Alison Althouse-GoMids.com

Navy's fourth-down success in 2015 was staggering... and a reminder that this season will be fragile

Players make plays. People make moments. Coaches inspire excellence. Yes, college football -- like every other endeavor under the sun -- is powered by human persons, giving their flesh and blood to a larger enterprise. Of course, people made Navy's 2015 season happen. Statistically speaking, however, one stat epitomized how much the Midshipmen threaded the needle last autumn.

Get down and boogie.

Navy got it down pat.

The people in Annapolis were down with what Navy did last year.

Why all the silly wordplays including the word "down"?

Because Navy's unprecedented success in 2015 (at least in terms of games won in an Annapolis football season) was so substantially rooted in the ability to master a down.

Coaches will tell anyone who listens that it's important to win first and 10 to set up third and short. Football analysts know that first downs are important table-setting moments for possessions and series of downs. They then devote more time to third-down conversions than any of the other four downs.

If you follow college football on a national scale, you know there are still plenty of analysts (Rod Gilmore is one of the more prominent examples) who are pansies, people who are deathly afraid of going for a first down on fourth down in most situations. In an era when analytics have become quite prominent in football, the ranks of television analysts and the coaches themselves are still extremely timid when it comes to fourth-down risk-taking.

It's true that in older times, before the evolution of spread offenses and the mainstreaming of a high-tech passing game which puts more of a premium on turning possessions into points at every available opportunity, it DID make more sense to punt on fourth down and four yards. In the world of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, of "Student Body Right" under John McKay at USC, and of the Notre Dame-Michigan State 10-10 tie in 1966, football was a less complicated game. The sport was much more a leverage battle between two teams trying to sledgehammer the ball between the tackles. If they could overpower the opposition, great. If not, they just had to give up the ball, gain 45 yards of field position, and squeeze the field so that they could start a possession in enemy territory, greatly reducing the burden on their (one-dimensional) offense to move the ball a long way. 

Bear Bryant might have changed to the wishbone in the early 1970s to revive his legendary career at Alabama, but that was merely a modernization of the running game. When The Bear hung up his whistle following the 1982 Liberty Bowl against Illinois, college football was still not a highly-evolved sport in terms of tactics and play selection. It was still the leverage-based smashmouth sport it had been in the late 1960s and early 1970s. When The Bear retired at the end of the 1982 season, running backs had won 11 straight Heisman Trophies dating to 1972 (Johnny Rodgers of Nebraska). College football was roughly one year away from witnessing Miami's win over Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl -- a game which ushered in an era of pro-style offenses from the state of Florida usually outpacing the run-first attacks of schools from the heartland, typically Nebraska and Oklahoma). Several years later, in 1990, a fellow named Steve Spurrier overturned the prevailing "defense-turnovers-kicking game" mantra which had guided Southeastern Conference football since its inception. In the early 1990s, the revolution was televised, and in that moment, it became apparent to many of us who follow college football that using all four downs needed to become a much more regular part of a coaching staff's strategy during a game.

The sport was no longer a smashmouth leverage play; using all four downs to keep the ball and score became the new leverage. The new college football demanded fourth-down resourcefulness.

Last year, then, Navy mastered fourth down as well as any team which has ever ventured at least 25 fourth-down attempts in a season.

The statistic is incredible, but it happened: Via CFB Stats, Navy converted 24 of 26 fourth downs last season, 92.3 percent. Navy could have cracked the 90-percent barrier had it made 9 of 10 fourth downs, but the sample size would have been so much smaller. Converting over 90 percent of 26 fourth downs is remarkable, even if one realizes that Navy -- as the triple-option is meant to achieve -- created a lot of fourth and ones or short twos.

Let's not pretend that opposing defenses didn't know what was coming -- sure, they didn't know whether Keenan Reynolds would keep the ball or pitch or hand off (that's the beauty of the triple option), but they knew the triple option was headed their way. They still couldn't stop it when it really mattered. 

Let the details sink in: Navy produced 24 possession-sustaining plays when failure would have meant a turnover. The Midshipmen did win 11 games last year, and in some cases, they won in imposing fashion (especially against Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl, the grand send-off for Reynolds and other Navy seniors), but the life of a triple-option team often demands the ability to walk over the hot coals of fourth-and-one pressure in a meaningful, contentious moment. That the Midshipmen successfully walked over those coals as often as they did shows what it takes to be historically great.

With that point in mind, Navy fans have to be emotionally ready to accept that such a stat is not likely to be replicated anytime soon, especially not with Reynolds in the NFL. This team will need to be good on fourth downs, but it shouldn't be expected to be great. Setting up fourth and one will still be a good outcome for this offense if field position isn't stacked against it. Tago Smith will have to conquer this crucible enough times to matter.

However, the historical greatness of 2015 -- achieved through some uncommon feats of "down-right" brilliance -- must be carried "fourth" with the clear awareness that the 2016 team shouldn't be held to the same standard.

It's a healthy observation, a realistic observation, and one which can hopefully inspire the right mixture of optimism and big-picture acceptance this fall.


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