Game 12 Preview: Navy

Your Houston Cougars look to claim their first American Athletic Conference Western division title with a win over the Navy Midshipmen the day after Thanksgiving at TDECU Stadium. Game time is set for 11AM (local time) and will be televised locally on ABC. The winner plays in the conference championship on December the 5th.

The Coogs (10-1, 6-1) have three obstacles to overcome if they hope to defeat the Midshipmen (9-1, 7-0); 1.) Injuries 2.) Last week’s loss to UConn. 3.) A tough and disciplined Navy squad that brings one of the toughest offensive schemes to game plan against, led by head coach Ken Niumatalolo (66-36 in his eighth year) who’s looking to lead his Naval Academy squad to their best start since led by Roger Staubach during the early 1960s.

First year Houston head coach Tom Herman mentioned during his weekly media press conference on Monday that the quarterback who’s the healthiest will end up starting. Unfortunately the one aspect that gives both Greg Ward Jr. (5-foot-11 inches, 185 pounds, Jr.) and Kyle Postma (6’3, 205, So.) an edge against opposing defenses may be neutralized come game time, IE their athleticism. Ward as we all know sprained an ankle three weeks ago versus Cincinnati, while Postma suffered a bone bruise late in the game at UConn last week. The offense remains unchanged with either QB at the helm, but obviously their ability to make a play out of nothing with their feet, whether that’s extending the passing game by avoiding the pass rush or simply creating first downs via the run is something offensive coordinator Major Applewhite has relied on all season even if he nor Herman wants to admit it. Ward averages 74 yards per game on the ground and has crossed the goal line 16 times this season.

If neither can go effectively, the third option would be Hunter McCoy (6’4, 220, Jr.), who has yet to throw a pass this season. The Mineral Wells, Texas native has yet to see any game action after transferring from Trinity Valley Junior College before the 2014 season. If McCoy has to throw a pass Friday afternoon, well let’s not even think about that.

In an offense that relies on the run as much as Houston has this season, averaging 242.1 rushing yards per game (11th nationally), having your fleet-of-foot QB’s at top-speed is one thing. Having your starting running back and offensive line healthy is another, neither of which are the case. Kenneth Farrow (5’10, 220, Sr.) and his 86 rushing yards per game could also be in jeopardy come game time after suffering a sprained ankle himself last week at the end of the third quarter. Without Farrow the run game would have to rely on Javin Webb (5’10, 190, So.) and his 238 yards (on 54 carries with 3 touchdowns) along with Kaliq Kokuma (5’11, 210, RFr.) and his 92 yards on 18 total carries. Herman also mentioned a ‘wildcat’ type package for Demarcus Ayers (5’11, 190, Jr.) as the all-around receiver has carried 17 times for 124 yards and a TD to go along with his average of 89 yards per game receiving.

Five games ago the passing game was averaging 275.5 passing yards per game to rank them 28th nationally. Today they sit at just 252.1 (39th). A lot of this is due to the lack of time in the pocket in which the QB can go through his progressions. The offensive line has been different for the past SEVEN games and has had nine different lineups so far this season through twelve games. This week’s line of Alex Cooper (6’4, 305, Sr.), Mason Denley (6’4, 305, RFr.), Will Noble (6’4, 290, Fr.), Colton Freeman (6’4, 300, RFr.) and Carter Wall (6’4, 300, Sr.) from left to right tackle seems to have the best chemistry playing together, but haven’t for a few weeks as Freeman has been out 3 of the past 4 games with shoulder stinger issues (having only played a few snaps of the one game he played in). Even if that lineup had played, you’re still talking about two redshirt freshman and a true freshman on the interior of your line in an offense that’s supposed to be physical in the run and give enough time to the QB to pass the ball down field via the play action game, neither of which has been the case the past few weeks. The line has allowed 25 sacks so far this season ranking them 83rd nationally.

This against a veteran Navy defense entering play Friday allowing only 18.7 points-per-game (19th) against a Coogs offense averaging 41.1 (9th but fallen more than 4 points off as they were averaging more than 45 just 5 weeks ago). The Midshipmen run a 3-4 scheme under second year coordinator Dale Pehrson, who’s been at the Academy for 20 years. Though undersized upfront, the Midshipmen are a physical bunch who play a “bend but don’t break” style in which they force offenses to methodically drive downfield to score, rarely allowing the explosive play. While playing basic 3 and 4 man fronts, Pehrson has his experienced secondary drop back in various types of zone coverage to keep everything in front of them. Their defense forces QBs to throw into small windows in which they try, and are usually successful, in forcing a turnover as they’re 26th in the nation in the department with 21 total (14 on fumbles which ranks them second).

Bernard Sarra (6’1, 297, Sr.) is the nose plugger in the middle and is flanked by Will Anthony (6’1, 254, Sr.) and Amos Mason (6’1, 250, Jr.) at the two end spots. Anthony is the disruptor with 8.5 tackles-for-loss, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced and 2 recovered fumbles. Mason adds 4 passes batted down while Sarra 2 TFL in the middle.

Inside backer Micah Thomas (6’1, 249, So.) leads the D with 58 total tackles, including 4.5 for loss and 2 sacks. Next to the Cedar Park, Texas native at the Sam linebacker spot is Daniel Gonzalez (6’2, 240, Jr.), who adds 48 tackles, 2.5 for loss and an interception. The two outside backer spots are Josiah Powell (6’3, 215, Jr.) at ‘striker’ and D.J. Palmore (6’3, 227, So.) at ‘Raid.’ Powell has 3 pass breakups, 2.5 TFL and a sack while Palmore adds 3 TFL and a sack from the other side.

The secondary is the heart of Pehrson’s unit and is led by Lorentez Barbour (6’1, 194, Sr.) at free safety and Quincy Adams (5’11, 200, Sr.) at the right cornerback spot. Barbour is second on the defense with 57 tackles while Adams is third at 52 adding 7 pass breakups. Brendon Clements (5’11, 188, Jr.) is at the other corner and adds 36 tackles, 4 for loss, 3 pass breakups and a fumble recovery, while Daiquan Thomasson (6’0, 195, Jr.) is the rover and has contributed 26 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery. Houston receivers Chance Allen (6’3, 215, Jr.) and Steven Dunbar (6’3, 210, So.) and their nearly 90 yards receiving per game combined are going to have to catch everything in front of them as they’ll rarely have an opportunity on a deep post against this crew.

Of course when thinking of Naval Academy football, everything thinks of their triple option as it’s one of the most challenging offenses to prepare for as it’s so rarely used. Herman mentioned during his media presser however that he has been using a few practice periods each Sunday for the past 6 to 8 weeks on top of every third day during summer practice in which he would devote 10 to 15 minutes of the various looks the triple option gives defenses. This all on top of giving looks during spring ball as well. Not to mention the fact that defensive coordinator Todd Orlando has seen plenty of the TO as former DC at Utah State in which he had to face Air Force. During the 2013 and 14 seasons, Orlando’s unit held the Falcons to 36 points combined.

The key to the triple option and how efficient its run is the QB, and the Academy has a surgeon in Keenan Reynolds (5’11, 205, Sr.), who “only” has 82 career rushing TDs, most in FBS history. This season he has 18 TDs on the ground and 1,001 rushing yards on 201 carries (good for 5 yards per carry). Reynolds has over 4,000 career rushing yards and has the freedom to change any play at the line of scrimmage from his OC, Ivin Jasper, depending on how the defense lines up. On top of the usual pitch plays, there are many QB run calls including basic draws, counter options and speed options intended to confuse defenses.

The basic triple option in laymen’s terms; the QB has the option to hand the ball off to his fullback up the middle or keeps the ball depending on what his read is from the edge of the defensive line. If the ends engage up the field the QB will allow his FB to keep the ball straight up the middle in what’s known as the “dive play,” which is the most basic play run out of the triple option. For Navy this handoff would be from Reynolds to Chris Swain (6’1, 245, Sr.). When your fullback can average 5 yards per pop (820 yards on 163 carries with 8 TDs), this keeps the run in play on all three downs, key to constantly moving the chains which controls the clock and wears opposing defenses down. Quentin Ezell (6’1, 253, Sr.) is the other fullback and has 54 carries for 303 yards (for an even more impressive 5.6 ypc) and 6 more scores.

If the defensive end crashes down on the dive, the QB usually keeps the ball at this “mesh point” and runs horizontally towards the edge of the line where he’ll read his next key, which is usually an outside linebacker or safety. If this defender goes all out for him, the QB will pitch it to his slot back which will be a few yards behind which is usually able to outflank the defense for huge chunks of yards. The main slot backs are Dishan Romine (5’11, 178, Jr.), DeBrandon Sanders (5’7, 160, Sr.) and Desmond Brown (5’9, 201, Sr.) who average a tidy 9.8, 8.1 and 7.9 ypc respectively. Sanders has 308 yards on 38 carries with Romine adding 274 yards on 28 carries with Brown adding 196 on 27 and 4 scores. These three are also effective via the toss sweep and Jasper will have his backs carry behind unbalanced lines to give his offense a numbers advantage to one side of the field, something that Orlando’s defense didn’t have too successful a time last week at UConn and their power game. And of course Reynolds also has the option to keep the ball as outside defenders (safeties and corners) play him with outside leverage allowing him to cut back inside for huge yardage as well.

The Academies offensive line is fast, physical and athletic enough to get on the second level quickly and consists of Joey Gaston (6’5, 281, Sr.), E.K. Binns (6’3, 295, Sr.), Blaze Ryder (5’11, 277, Sr.), Ben Tamburello (6’2, 275, Sr.) and Brandon Greene (6’3, 265, Sr.) from left to right tackle. In order to overcome their size limitations they’ll “cut block” opposing defensive linemen in order to get them on the ground or not thinking about tackling. This could be a problem for Houston’s defensive line who loves to disengage and attack the line of scrimmage as fast as it can. With Tomme Mark (6’2, 305, Sr.), B.J. Singleton (6’4, 305, Jr.) and Cameron Malveaux (6’6, 270, Jr.) having to worry about their knees, the linebacking trio of Elandon Roberts (6’0, 235, Sr.), Steven Taylor (6’1, 225, Jr.) and Tyus Bowser (6’3, 240, Jr.) will have to make a ton of the plays along with the safety tandem of Trevon Stewart (5’10, 195, Sr.) and Adrian McDonald (5’11, 205, Sr.) in major run support.

Roberts and his 78 solo tackles, 12.5 for loss, will certainly be welcomed back as he was lost last week after the first series due to a targeting call. The physical inside linebacker will be one of the main keys to the game as the triple option is usually stopped from the inside-out. What this means is if the “dive” play can be neutralized, one of the “options” has been effectively taken away from Navy’s offense. Roberts loves a good head on collision at or behind the line of scrimmage as does the speedy Taylor who has 80 tackles of his own (53 solo), including 15 for loss and 8.5 sacks on the season. It will be Bowser’s job to take Reynolds forcing him to pitch the ball to one of the slot backs who will be covered by Stewart and McDonald in run support.

Bowser has 45 tackles, 24 solo (5.5 solo and 3 sacks) and 2 fumble recoveries. Stewart is a tackling machine with 57, 35 solo including 9.5 for loss and 6 sacks with 2 fumble recoveries. McDonald adds 69 tackles, 44 solo, and 2 forced and recovered fumbles. Cornerback Brandon Wilson (5’11, 200, Jr.) is also a hard hitter, especially in run support as he adds 49 solo tackles (of his 55 total) along with 2 forced fumbles and 8 passes defended.

A major key in stopping the triple option, after stopping the dive, is to run the play out to the sideline so you can get as many defenders flying to the ball as possible AND use the sideline itself as a defender. The fast, flying Cougars defense excels in this, but this can also be used against them as there is ONE major rule in playing against this offense; DO YOUR JOB. If you’re Roberts and you try to stop the QB (who you think has the ball), then the fullback gets by you for 10 yards. If you’re Bowser and you try to stop the pitch, Reynolds gets by you for a 40 yard gain. If you’re Stewart or McDonald and you commit to the QB too soon, he pitches and one of the slot backs get by you for a 70 yard TD run. If you’re Wilson or fellow corner William Jackson III (6’2, 195, Sr.) and you try to come up in run support too soon, you get beat deep via the play action pass. This is why Navy wide receiver Jamir Tillman (6’4, 206, Jr.) is averaging 18 yards per reception (306 yards on 17 catches) with 3 TDs.

Jackson and his 17 passes defended probably won’t be as big a factor for Friday’s game, but he will have to stay disciplined as will all his secondary teammates as Reynolds loves to hit his slot backs who get lost in the clutter by running simple wheel routes when Jasper calls for a play action pass. Reynolds has only attempted 68 passes this season, completing 33 for 652 yards, good for over 19 yards per pass. For Orlando and his “Third Ward Defense,” Friday’s game is going to be all about assignment football.

Special teams wise, Sanders averages 7.7 yards per punt return on only 6 total returns while Roman averages more than 28 yards on 15 kick returns. The Coogs allow 19.9 yards per kick return (40th) but only 2.1 per punt return (6th). For Houston, Ayers needs to get back on track in the punt return game as he’s been held in check the last few games but still averages 11.3 yards on 11 total punt returns (19th individually). The 94 yard kickoff return by Brandon Wilson (his second TD return of the year) gave the Coogs a much needed boost last week and his 29.2 yards per return ranks him 7th individually. The Midshipmen can be had in the returns game as they allow 23.2 yards per kickoff return (100th) and 13.3 per punt return (119th). Austin Grebe (6’0, 192, Sr.) has connected on 10-of-12 field goals while Ty Cummings (6’0, 185, Jr.) has connected on all five of his attempts for Houston.

Keys to the game

One major key in stopping Navy’s offense will simply be to keep them off the field. The Coogs can do this with an efficient run game or short passing game, neither of which they’ve really had over the past few weeks without relying on the individual exploits of the QB. Will Ward, Postma and Farrow be healthy enough to incorporate a solid offensive game plan around? Even if they were, this Navy defense was built to stop this type of offense by taking away the big play in which Houston’s relied upon all season. They simply haven’t been able to drive the field consistently over the course of the season without somehow hurting themselves with a turnover or penalty (ranking 83rd in penalties with 6.6 and 85th in penalty yards with 66.2).

Navy meanwhile just has to play their game on offense, which relies on wearing down defenses which leads to losing discipline on defense, often losing angles in attempted tackles leading to huge gainers, moving the chains and eventually scoring TDs. The Midshipmen are SECOND nationally in third down conversions at over 52-percent, while ranking THIRD in red zone efficiency by scoring TDs on 35 of 47 trips. The Coogs have been slipping in these two all important statistics as they rank 16th nationally in third down percentage at 47-percent (down from nearly 50-perecent and ranking seventh just four weeks ago). They also rank 23rd in red zone touchdowns at 69-percent (crossing the goal line on 37 of 54 possessions). Behind the QB sweep led by Ward and the physical running of Farrow (with help by great kick out blocks by tight end Tyler McCloskey), the Coogs offense once were in the top 10 in converting red zone opportunities into TDs. Today they sit at just 23rd, converting on 37-of-54 said chances.

If the Cougars can’t force turnovers and convert those turnovers into TDs, it’s going to be a long day on senior day for Houston. The Midshipmen have turned the ball over an FBS low six times by the way. That’s six all season. The Coogs had 4 alone last week. Add the problems the defense has had with physical inside run games over the past few weeks, and all of the injury concerns on offense and it all adds up to the perfect storm for the Coogs as Navy has smooth sailing in Houston.

Final prediction

Navy – 38 Houston – 21


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