The Front Line or the Perimeter: Navy's plan

The key for the Johnson Boys in the 108th Army-Navy Game is to find the right plan of attack on offense. With Army's front seven standing on the other side of the line of scrimmage, Navy might need to be a little crafty with its tactics when the Battle of Baltimore kicks off.

Here's the tricky part of a game in which Navy will try to win yet another Commander-in-Chief Trophy: Army's defense--if it has one appreciably noticeable strength--has generally been able to stop the straight-ahead power running game. Army is vulnerable on the perimeter and particularly susceptible to the downfield passing game. But if you try to cram the ball down Army's throat, the Black Knights have a solid line and an active linebacking corps that can mix it up in the trenches. While giving way in the second half of their 2007 season, Army's defensive players are coming off a week of rest, and will also have the adrenaline rush that always accompanies this revered college football rivalry. Army's defense, in short, could very possibly stuff the fullback and take away the typically primary pillar of the triple option attack. Adam Ballard is normally the man Navy must first establish in any game, but on Saturday, Paul Johnson has a decision: should he continue to lead with his brawny bulldozer, or start out with a push on the perimeter? It's a very interesting question, and the way Johnson answers it will shape the contours of Saturday's slugfest.

Given Navy's pronounced superiority over Army over the past several seasons, it's quite likely that Johnson will do what successful coaches do: he'll tell his team to answer the challenge and inspire his offensive line to crush Army at its strong point, right from the get-go. If Army intends to take away Ballard, Johnson will probably respond by motivating his men to take away Army's defense between the tackles. We're likely to see a first quarter in which the ballyhooed battle between Army's defense and Navy's offense quickly becomes a cutthroat competition, with each side going for the early jugular. If Navy can ram Army up the gut, game over. If Army can take away Ballard with its front seven, game on.

Let's play the guessing game, then: what happens if Army rises up in the first 15-20 minutes, as it has in fact done in most of the recent renditions of this rivalry? Does Navy's decorated head coach continue to lean on Army's front lines, in the attempt to wear down the Black Knights the same way Navy has managed to do throughout the Johnson era in Annapolis? Or will Navy need to resort to its perimeter pitch-or-keep game a little bit earlier than hoped for? If Army mounts any kind of defensive stand in the first quarter, the chess match will truly begin. With Stan Brock and not Bobby Ross commandeering the Army sideline this time around, the freshness of this year's tactical tussle will be fun to watch.

Whatever shape this game acquires, Navy knows that it can trust Paul Johnson to make the right adjustments. The man's track record speaks to his ability to find the right openings in a defense. With that said, however, a new coach at West Point will very possibly make this year's adjustment process a bit more difficult. When you also consider the fact that Army's defensive weaknesses are not compatible with Navy's offensive strengths, the process of breaking down the Black Knights isn't as simple as one might initially think.

And oh, there's this one other slight, tiny complication: Navy's defense is vulnerable against Army in ways it hasn't been before. No, it's not that Army has a stellar offense; it's that Navy's defense has slipped relative to past seasons. If Army bolts out of the gate with a couple quick touchdowns, Johnson might have to pull away from a fullback-first emphasis in his triple option scheme.

How will Paul Johnson adjust? How well can Adam Ballard break Army's will in the early stages of Saturday's game? How will the scoreboard--affected by Navy's defense--determine the ebb-and-flow of this football fistfight? So many questions are waiting to be answered as Army tries to throw a new coach and a new attitude at the Milestone Midshipmen and their proven leaders. All that's left is for Navy to display the resourcefulness and resolve of the championship team it's been in the world of service academy football. Various points of concern, and several tactical troubles, will all fly out the window if Navy brings its customary swagger to the stadium on Saturday. One more typical Navy performance--cool under pressure, and clutch in moments of crisis--will sink the Army gray on yet another December day.


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