The Spartan coaches
Check under beds for Keenan
Just before they sleep
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.
What do you think of when someone mentions conference realignment? Navy to the American, obviously. Pac-10 becoming the Pac-12? Nebraska to the Big Ten? Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC? How about VMI to the Southern Conference?
You think it. You’re tempted to say it. Don’t.
For years, we’ve made fun of Air Force players (and fans) for losing to Navy, then saying things like, “They didn’t beat us! We beat ourselves!” It’s the rallying cry of the loser, but the way Navy played against Air Force (and everyone else this year), more than a few of you probably have that same thought rattling through your heads. Don’t fool yourselves. Football, like most other team sports, essentially boils down to two things: creating opportunities for yourself, then capitalizing on those opportunities. Maybe you screwed up your chances, but do you know what happens when the other team doesn’t screw up theirs? They beat you. Good teams make the most out of what’s given to them. The better team won on Saturday, and you’ll save yourself a lot of confusion if you just accept the obvious.
What isn’t so obvious is just how Air Force became the better team. We’ve sort of conditioned ourselves to think that “better team” means the one that’s bigger, faster, and stronger, and that’s certainly a large part of it. The mental part of the game is just as important, though; maybe even more important at a place like Navy where most of our opponents are the bigger, faster, and stronger team each week. Navy recruits more physical talent now than they have for decades, but we still get excited when we land guys who had other FBS offers. Everyone else we play has rosters full of those guys. Not Air Force, you say, and that’s true. Does Saturday mean that Air Force is the more physically talented team now? I don’t know. Were they last year when Navy won by 18? It’s basically the same group of players on both sides. While it stings more than the other losses, this isn’t really about the Air Force game; the brass band of mistakes has been marching down Navy’s Main Street all season. I can’t explain why. Chances are, you probably can’t explain it either.
That certainly hasn’t stopped people from trying. That’s to be expected up to a point; I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have my own theories. Nobody likes the unknown, and even fewer people like to admit that they don’t know. Still, the fact that we don’t know what’s wrong doesn’t mean that every guess has equal validity. There’s a difference between an educated guess and wild speculation, especially considering that some people make the same assumptions every time something goes wrong, no matter what that something is.
I’m disappointed at how many Navy fans (and presumably graduates) turn immediately to questioning player character whenever the team struggles. “The players have been reading their press clippings.” “The Heisman hype went straight to his head.” Etc., etc. What’s the logic here? That the players don’t practice as hard because they think they’re so good already? Based on what? I find it unlikely that the people who say this have actually seen Navy practice (or any other team, probably). If you haven’t, you have no business saying things like this. You probably don’t even if you have seen practice. When people don’t know football, they tend to try to explain the things they see in non-football terms. You don’t need to know any Xs & Os to talk about effort, so that’s what people fall back on. They shouldn’t. It’s ok to say “I don’t know.”
The same could be said about a lot of the coaching complaints I see, although this is admittedly a little trickier. Part of the fun of sports is Monday conversations around the water cooler, and debating the moves that coaches make is part of why we watch. I get that. You might want to keep a little perspective, though. In the last 30 years, Navy has had zero winning seasons without Ken Niumatalolo on the sidelines. They’ve had one without Ivin Jasper. With them, they’ve had 12 and 11, respectively. These guys know what they’re doing at a place where very few coaches would manage to succeed. They aren’t any more perfect than any other human being, but they are certainly experts in their field. That means the super-obvious solutions to all the team’s problems that you thought of (“Bench that guy! Call this play!”) probably would have been done a while ago if the problems were really that simple. As with most things involving so many moving parts (both on the field and off), they rarely are.
“But Mike,” you say, “didn’t Coach Jasper take the blame for the offense’s performance in the Air Force game?” Yes, he did. I have no doubt that he wishes he did things differently, because it’s only human to think “what if” whenever we don’t succeed at something. When you read coach quotes in the paper, though, it’s important to keep in mind that coaches generally don’t care what you or I think. They care about winning, because their livelihood depends on it. When they talk to the media, that’s the context you need to understand what’s truly being said. Sometimes coaches will be critical of players if they think it’ll motivate them. Sometimes they’ll offer themselves up as lightning rods for criticism instead to shield a struggling team from the “press clippings” guys. In other words, like the Oracle in The Matrix, they say what they think their team needs to hear. The coaches are always focused on what it will take get their teams to play their best in the next game. While I can’t read minds, I don’t think the coaches are all that concerned about answering to those of us in the peanut gallery.
When everyone was excited after the Ohio State game, I was a little more cautious and wrote this:
There is a point to be made, though, that you will be best served by keeping your expectations in check. Each game is its own unique matchup of players and coaches. What happens in one doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on the others. Don’t let the fun of football season be ruined by your own wild and unrealistic expectations that were based on one hard-fought game against a tough opponent.
I certainly didn’t think that the Mids would be 2-4 at this point, but I could sort of tell that things weren’t as peachy as they appeared. It worried me, not because Navy might not have the season that people were hoping for, but because it meant that at some point I’d have to deal with legions of OUTRAGED! people posting here. I spend several hours per week working on a blog dedicated to Navy football, so I can’t pretend that I don’t take it seriously. Taking it seriously doesn’t mean you have to act so angry when things go south, though. I get as upset as anyone when the team doesn’t play well, but in the end this stuff is supposed to be fun.
You are what your record says you are, and halfway through the season, Navy is 2-4. Fortunately, there’s a lot of season left, and what Navy is now does not have to be what they are at the end. We’ve seen these guys come through before, and they have it in them to do it again. Each game is another chance for something awesome to happen, and I can’t wait to watch. Enjoy it, for my sake and for yours.