Can Dale's "D" foil Air Force?
A few tension points loom over Navy’s next game, the game which will almost certainly decide the owner of the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy for 2015. However, when you remove those elements from the backdrop to the game which has produced every CIC Trophy winner since 1997, this Saturday’s clash with Air Force boils down to the Midshipmen’s defense and the Falcons’ offense.
Let’s briefly deal with the tension points first, and then dive into the nitty-gritty.
Navy faces a number of challenges that are either psychological, stylistic, or both. For one thing, Connecticut – though improving – still proved to be a more-than-manageable opponent for Navy on the road. Going from UConn to Air Force in one week could represent a jump up the ladder which could create a startling effect for Navy when this game begins. It could be (we’ll just have to see in the first quarter) that Air Force will represent a level of offensive skill which greatly exceeds anything Connecticut was able to bring to the dance. If this gap is indeed as pronounced as one worries it might be, Navy’s defense will immediately have to perform on a higher plane than it has to this point in the season.
Stylistically, Navy doesn’t merely face an offense that’s different from Connecticut; the Midshipmen will face an offense which is much more competent at passing the ball, especially when it needs to. Navy’s defense did encounter a few lapses against UConn, but for the most part, the Huskies struggled as soon as the combination of time-and-score forced them to be a one-dimensional offense, featuring the pass. Air Force can be more proficient with the pass, and so while the Falcons’ lead dance step is still made with the running game, they can be more diverse in a wider range of down-and-distance situations. UConn was more monochromatic, and so Navy has to contend with that stylistic shift on Saturday.
Third, this is a 3:30 start and not the midday (or even late-morning) start it has been in recent years against Air Force. This means three and a half to four additional hours in which nerves and adrenaline might run their course. Sober, levelheaded preparation on gameday – not just throughout the week of practice – becomes ever-so-slightly amplified for Navy. Keeping emotions properly channeled – directing them neatly into the flow of this game (just like any other football game, even though it’s NOT “just another game” in terms of significance) – will be a point of focus for Ken Niumatalolo.
Those are the tensions points. Now, what about Air Force’s offense against Navy’s defense on a more specific level?
As mentioned in the introduction, Air Force is playing with its number-two quarterback, not the man who was supposed to be the starter throughout the 2015 season. Nate Romine got knocked out for the season with an injury, so Karson Roberts had to take the reins against Michigan State on Sept. 19. He threw an interception, but he still guided the Falcons quite effectively. Air Force outgained Michigan State on the road by more than 100 yards and eclipsed 420 yards for the game. Roberts had prior experience as a starter, so this occasion was not too overwhelming or intimidating for him. He made ample reads and reactions which were appropriate to the situation. The Falcons do not appear to be losing much, if anything at all, with Roberts at the controls of the offense instead of Romine.
Beyond the quarterback issue (and its apparent lack of real significance in terms of hurting the offense), Air Force’s offense stands on very solid ground because its offensive line outplayed Michigan State’s front seven. When you rush for 279 yards against Mark Dantonio’s defense as the Falcons did, the big uglies must be firing off the ball and fulfilling their assignments.
The merited cautionary note here is that Michigan State’s defense has lost multiple starters due to injury this season, but even when you factor that into the equation, it’s still impressive that Air Force could run that well against Michigan State on the road. Navy’s front seven has a difficult opponent on the other side of the ball.
The one thing Air Force’s offense didn’t do well against Michigan State – much like the 2013 game it lost in Annapolis – was finish drives. Three turnovers changed the complexion of that contest. Moreover, in addition to denying the Falcons points, those mistakes balanced out time of possession. Air Force might have been able to tire out the Spartans’ defense to an even greater (and perhaps decisive) degree, while also keeping Connor Cook and the MSU offense off the field, without those three turnovers.
These details raise the question: What if Navy can’t force a turnover this Saturday? Is coordinator Dale Pehrson’s group good enough to limit Air Force’s scoring output solely on the basis of getting enough stops, particularly in the red zone or scoring territory? This might be the most central battleground of the game – which team (if it doesn’t get 50-yard scoring plays, of course) gets better results in the red zone? What could be a 35-point outing becomes a 27-point performance. What could have been a 28-point day becomes a 20-point showing.
In a game which figures to have a reasonable amount of scoring – it’s certain to feature more points than the 2010 game, and likely to have more than 2013 contest – red-zone play is right there alongside big-mistake avoidance as a top priority for both offenses and coaching staffs.
How great does Navy want to be? How great can this team be?
After September preliminaries, we truly begin to find out in October. We’ll see if – in body, mind, spirit, and tactics – Dale Pehrson’s defense is ready to leave a talented Air Force offense feeling (Buddy) Green.
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