Veterans Classic – a Navy experience like none before

I was born in Durham, NC and grew up on Tobacco Road (seriously – we had tobacco fields right behind my childhood home). My parents went to Duke, my dad spent some time as an adjunct at Wake Forest, and my brother graduated from NC State. Cliques formed around ACC basketball school fanbases in schools to the point that the different colors could have been mistaken as gang colors. I might like to talk about football around here, but I was raised on basketball.

The Quicken Loans Veterans Classic would have fit right in with the basketball culture that rules North Carolina. And much like the cozy confines of Cameron Indoor, Alumni Hall provided an intimate evening for nearly 6,000 fans to watch Navy play host to Michigan State, VCU, and Tennessee.

The first matchup of the evening saw VCU, lead by Shaka Smart, open up an early lead on Tennessee that was not relinquished. There were some kinks with the shot clock early on, and a scary moment when VCU guard JeQuan Lewis went down hard and appeared to have a seizure on the court. But the real story was that Smart’s Havoc is real and it is spectacular. VCU seemed to swarm the court on both ends, creating opportunities on offense and confusion for Tennessee on defense. Oh and the VCU pep band is extremely fun. Anyone who has 7 tubas shaking it in the aisles gets a big thumbs up from this former band nerd.

But enough about VCU-Tennessee. Let’s talk about the amazing experience that was Navy vs. Michigan State.

First up: the crowd. I have never heard Alumni Hall sound like that. The Mids in attendance were loud all game long, being relentless when Navy needed to get stops and giving plenty of love for great offensive play. It was something to see when compared with the relative quiet of the mandatory fun Army-Navy games. I can only imagine what Halsey Field House was like when David Robinson was on his way to becoming the Admiral, but I would guess that Friday night came pretty close to matching that intensity.

And the Sparty fans that were around were a lot of fun. Everyone I met was eager to talk, swap stories, and offer up opinions on the event and the play on the court. Granted, they were doing their best impression of Ohio State fans at the Horseshoe in 2009 – quiet consternation and a general “is this really happening” feeling oozing from their clenched hands.

And the consternation was well deserved, because Navy played a complete game and took Michigan State to the wire. Let’s be perfectly clear, this was not a case of Navy hitting miracle threes to keep it close and entertaining. Navy simply went toe-to-toe with Michigan State, capitalized on MSU mistakes, and made a run when they had to. And they did this all with Worth Smith leaving the game with a knee injury in the latter parts of the first half, after already racking up 7 points and a pair of steals and rebounds.

Sure, Michigan State had the highlight reel plays. On a few occasions, Sparty got odd-man breaks on a turnover or steal and shook the court with some high-flying alley-oops. But Navy was never intimidated. We joked about taking pictures of the scoreboard when the Midshipmen held leads early in the game. We were all happy when it was a seven point game at the half. And when Michigan State went on a run to open it up to a 13 point lead in the 2nd half, we all seemed to sense the inevitable blowout upon us. Before the game, I asked Mike if we could keep it to 20. Seemed pretty prescient at the time.

Then Navy went on a 10-0 run to close it right back up.

From there on out, Navy couldn’t get closer than three. But Michigan could never open it back up, either. Over the course of the 2nd half, Navy outscored Michigan State by 2 and held their own on the boards (losing the rebound battle by one). Perhaps the most shocking stat of the game was that Navy’s bench outscored Michigan State’s by a 17-16 margin.

It should be noted that Navy got over 100 minutes of play out of plebes and youngsters. Ed DeChellis has struggled through his first 3 seasons for consistency and depth. But after one game, it looks like the Midshipmen may finally have some. For my money, the Navy player of the game was Edward Alade. He led all Navy players with 12 points on 5-of-6 from the field and a couple of free throws. He went against the trees of MSU under the basket and held his own.

There were multiple stories to come out of Friday night. That Navy took a nationally ranked team to the final minute of the game was the biggest. But right behind it was the quality of the even and the bright future for the Veterans Classic. Some of the biggest names in the country are clamoring to attend (John Feinstein reported on Saturday that Notre Dame will play Navy next year while North Carolina and Temple face off in the other game). With another 3 years left on the current contract, it looks like CBS and Navy have a winner on their hands.

If you passed on the event this year, don’t make the same mistake in 2015. This event matched the energy I’ve felt in attendance at ACC basketball games. It reminded me of the pure fun of watching Tobacco Road teams square off. And it let the nation know that there is a great new event taking place every November in Annapolis. And it let me know that I need to get to more Navy basketball games this season (and write about them). You should come out, too. Looks like it’s going to be a fun year.

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.

BYE WEEK ACCESS BOWL TALK

I know not too many Navy fans are dialed in to the minutiae of our future conference yet. As long as we have a bye week, though, we might start guessing which Group of Five conference champion will go to the Fiesta, Peach, or Cotton Bowl. As we’ve discussed, the exposure and more importantly the money will be a springboard to staying with the haves in the next tectonic shift of the college football landscape.

At the moment, the highest ranked G5 member is our future conference-mate East Carolina. Why  have they climbed to #18 in the AP poll and #16 in the Coaches Poll? They went 2-1 against South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina, and looked pretty good doing so.  The Pirates have the inside track, but still have the hardest part of their campaign in the American ahead: at Cincinnati, UCF, and even at 4-1 Temple will be tests.

Also creeping into the top 25 is Marshall, from Conference USA. Marshall? Yes, Marshall. They were Phil Steele’s pre-season pick  for the access bowl nod. Reason number one is their talented QB Rakeem Cato. Reason number two is their relatively soft schedule. ESPN’s Football Power Index calculates Marshall’s chance of winning out as 45% – that is ridiculous and the best mark of any of the 128 teams. The schedule doesn’t offer any big wins to increase the possibility that the Herd will thunder ahead of the Pirates, but if they remain undefeated they could also have a 13th win to point to in the MAC championship.

How will the College Football Playoff Committee rank these two? Great question. There has been a lot of coverage on how they’ll look at the playoff contenders, but I haven’t seen a specific rundown for identifying the highest ranked G5 team.  Speculating with Massey’s composite of 75 rankings doesn’t clarify things for me. Undefeated Marshall is actually comfortably ahead of East Carolina in the comparison, and ranks as high as #4 in two systems!

That composite also doesn’t give me much insight beyond the two front runners. Boise State was probably on a lot of minds when this format was identified. With two losses, they are lumped with one-loss Colorado State and two-loss Utah State at #44, #46 & #47. Those Mountain West contenders are still ahead of Marshall’s or East Carolina’s conference challengers. The MAC and Sun Belt are even farther back.

When the first College Football Playoff Committee rankings are released in two weeks, there will still be a lot of football to be played. But there may be as much or more insight into how the committee ranks the Group of Five champions as there is into the top four selection.

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