Navy Notables – 11/21/14

Navy men’s basketball dropped their third consecutive game, 88-51 at the Providence Friars on Thursday night.  After opening with a 5 point home loss to Michigan State, Navy has been outscored by a combined 180-104 by Providence and Notre Dame.  Perhaps the most telling stat of the game was the dichotomy in shooting 3′s.  Providence was 11-21 from beyond the arc, while Navy was struggled to 4-17.  But before we get too worried, let’s remember that this is the a Providence team that won the Big East last year and returned several key contributors, while Notre Dame is in the top half of the extremely deep ACC.  Navy heads to the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn to face a the CAA-favorite Northeastern Huskies on Saturday night.  The Huskies are fresh off a win at Florida State and looking to push their record to 3-0.

On the women’s side of the hardcourt, Navy blew past Mary Washington in the 2nd half last night to notch their first win of the season.  Trailing by three at the break, Navy opened the 2nd half on a 21-4 run en route to a 79-59 victory.  Contributing to the dominant performance in the game was Navy’s out-rebounding the Eagles 33-14 in the 2nd half.  But there is certainly room for the team to improve as the ladies shot just 4-of-21 from three and 23-of-40 from the free throw line.  Navy continues a 6 game home stand on Saturday night against the Penn Quakers.

It was announced earlier in the week that two Navy football players have been selected for leadership roles for the second semester.  Linebacker Joe Worth has been chosen to lead the Brigade of Midshipmen as the Brigade Commander.  He becomes the first football player to hold this position since Zerbin Singleton served in the role in 2008.  Additionally, safety Shakir Robinson has been selected as First Regimental Commander for the spring.

Quick hits:

Navy Notables – 11/20/14

Glass half full vs. empty test – senior forward Worth Smith is going to miss the next 6 weeks of basketball due to a dislocated kneecap suffered in the first half of the Michigan State.  Given what it looked like when he went down, this is probably the best case scenario.  It is anticipated that Smith will be able to return by the time Patriot League play starts in late December.  This is the 4th major injury of the season for the Navy basketball team, joining Tim Abruzzo (ACL), Michael Brown (broken jaw), and Kendall Knorr (tendinitis).

Austin Grebe was named the ECAC special teams player of the week for his performance against Georgia Southern.  He was perfect from the field against the Eagles, connecting on all 7 extra point attempts and converting his only field goal attempt (from 36 yards).  Grebe, who won the kicking job before the VMI game, has yet to miss.  For the season, he’s 23-23 on extra points (yes, Navy has scored 23 touchdowns in the last 4 games) and 4-4 on field goals.

If you were at the football game on Saturday, you would have seen the Varsity Offshore Sailing Team recognized for their season on the water, which included many regatta victories.  But the single most notable moment of the season wasn’t marked with the raising of any silver in victory.  It was the successful recovery of a man overboard during the Annapolis Yacht Club Fall Series.  The crew, firmly in the lead of a distance race, reacted swiftly when a lifeline broke on an opposing boat and recovered the person in the water in a scant 4 minutes, averting possible disaster.

Quick hits:

Postgame Haiku, Vol. 84

In option battle
Navy football reigns supreme
Seniors out on top

GAME WEEK: GEORGIA SOUTHERN

I apologize for my mini-hiatus, although I’m sure you’re all used to it by now.

There was a lot to feel good about when it came to Navy’s performance against Notre Dame. The team fought back from a first-half deficit to take a lead, and was in the game until the end. That felt more like the Navy team that won 9 games a year ago instead of the team that went on a 3-game losing streak.

Those good feelings didn’t last long, though. As good as the Mids played, they still lost. Now they sit at 4-5, and the margin of error for achieving a winning regular season has evaporated. It’s a single-elimination tournament from here on out, and first up in the bracket is Georgia Southern.

There was a time where it appeared that the Georgia Southern game might arguably be the most interesting on Navy’s schedule. There are certainly higher-profile games, obviously, but the shared coaching history between these two schools has bred a certain familiarity between the two programs (I will neither confirm nor deny once being a member of the Southern Boosters). Jeff Monken coached the Eagles back in the 2010 meeting, and for a while it looked like this would be another mirror-image game. Monken, however, was hired away by Army. Then it looked like things would get REALLY interesting when Ivin Jasper was on GSU’s short list to replace Monken, but the powers that be in Statesboro decided to go in another direction, hiring Willie Fritz from Sam Houston State. Now the game is interesting simply because Georgia Southern is really good.

The Eagles are 8-2, including a 7-0 mark in their inaugural Sun Belt season with one conference game left to play. For a program that has debated for years whether or not to make the jump to the FBS level, the decision is looking pretty good in the short-term. People have taken notice, too; GSU has become somewhat of a media darling. The team’s success is largely thanks to Fritz’s own flavor of option offense that he brought with him from Sam Houston State. Georgia Southern has been an offensive powerhouse, averaging nearly 500 yards and 43 points per game.

Fritz’s offense is different from the option of the Johnson-Sewak-Monken years, but it’s a scheme that was easy (both physically and conceptually) for Georgia Southern’s players to fit into. Run primarily out of pistol formations, Georgia Southern uses more zone blocking as opposed to the inside veer that is the foundation of past GSU offenses. For the quarterback, it’s not too much of a change; he still progresses through his reads like he did before. Zone blocking is different for the offensive line, but it still favors quicker linemen that can get to linebackers quickly. That’s what GSU’s line was already built for under Monken. Besides, it’s not like they had never used zone blocking before. It’s just a different focus. The zone read is hardly a concept unique to Georgia Southern. Everyone runs it at least a little bit. What’s unique about Georgia Southern is more how committed they are to it. They are very much an option offense as opposed to an offense that dabbles in the option once in a while.

You can imagine why this offense is so difficult to defend. Think about what zone blocking means for a minute. Running backs don’t necessarily have a predetermined gap to run through. The playside offensive linemen will double-team a defensive lineman. Based on how that DL reacts, one of the two OL will then move on to a linebacker. Whichever lineman moves on to the second level is what determines the gap that the RB runs through. That’s why you hear that patience is so important for RBs in zone schemes; it can take time for that running lane to present itself, and it’s hard not to get antsy when you’re spending that much time behind the line of scrimmage. The way to defend this is with gap discipline. The defense can’t be over-zealous in defending a particular gap, because the running back is reading which gap to run through. Where the defense zigs, the RB will zag. In order to stop a zone running game, then, you have to cover all your gaps so that the RB can’t read which one to run through. The RB has to be strung out long enough for a defender to shed his block and make the stop.

That’s difficult enough, but now imagine adding the option on top of it. In the zone read, the zone runs I just described are simply the first option. If you leave the defender responsible for the backside gap unblocked, you can option off of him. Now you force the defense to cover the entire field from sideline to sideline; not only do you have to cover the zone run going one way, but you have to cover the quarterback and the pitch going the other way. If most of the defense has to follow the direction the offensive line is moving in order to maintain gap control, who’s left to cover the quarterback and the pitch going the other way? Usually it’s the secondary, and you can see how that’s a problem. Now it’s a pick-your-poison situation. Do you step up to defend the run? If you do, you open yourself up to play-action. If you don’t, the offense will rip off huge chunks on the ground. Georgia Southern’s results so far speak for themselves.

That cuts both ways, though. Indeed, GSU’s numbers are tremendous, and they’re averaging more yards on the ground than even Navy. But who are they getting these numbers against? If you want to get a feel for Georgia Southern’s schedule, start at the bottom of the Sun Belt standings and work your way up. It is, to put it delicately, a bit light. The Eagles miss out on the conference’s two best teams (UL-Lafayette and Arkansas State) while maintaining their quasi-traditional bodybag game against Savannah State. Now, I am by no means a schedule snob, but in Georgia Southern’s case there are some stark contrasts between the teams they’ve played that have a pulse, and those that do not. The Eagles have played two ACC teams (NC State and Georgia Tech) and two conference teams with winning records (South Alabama and Texas State). Against everyone else, they’re 6-0 and averaging 462 rushing yards per game. Against those four, though, they’re 2-2 and averaging only 272 rushing yards per game. Not bad, but not nearly as other-worldly.

It’s no great revelation that it’s harder to play well against better teams, but that kind of contrast between the good and bad on Georgia Southern’s schedule underscores what it takes to beat this offense. The better teams have more success because they’re able to win more one-on-one physical battles. This is definitely a “Jimmies & Joes, not Xs & Os” situation. Like Navy’s offense, if you try to out-scheme Georgia Southern, you’ll do something to leave yourself vulnerable. You have to win with technique and individual effort. Is Navy’s defense up to the task? I don’t know.  It’s easy to point out that a couple of ACC defenses had decent statistical games against Georgia Southern, but Navy isn’t an ACC defense. The Mids had trouble containing the zone running of Rutgers, Notre Dame, and WKU, but had success at times against Air Force and Temple. It’s debatable whether GSU is physically superior to the latter two, but with 9 of the 10 OL on their 2-deep being juniors or seniors, there’s no doubt they’re more experienced. That’s the unit that will decide this game. The key for Navy will be the discipline of their linebackers and the defensive line’s ability to beat that OL and get into the backfield.

You can sometimes get a pretty good feel for how a game is going to go beforehand, but this one is a much tougher read. Could it be a shootout? Georgia Southern gave up 536 yards of offense to Georgia Tech thanks to using the 3-deep 4-4 we love to see. Will they use that same scheme again? If so, Navy will run wild. If not, what will GSU do instead? Will this be a pair of offenses cranking out the yards, or will defenses that know what they’re doing against the option rule the day? I could see it going either way. That’s what makes this game so exciting, and given its importance to Navy’s hopes for a winning season, so nerve-wracking.

 

Postgame Haiku, Vol. 83

ANCHORS ON HELMETS
We lost to Notre Dame, but
ANCHORS ON HELMETS

Postgame Haiku, Vol, 82

The Spartan coaches
Check under beds for Keenan
Just before they sleep

GAME WEEK: SAN JOSE STATE

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.

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