Arkansas State Review: A Good Look
Senior Day at Memorial Stadium turned out the way everyone hoped it would. Ricky Dobbs received a victorious send-off in his final Annapolis go-round. In the process of lifting Navy into the win column, Dobbs – aided by teammates on defense and special teams – gave a certain team from West Point a lot to think about in three weeks' time.
Yes, it was important that Navy produce a much more solid and contained effort than the uneven display against Central Michigan, a game that very nearly got away from Ken Niumatalolo's lads. That much was certainly accomplished against a Sun Belt foe from Jonesboro, Arkansas. Navy didn't have to deal with last-minute drama in this 35-19 knockout blow. The offensive collapse witnessed in the first three quarters against Duke did not quite repeat itself against Arkansas State... though there were some hiccups. The defensive lapses which marked the fourth quarter against Central Michigan were nowhere to be found versus Steve Roberts's roster. Navy's performance still had its share of false starts, but when crunch time came calling, the Mids didn't melt. They held the fort and stifled a hungry pack of Wolves that wanted to paint Annapolis Red… ASU red.
No, this wasn't a spectacular outing from the Men of Ken; a 21-3 second-quarter lead did not turn into the runaway it very well could have been. Two fumbles played a part in limiting Navy to just seven points (on one 85-yard pass play, not a sustained drive) over a span of two full quarters plus 10 minutes and three seconds. It also must be acknowledged that Arkansas State almost turned this contest into a one-score affair midway through the fourth quarter. However, all three elements of the Midshipmen coalesced to hold an opponent at bay and prevent the sweat glands from working overtime. For once, the Mids tightened up their game and did not allow a 60-minute slugfest to be decided in the final minute. That's a virtue against superior teams, but Navy has allowed far too many inferiors to stay in the ring until the last sliver of regulation time. Against Arkansas State, the good guys drew a welcome line in the sand on home soil.
ASU gave Navy a taste of balanced offense in this tilt. The Red Wolves rushed for 187 yards and passed for 178. Running back Jermaine Robertson averaged a healthy six yards a carry, bolting for 92 yards on 15 touches. ASU quarterback Ryan Aplin completed 22-of-30 passes – over 70 percent – and threw only one interception. Given those kinds of stats, you might wonder how the Red Wolves could have scored fewer than 20 points. The answer – as is regularly the case on planet pigskin – is that coordinator Buddy Green's Navy defense made almost all the plays it needed to make when it needed to make them.
On only two occasions in this game did Navy's defense falter in a true and substantial sense. The Buddy System allowed Arkansas State to immediately respond to Navy touchdowns in the second and fourth quarters to keep the proceedings interesting. The Midshipmen, had they put their boots on the Red Wolves' throats with even more authority, could have blown the doors off this game. That's why this effort against Arkansas State rates as a solid B-plus rather than the straight-A showcase it could have been. However, some past games for Navy's defense – namely, the home-field debacles against Duke and Central Michigan – deserved close to flunking marks. In this contest, Navy's missteps were adequately wiped away by the defense's ability to produce a pair of red-zone stops.
The first exhibition of excellence from the Mids' defense came just inside the 15-yard line early in the second quarter. Thanks to Navy's Billy Yarborough, who sacked Aplin on second-and-goal from the 9 (one of his three sacks on the day; no B-plus for the A-grade senior from Columbia, South Carolina), the home team blunted ASU's first major thrust. It is so crucial for a team that sprints out to a quick lead to not make the comeback effort any easier than it needs to be for an opponent. Sure, ASU eventually made a game of it in Annapolis, but it was still valuable that the Red Wolves had to work a little harder and a little longer to make the proceedings interesting. When Yarborough did his thing and the Mids held on third-and-goal from the 13, Arkansas State did not get the quick ticket (back) into contention it so profoundly needed. Navy had established a 14-0 lead, so when the Red Wolves had to settle for only three points with 12:51 left in the second stanza, that development took some wind out of the Red Wolves' sails, a point affirmed when Greg Jones smoked ASU's secondary for 85 yards just 18 seconds after that rather hollow three-point kick for the visitors.
Later, at the end of the first half, ASU had to settle for a field goal and a 21-13 deficit instead of shaving the Navy lead to 21-17 at the break. Jerry Hauburger – who helped stop another first-half drive inside the Navy 30 with pressure on Aplin – made a stop of Robertson at the 4. Then Jordan Fraser and Tyler Simmons stacked up Aplin on the following two plays, forcing a reluctant Roberts to send out his placekicker for an empty 20-yard chip shot. The Mids' ability to stand tall in the first half set the stage for their second-half success. This is why Navy's B-plus afternoon on defense was more than enough to subdue the sons of the Sun Belt.
Special teams also made a huge contribution, even though it might have been confined to two plays in particular. Kyle Delahooke's 48-yard punt with 11 minutes left in the third quarter, combined with first-rate kick coverage from Brandon Turner and Jonathan Wev, forced an illegal-block penalty on the Red Wolves which resulted in a 59-yard net shift in field position. Since ASU was within one score (21-13) at the time, this clutch punt-and-cover display from the Men of Ken did much to sustain both momentum and leverage. Then, one quarter later, Navy's special teamers delivered the goods not with kicking or coverage, but with a very important block party.
ASU sliced the Mids' lead to just nine points (28-19) on a five-yard flip from Aplin to wide receiver Allen Muse with 8:41 left in regulation. The PAT was about to pull the Red Wolves within eight points, and the tension was beginning to flood back into the stadium. Just as soon as Navy partisans started to worry, however, their worst fears were immediately obliterated by the Mids' block of kicker Brian Davis's extra-point try. With one swipe of the paws from its hard-charging front line, Navy preserved a two-score lead and punched ASU in the gut. The winded and wounded Red Wolves lost all starch after that decisive moment, and when Dobbs – the owner of 154 yards on a typically strong Saturday – scored his third touchdown of the game and the 48th of his decorated career with 2:52 left, the final dagger had been plunged into Arkansas State's chest.
The defense set the table. The special teams held off the ASU surge and carved out a two-possession lead heading into the final eight minutes. The offense, formidable but mistake-prone, got back on the beam to close the sale down the stretch. All three phases contributed. Plenty of heroes emerged up and down the roster. The core aspects of Navy football at its best – Ricky Dobbs, more Ricky Dobbs, teamwide tackling, and timely special-teams plays – were all evident in Annapolis, giving the young men from Army some things to think about as they begin to study game film for the showdown on Dec. 11 in Philadelphia.
Yes, Navy offered "a good look" against Arkansas State. Now is the time to offer "a great look" against the Black Knights of the Hudson.
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