No fuss or frills -- let's get to the heart of the chase.
Navy needs the right tactics, but the first part of the job is carrying the right mentality into Houston for this showdown.
What does the right mentality include? First of all, this team needs to downshift the next 72 hours. After a Saturday night game in the face of a short week, Navy needs to get away from football for a bit and not give this game emotional energy until it's time to do so. Getting hyped on Tuesday isn't sustainable, and therefore, it isn't desirable. With an 11 a.m. local time kickoff in the Texas metropolis, Navy faces a potential body-clock issue in this game. A 2:30 local (3:30 Eastern) start would have been preferable. Finding the right pregame routine and the right way to gently build up to a football-first focus will be important challenges for Niumatalolo and his staff. We addressed these topics on a broader level last week, but the presence of the noon Eastern kickoff is an extra (and unwelcome) plot complication. Getting this team right in the mind and the body precedes the other tasks the coaching staff has on its plate.
All of the above is magnified in importance when one realizes that Navy was not sharp in the first quarter for noon starts on Saturdays against Tulane and South Florida. The team has rocked and rolled at 3:30 or 7, but noon (Eastern) has been less kind to this team over the past month and a half. A fast start -- or at least, the avoidance of a bad one -- is the initial goal the Midshipmen must set for themselves... and work to create during the short week of preparation.
Then comes the second part of the puzzle.
Once the game begins and the tunnel vision of "this play, nothing else" starts to settle in, Navy needs to have the right plan to handle Houston quarterback Greg Ward, Jr.
Containing Ward is the biggest non-turnover key for Navy. (It should always be assumed, I think, that in setting up a modern architecture of game keys, turnovers are the most important thing about any football game. Establishing anything else as the No. 1 key is made in the face of that assumption.) This is true on several levels, but the discussion starts with the fact that backup quarterback Kyle Postma got injured late in Houston's loss to Connecticut on Saturday in New England. Even if Postma can recover to the point that he could play if asked, it's doubtful he'd have the full degree of mobility needed to be at his best. Second, given that Ward -- who was injured against Memphis -- has had some time to heal (he even played late in the UConn game following Postma's injury), Houston's original starting quarterback is more likely to have a full set of jets, giving the Cougars their best chance to win.
It seems that the week of preparation should focus on Ward to begin with. Postma's injury should make the situation that much clearer for the Men of Ken.
This is where the reality of containing Greg Ward begins to take on more textures and hues.
Navy's previous "big game" occurred against Memphis. The Midshipmen needed to figure out a way to pen in Paxton Lynch, the fine quarterback for the Tigers. They succeeded in doing so, but the complication for coordinator Dale Pehrson (who has been spectacular this year -- that can't be said enough) is that Ward doesn't provide the same package as Lynch.
Whereas Lynch is a capable runner who posed problems as a strong, upper-bodied quarterback -- able to shed pass rushers and make throws in a crowded pocket -- Ward is more of a speed merchant. Lynch could, if given the opportunity, uncork a big run, but Ward can do so with a lot more regularity. Navy took away the deep pass from Memphis and did not get torched by the Tigers' vertical game. The Midshipmen forced Lynch to become an incremental passer who dinked and dunked and needed a large amount of plays to score touchdowns -- he didn't create many of them, and was shut down over the last 20 minutes in the Liberty Bowl stadium.
With Ward, the challenge isn't the same.
Sure, the need to take away big plays from the Cougars remains the same, but that's a stated wish and little more. How the Midshipmen get there is the true question, and with Ward, confronting the reality of a running quarterback (with passing capability) demands a different kind of attentiveness.
One specific point of need for Navy will be to establish lane integrity. Any concerted attempt to generate a pass rush beyond the base defensive front will require an awareness of running lanes, thereby making sure that Ward doesn't have a clear path of escape. Bringing rushers from the edge could only serve to enable Ward to dash up the middle for 25-yard chunks if he sees enough real estate. That's what Navy and Pehrson must bottle up in this game. If the challenge against Memphis and Lynch was to shut off the deep ball, Houston and Ward demand that the Midshipmen contain the running game from the quarterback spot.
Much as Houston knows that taking away the fullback will be the cornerstone of any successful attempt to stop Navy's triple option, the Midshipmen have to know that containing Ward as a runner is the cornerstone of a successful effort to keep Houston's offense in check. Ward was struggling as a passer before he got injured against Memphis. Not allowing him to run free when plays break down is the Midshipmen's foremost priority when this game comes into sharper focus.
There are so many more sidebar stories and individual angles to explore in this game, but the larger combination of proper preparation for the early start and the proper containment of Greg Ward, Jr. show the way to victory for Navy.
Playing for a 10-win season. Playing for the possibility of an 11-win season. Playing for one championship on the road to a bigger one. Playing for a possible chance to play in a showcase bowl game.
It's the biggest game of Ken Niumatalolo's head coaching career... which will lead to bigger games if won.
Rest up and replenish the next few days, gentlemen. Reduce the excitement you feel, and be vigilant for the 11 a.m. hour in Texas on a Friday morning when Americans -- sleepy with tryptophan in their bloodstreams -- need to watch a very wakeful football team in road whites on ABC television.