Then the penalties came.
Sometimes when it rains it pours, and Saturday's game was an absolute monsoon of penalties for the Navy team. Navy entered the game as the third least penalized team in the country, but left having been flagged an almost unimaginable 12 times. The glut of penalties killed Navy drives and extended UConn drives, meaning that the blowout could have been even more lopsided. It was an impressive performance anyway, with the offense piling up more than 600 yards on a defense that until Saturday was giving up only 213 yards per game.
Now that's more like it. Brian Hampton exploded out of his shell, accounting for 323 total yards and four touchdowns. Hampton's running is reminiscent of Brian Madden with his hard-nosed, tough to tackle running style. We'd seen glimpses of that already, but what we hadn't seen up to this point was the mastery of the finer points of the offense. For example, Reggie Campbell's TD scamper to open the second half was made possible in part because of an adjustment that Hampton made in reading his pitch key. UConn's safeties had done a tremendous job in the first half of coming up to meet the pitch on option plays. Hampton recognized this, saw that Campbell had space, and pitched him the ball earlier than normal. The early pitch put the oncoming safety in no man's land, caught between Hampton and Campbell. And that's a bad place to be when Campbell has the ball.
Hampton's game wasn't perfect. He completed the 77-yard TD pass to open the game, but still showed the tendency to underthrow his receivers. He took a couple of bad sacks when he should've thrown the ball away, and he couldn't get the ball past oncoming linemen when setting up a screen. But that is a matter of fine-tuning; the most important thing is to master the option offense, and Saturday was the first sign that Hampton is doing just that.
The fullbacks weren't much of a factor carrying the ball until Adam Ballard ripped off the fourth-longest run in school history. He had three carries for 88 yards before leaving the game with a shoulder stinger. Matt Hall did well filling in for Ballard in the second half, averaging almost five yards per carry. Hall is a compact runner, and is better suited for the inside trap and belly plays than the long-striding Ballard. Ballard had trouble making his blocks on some counter option plays, which is why the grade isn't higher.
There aren't enough good things that can be said about Reggie Campbell. The combination of speed, balance, and intelligence make for one special football player. The moves he made to break free on his 77-yard TD reception were ridiculous, and nobody was going to catch him as he sprinted down the sideline in the third quarter. Ringing up 105 yards on only 5 carries means that there will be plenty of Reggie Campbell highlights from this game shown at the postseason banquet.
Reggie wasn't the only A-back to contribute, though. Shun White had a run for a career-long 29 yards, Trey Hines had a key first-down carry, and Zerbin Singleton made a crucial block to help spring Brian Hampton for his 52-yard TD run in the fourth quarter. Can't ask for a much better game from the slots.
Wide receivers: C
UConn made a point of sending their CBs crashing down on pitch plays, and they had some success with that plan. That tactic led to receivers missing several blocks, and also a block in the back penalty. OJ Washington did have a 15-yard grab for a first down, but it wasn't a banner day for the wideouts.
Offensive line: C+
The penalties are killing this grade; be thankful that you aren't Matt Pritchett on Monday afternoon. But outside of the obvious, the line play was improved over the lackluster performance a week ago. Brian Hampton doesn't run for 182 yards if the line isn't doing its job. A good example of improvement since the Tulsa game came on Hampton's long TD run in the fourth quarter. Coach Johnson had spent the entire third quarter setting up that play. Navy came out in the second half lining two wide receivers to the same side of the field and running the option to that side on every play. On Hampton's run, the offense lined up in that same formation and went into motion showing the same option look as the third quarter. But instead of running the option as they had been, they ran the counter option to the opposite side. Two key blocks would spring Hampton; one from Zerbin Singleton, and one from Antron Harper who was pulling from the other side of the formation and sealed off the inside-out pursuit. That's a block that the line had trouble with the week before, and it was so effective that Hampton went unchallenged after making it past the line of scrimmage. Every play wasn't as pretty-- the 4th & goal toss was blown up after Josh Meek couldn't reach his assignment quickly enough—but the line definitely took a step up after last week. Now about those penalties…
Defensive line: B
Chan and Wright both had questionable late hit penalties, but outside of that the D-line did its job in freeing up the linebackers to make plays. John Chan got in on five tackles and did a good job of playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Tye Adams made four tackles of his own and forced a fumble. Another solid performance from this group of overachievers.
The heart of the defense played like it on Saturday. Rob Caldwell and David Mahoney were all over the field, combining for 20 tackles plus a forced fumble and a pass breakup from Mahoney. Neither player registered a sack but both put good pressure on UConn QB Matt Bonislawski, who went only 15-37 passing on the afternoon. Mahoney did a solid job in pass coverage, Irv Spencer pitched in two tackles and a fumble recovery. Connecticut entered the game ranked fourth in the nation running the football, and the Navy defense held them nearly 90 yards below their rushing average.
This unit has been the most scrutinized of the defenders this year, but it turned in a solid game on Saturday. Rashawn King led the way with 8 tackles, and freshman standout Jeromy Miles pitched in 5 of his own including one for a loss. Nobody will confuse the Connecticut passing game for Texas Tech, but it's still an important milestone for this unit to hold the opposition to less than 50% passing; it hasn't happened often. Two dropped interceptions could have made the score even more lopsided.
Special teams: A
Matt Harmon made all his extra points and two field goals from tough angles. Greg Veteto's punting average might not look all that great, but the combination of his leg and good coverage put the Connecticut offense behind the 20 three times. A solid special teams effort from a unit that really needed to bounce back after last week.
The penalties were the only black mark on what was the most complete team performance for Navy this year. And Navy couldn't have picked a better time to put it all together as they prepare for the toughest 3-game stretch of the schedule.