels less like game #8 and more like the opening contest of a new season. Then again, with the margin of error being so thin if they want to finish with a winning record, perhaps it’s more accurate to think of the rest of 2014 as a playoff instead of a second season.
The first round of that playoff has San Jose State making the long trip to Annapolis. The 2014 Spartans have a lot in common with Navy, including their own 3-game losing streak making for a rough start to the season. The difference is that SJSU appears to have already turned the corner. After starting the season 1-3, the Spartans have won their last two to pull back to .500 and move up to 2nd in the wide-open West division of the MWC. With games against the other division contenders still left to be played, the Spartans have a clear path to the conference title game and control their own destiny. Things are picking up for this team, and the frustration of a slow start has given way to the optimism of a possible dream season. That optimism comes from improvement on both sides of the ball.
Statistically, SJSU has the #1 pass defense in the country. Sometimes a ranking like this is because of who you’ve played just as much as how you’ve played; playing run-first teams like Auburn, Minnesota, and Wyoming certainly help to pad that statistic. It isn’t all smoke and mirrors, though. The Spartans are also ranked #1 in pass efficiency defense, and have only given up 1 passing TD all season. Their opponents are averaging 4.57 yards per passing attempt, which also leads the nation. Driving that number is the fact that SJSU’s last 4 opponents have managed to complete only 40% of their passes.
A good pass defense doesn’t seem all that relevant against a triple option team, but that’s not the only thing that San Jose State does well. The team is 12th in the country in total defense, allowing only 313 yards per game. That’s after playing Auburn and Minnesota, too. In SJSU’s last 3 games– all conference opponents– they’ve allowed an average of only 251 total yards per game. That’s pretty incredible. The architect of this defense is none other than Greg Robinson, former Syracuse head coach and owner of two Super Bowl rings as the Denver Broncos’ defensive coordinator in 1997 and 1998. Robinson also had stints as defensive coordinator at Texas and Michigan recently, although he’s best known for his NFL work. It’s always a bit of a guessing game when it comes to how former NFL guys try to defend the option. On one hand, they usually don’t have much experience with it. On the other hand, Navy’s coaches won’t have much in the way of film to study to know what to prepare for.
I don’t think there’s too much of a mystery this week though, at least in a general sense. Navy’s last 5 opponents have all taken the same basic approach, being very aggressive with their secondaries and daring the Mids to throw the ball. Their tactics have differed, but the strategy was the same. Even VMI, the team that had their safeties lining up 20 yards away from the line of scrimmage in the 2012 game, brought a lot of pressure with their defensive backs. For San Jose State, it only seems logical to want to force Navy to throw against the nation’s top passing defense.
The Spartan defense isn’t the only unit to see a resurgence. Quarterback Blake Jurich was benched after the SJSU offense gave up 8 turnovers in three weeks. Managing only 326 ypg in those games, the offense has averaged 486 ypg in its last three behind Jurich’s replacement, Joe Gray. The mistakes haven’t disappeared, though. Despite outgaining Nevada 446-256, San Jose State ended up losing 21-10 thanks to a second half that featured a lost fumble, a missed field goal, a failed 4th down conversion, and two interceptions. The Spartans again dominated the stat sheet against Wyoming last week, but still needed overtime to pull out the win after missing two more field goals and losing two more fumbles, one of which was returned for a touchdown. This might sound uncomfortably familiar. San Jose State is good, but there’s a reason why they’re 3-3. This game might come down to which team is able to more thoroughly exorcise its demons.
San Jose State’s offense is a pass-first, spread scheme similar to others that Navy has faced this year. Those have been the games that the Navy defense has performed their best, including wins over Temple and Texas State. Even against Western Kentucky, the Mids were able to force the Hilltoppers out of their comfort zone and made them run the ball. The problem for Navy in that game was that WKU responded and ran the ball very well. Once they were able to do that, their whole offense opened up for them. San Jose State has shown an ability to run the ball when needed, too. The Spartans ran for 277 yards against UNLV, including 133 from Tyler Ervin. Ervin ran for 96 last week against Wyoming. As well as SJSU throws the ball, the key for the Navy defense might actually be in how well they’re able to stop the run.
In a way, SJSU’s 3-3 record is misleading. Two of those losses came against 5-1 Auburn and 6-1 Minnesota. Plenty of teams would struggle against those guys. SJSU has fared much better in games that are more even matchups, including conference wins over UNLV and Wyoming. The good news for Navy is that the week off did them some good in getting the team healthy again. Keenan Reynolds, according to Coach Niumatalolo, is as healthy as he’s been all season. The offensive line should get a boost as well, with Tanner Fleming, Blaze Ryder, and Joey Gaston all practicing this week. Navy will probably have to play their best game of the season to pull out a win, so the Mids can use all the help they can get.