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.
Filed under: navy football | Tagged: Georgia Southern | 5 Comments »