Navy Staff Responds to Offensive Critics

After ten games last season, Navy was 6-4 with games against Northern Illinois and Army still to be played and fans were giddy. A year later the record and remaining opponents are identical, but most fans are frustrated with an offense that all of a sudden appears to lack creativity and aggressiveness. Navy's Ken Niumatalolo and Ivin Jasper took the time to respond to their offensive critics.

Navy's offense this season has run one reverse, zero slot-back passes, and is rarely throwing the ball to open a game.   

In the 11 games prior to the Poinsettia Bowl last season, Navy passed on the first play of the game eight times. In both the Pitt and Duke games, Navy completed passes of over 25 yards on the initial play, and went on to light up the scoreboard in each contest.

In the Delaware game last season in which Navy opened its first series with a running play, they later converted a fake field goal on the same drive.

So, fans want to know: Is Navy's offense, and specifically the play calling becoming too conservative?

"Everybody has their opinion on being conservative and stuff, but we watch tape and look at it and see what we can do better," said Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. "We haven't been able to execute with what we do."

And although Navy has scored on its first possession in every game except one this season, in four out of the last five games on its second possession it has run 14 plays and gained 34 yards, fumbling and punting twice.

So while the offense is having success on its first drive, it would appear that defenses are starting to make the necessary adjustments and perhaps even daring the Mids to prove they can throw the ball early in the game.

Niumatalolo insists that is just not the case.

"It's not like you come out in the first series and then (the defense) changes what they are doing. Notre Dame lined up the same way pretty much the entire game – maybe with a few wrinkles here and there."

A lot of critics, including this author, believe that throwing the football early can open things up in the running game and keep defenses off balance. And this season, it appears Navy's coaching staff, specifically offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, has not bought into that strategy.

"Why would you come up and support the run if you are not afraid of us running the football?" asked Jasper. "We have to be good at running the football (to force defenses) to (send safeties) to support the run. We are just not getting it done. That's the bottom line."

Jasper said that throwing the ball could "definitely" open up the running game, but he offered "you have to be successful running the ball first," and Navy is "just not doing it."

But if you are not having success running the football, couldn't a pass or even a trick play help build the unit's confidence and perhaps cause defenses to line up differently?

"That's fair," said Niumatalolo. "But, it's not like defenses are doing something totally different. What we do is not very complicated, but we are struggling to execute right now. You're probably right, we could be throwing the ball more, but I don't think that is the sole reason why we are struggling."

But in order for Navy to throw the ball with success, regardless of who is playing quarterback, it must improve its blocking up front according to Jasper.

"It doesn't matter what kind of arm the quarterback has, it's a matter of whether or not he can get (the pass) off. I'm not docking our offensive line or our coaches. We are a running football team. Pass protection is just not our cup of tea," said Jasper. "You have to pick the right time to do it. If you try to drop back on first down and you get sacked, now it's 2nd and 10. And for me, I just don't like being in situations like that. I'm going to call the game the way I think it will be successful for us to keep moving the football.

And as for trick plays?

"We are not a trick play offense. That's not the way to win games.  We have them in our package but there just hasn't been the time to do it," said Jasper.

"We watch the film as coaches.  We see a lot more than people see on the outside. We can't concern ourselves with what people want," he continued. "We can't just drop back and throw the ball to please other people. We are not in this to entertain. We are in this to win football games. And the way to win football games is to do it the way we know how to do it."

Another popular area critics are concerned about is adjustments, or the perceived lack of them, being made during halftime. Navy fans have been spoiled in previous seasons as the Mids were dominant after the intermission – scoring in 27 of 37 games at one point on its initial possession in the third quarter including a gaudy number of touchdowns (22) during that span.

In the team's last six initial possessions after halftime, Navy has punted four times, fumbled once and scored one touchdown which came after an Air Force fumble gave the Mids the ball at their opponent's 10-yard line. The one Navy fumble was against Wake Forest on the kick-off; however, the Mids punted on its next four possessions in that contest.

On those critical first possessions after halftime in the last six games, Navy has run the ball 32 times and attempted two passes – completing one for minus seven yards.

So are defenses just daring the Mids to throw in the third quarter?

"Somebody would have to come here and show me that people are changing (how they play us in the second half)," said Niumatalolo. "Like I said, Notre Dame lined up the same way the whole game. They weren't stopping us. We were stopping ourselves. The plays we executed right, we went right down the field. That was the frustrating part."

It's important to note that when both Niumatalolo and Jasper referred to poor ‘execution' as the reason for many of the offense's problems, both were quick to put themselves at the front of the line in regards to who is responsible for the unit's performance.

"Maybe you are not being clear enough in your coaching because the bottom line, it's our job. We have to find a way where guys understand (what we are saying) so they can go out and execute it.  We've got some work to do for sure, offensively," said Niumatalolo.

The first-year head coach said he would even consider using a popular software program, more commonly seen in classrooms and boardrooms, to help his staff communicate more effectively to his players.

"As coach you continue to try to do some drills differently; maybe you could do something different in your meetings; maybe a different learning process…maybe a power point presentation, better hand-outs…We are frustrated for sure, but one remedy for that is to go back, roll up your sleeves and go to work," said Niumatalolo.

"We know we could be playing better. I think we are still close to scoring 29 points a game. The standards here are so high and that's what we want. We will never lower them, but we are just frustrated because we know we can play better," he continued.

"No one criticizes themselves more than I do when I come back and look at the film. I beat myself down. I have sleepless nights. The first person I look at is me and what I'm doing," said Jasper. "Anybody can call the game from the stands and have hindsight. I always come back and say, ‘if I would have called this play, maybe it would have worked.' At the time, I called the play that I thought was the best thing to do." 

Jasper wasn't done.

"It all starts with me. And ultimately I am totally responsible for it. But at the same time we are not going to revamp or reinvent our offense. Every year is the same and people have their opinions about what we are doing and what we are not doing. That's fine."

"The Notre Dame game – as tough as it was – there is a lot more to it than what you see on TV and what you see from the stands.  They were tough inside," said Jasper.

In addition to fans wanting Navy's offense to be more creative, they are also hoping to see a return to an aggressive style that has been a calling card for the Mids in the last few years.

Specifically, since Jarod Bryant failed to convert a 4th and 1 against Duke in the third quarter, when faced with 4th and 3 yards or less to go for a first down (and with neither team up by three touchdowns), Navy has punted 10 times, attempted a FG once, and gone for it three times.

Of the three times Niumatalolo took a chance, Navy converted all of them, although one was reversed on a penalty. And in the Notre Dame game, he put Navy in position to go for it on fourth down before the Mids were trailing by several scores. And again it resulted in a first down, courtesy of a Notre Dame penalty.

The average field position Navy faced on these fourth downs was their own 28-yard line, and for Niumatalolo that makes the decision an easy one.

"I'm not going to go for it at our own 30-yard line. Our defense is playing pretty good, but I don't want to give teams a short field. It's not a sin to punt."

But is his offensive coordinator trying to talk him into going for it in some of those situations?

"That's ultimately Coach Niumatalolo's decision. I don't cross that line. What I do is make sure I have a play ready to call (if we do go for it)," said Jasper.

Another noticeable difference between this year's Navy team and those in past seasons is the amount of aggressiveness being displayed by the head coach on the sideline when something goes awry.

How exactly does Niumatalolo manage to keep his cool even though, by his own admission, his team made some pretty significant and inexplicable mental mistakes against Notre Dame? 

"You just try to explain to the player…did you see (where you made a mistake). In the course of a game there is so much emotion…there is a lot of pressure and you just try to find a way to communicate so a player understands what they are doing wrong."

"The thing that drives me crazy is ball security. I've lost my cool when we haven't taken care of the ball. In my mind there is nothing that beats you faster than turning the ball over. That turnover we had in the first half (against Notre Dame) killed us. Instead of going in tied (or better), we were down 10-7," continued Niumatalolo.

So having watched the Notre Dame film, where exactly does Navy's offensive staff start in order to fix the problems.

"There are a lot of different holes in the dam. I think our perimeter blocking (against Notre Dame) was as bad as it has ever been this year. We didn't play particularly well at quarterback, at o-line…it was all over," said Niumatalolo.

"Jarod might get the read right, but we missed the perimeter; the perimeter might get the blocking right, but Jarod missed the read; Jarod might get the read right, but the o-line missed the linebacker. Once you get this fixed, then that hole would open up. In year's past we were a lot more efficient in terms of everybody doing their job. That will be our main focus this week."

Another focal point leading up to the Northern Illinois game on Tuesday night will be getting sophomore Ricky Dobbs prepared to make his first career start at quarterback – a decision Niumatalolo and Jasper were in complete agreement on.

"Ivin and I made the decision. Besides his physical gifts, Ricky is a heck of a passer, strong runner, and for some reason the other players seem to respond to him. Ivin and I decided that we needed something going on offense, and maybe he will provide a spark for us…from the beginning," said Niumatalolo.

"Ricky is a kid that when I first met him, (I thought) there is something about him. (Now) he is going in and doing some good things. Of course in practice he does some bonehead things. It's hard to explain. We don't do anything different with Ricky in there. He just goes in there and gets things going," said Jasper.

"We are going to do what we can to help Ricky be successful. And if he can't get it done, we will go back to Jarod," continued Jasper.

Navy's head coach confirmed that there is no plan to move Jarod Bryant back to slot back this season; however he did not rule out having him return kick-offs against Army if Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is able to play against the Black Knights.

Niumatalolo was very diplomatic in his evaluation of Navy's kick-off return team this season, calling it a "work in progress."

As for the prospects of Kaipo returning for the Army game, Niumatalolo said that is what the staff will work towards after the Northern Illinois game.

"He should be coming back to practice next week. He may be back for Army," he said.

"I might have pushed him a little bit too much early on, but since then we have treated him with kid gloves. If he comes back in practice next week, we have to push him. Either you can go or you can't. We have to see exactly where he is at so we will have him open up a little bit in practice," said Niumatalolo.

"He's been working really hard trying to get back."

In the meantime, Niumatalolo and Jasper are moving forward.

"I'm trying to put things in perspective for these guys. There has only been eight winning seasons in the last 25 years here. I'm trying to make these guys realize how many winning seasons there have been here at the academy – there haven't been many," said Niumatalolo. "There is a lot to play for. We lost (the Notre Dame game), but the world hasn't ended. This isn't Armageddon. Hopefully we will have a chance to be 7-4 going into the Army game."

"The support for the football team is great. We have a great fan base. Our fans are wonderful, but I know at the same time they get frustrated. We can't try to please people by doing what they think we should do," said Jasper. "It would be great to go out and get a win, and get the (bad) taste out of our mouth. That's going to be our plan."



 - If Ricky Dobbs does start against Northern Illinois, Navy will be only the seventh FBS school to start three different quarterbacks this season. UCONN, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, South Carolina, Northern Illinois, and NC State are the others.

 - So far this season, Navy's defense has shown the seventh best improvement of any FBS school in points allowed per game. Last year, the Mids gave up 36.4 games per contest. This year, they are giving up 25.7.


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