The Buddy System Works To Perfection

Does September 18, 2004 mean anything to you, as a Navy football fan? Take a moment. Try to think of the significance of that date. Got the answer? If you said that was the last time Navy shut out an opponent, you're absolutely correct. Just over 50 months since a 29-0 whitewash of Tulsa, the Midshipmen blanked Northern Illinois on Tuesday night.

Chalk up this awesome effort—and a stellar season-long performance—to the Buddy System.

In the Paul Johnson era that took Navy football by storm, it was easy to focus on the triple option all the time. The offense that made Navy football a winner captured the imagination of people in and around Annapolis, so much so that Army decided to embrace the triple-option look this season. After years of dazzling performances from men named Candeto, Owens, Kaheaku-Enhada, and Bryant, it's been easy to look to the offensive side of the ball as the source of Navy's ascendancy.

But while Navy defenses have had their share of struggles in the past, Midshipmen defenders have really stepped forward in the first full year of the Ken Niumatalolo era. With the Men of Ken being less proficient at throwing the football, and not quite as explosive on the edges thanks to the graduation of playmaking studs Reggie Campbell and Zerbin Singleton, this year's team wasn't equipped to win track meets the way Navy did in 2007. (Anyone recall the 74-62 win at North Texas, the 46-44 win at Notre Dame, or the 48-45 win at Pittsburgh?) In 2008, Navy had to play better defense, and coordinator Buddy Green has definitely delivered the goods. On a terrific Tuesday night, Green's Guys dominated in DeKalb, Ill., posting a goose-egg to clinch another winning season for the program.

Having banked a bowl bid against Temple, Navy wanted to defeat another Mid-American Conference team in order to secure a seventh win, so that the Army game wouldn't involve the added pressure of needing to eclipse the .500 mark. The Midshipmen did the deed because their defense—which should probably be called "Gang Green" at this point—proved to be unshakable and unbreakable against the homestanding Huskies.

To put this shutout in a larger context, it certainly seems that Navy's defense has benefited from the added rest it's received in November. After a discouraging performance against Temple (despite the Ross Pospisil-led heroics in the final minute, which wouldn't have occurred if Temple had chosen to kneel down), Navy—given a bye week—played superbly in its return to action on Nov. 15 against Notre Dame. The Buddy System limited a stronger Fighting Irish outfit to just two offensive touchdowns. Navy played three outstanding quarters of football, sagging in the third quarter of that contest only because the Midshipmen simply got tired and worn down by the bigger bodies on the other side of the line.

Navy fans will duly note that in the fourth quarter of that Notre Dame game, Navy's defense protected the goal line with distinction, causing a turnover inside its own 10-yard line in a 27-7 game. No one could have known it at the time, but that stop—a great testament to this team's grit, even in circumstances when other defenses would roll over and wave the white flag—enabled the Mids to bust off a late rally and come remarkably close to pulling out an unbelievable victory. Navy did fall short against the Irish, but after another extended break—this one lasting 10 days—Buddy's Boys once again looked fit and fast. This made all the difference in yet another A-list effort.

If Navy's defense possessed one basic weakness on Tuesday, it was being too fast. When Northern Illinois tried quarterback draws or any kind of delay runs, Navy defenders ran upfield from the edges and got caught over-pursuing plays, especially in the first half. But as the game continued, Navy learned its lesson and contained the scrambling of Husky quarterback Chandler Harnish. By keeping everything in front of them on both running and passing plays, the Midshipmen—playing with a lead all night long—were more than happy for force NIU to dink and dunk the ball down the field.

A shutout represents a sensational performance, but beyond that fact, the most important reality to emerge from this game is that it represented a textbook-perfect example of how Navy can (and should) play when not gifted with a potent passing game. Whereas the 2007 offense possessed a credible passing threat that could diversify Navy's attack and lead to big track-meet scores, this year's team doesn't have that same capability. Therefore, the Men of Ken need to score early, control the ball, and make opposing offenses beat them with sustained drives while playing from behind. This is exactly how Navy played—and beat—Northern Illinois, and it serves as a great source of both education and encouragement for the program as it looks toward the future.

This Tuesday triumph was so impressive because it showed how a complete team can come together, with the offense and defense playing off each other. Ricky Dobbs and the rest of the offense built a lead while controlling the ball and keeping Gang Green rested. Then, in the second half, Navy's defense was able to withstand a 20-play drive from the Huskies and come up with a heroic stand on a fourth-and-2 at its own 3.

Dobbs and fullback Eric Kettani established an effective one-two punch between the tackles that enabled Navy to establish a 9-0 second quarter lead while throwing just one forward pass, a 32-yard strike to Greg Shinego. By draining 11 minutes on just one drive, Navy built a lead while simultaneously shortening the game (a game which, despite being on national TV and requiring several commercial breaks, lasted just 2 hours and 40 minutes, and that included a bizarre and lengthy officiating controversy that infuriated NIU coach Jerry Kill in the third quarter). When Navy went up by nine points, that relatively modest lead—at least in most games—felt like 28 points against a more high-powered offense. When Navy went up 16-0 late in the third quarter, it seemed as though a blowout was taking place.

It's terrible when a team trails a game and watches an opponent drain the clock; conversely, it's delightful when a leading team sees the same thing happen, and this was the tidy trick turned by Navy on this night in Illinois. While Navy used up those 11 first-half minutes to take a lead, the Midshipmen—up 16-0—watched with glee as the Huskies labored downfield in the third and fourth quarters, using 20 plays and their final two timeouts to march the ball just 68 yards… and not even score. Leading by two touchdowns and two two-point conversions, Gang Green was all too happy to allow NIU to move the ball in small amounts, just as long as the Huskies forfeited any remaining leverage they might have possessed. By exhausting their supply of timeouts with 7:58 left in the fourth quarter, the Huskies—even if they had managed to find the end zone on that 20-play drive—lost their margin for error in the game's remaining minutes. NIU would have had to convert a two-point try, get a quick stand against Navy's time-draining offense (the Midshipmen threw zero incomplete passes and committed zero turnovers, a literally perfect ball-control game), find enough time to muster up a second touchdown drive (without timeouts) and then convert a second two-point conversion… just to tie and force overtime.

Navy grabbed a lead early with effective between-the-tackles running, and then—without allowing a single running play to get past them, or a single pass to find the deeper portions of their secondary—forced the Huskies to panic. It was a Muhammad Ali rope-a-dope form of football if one ever saw it in action. The Men of Ken didn't win with eye-popping point totals or prodigious production; they used a savvy strategic approach that turned the time and score into their closest allies.

A final few facts put this Buddy Green beauty into its proper perspective. Navy's defense—superb for most of this season relative to the quality of its opponents, with only two notable exceptions (Temple, and also the 41-31 loss to Duke)—is never expected to dominate opponents the way Pete Carroll's defense does at USC. Navy's not going to step onto the field and throw shutouts on the board in consecutive weeks, or go 23 quarters without giving up a touchdown. No, this defense will succeed to the extent that it can win on third and fourth down, particularly on its own side of the field… just as it began to do against Notre Dame.

So, how did Navy's defense do on third and fourth downs on its own side of the field in this game? The Buddy System held NIU to a 2-for-8 conversion rate on third and fourth downs in Navy territory, with the Midshipmen getting a key interception from Emmett Merchant in the third quarter that set up Navy's second touchdown. Navy also stopped a first-quarter drive on a second-down play from the Midshipmen 30, as Rashawn King picked off a pass to keep the Huskies scoreless. Buddy Green watched his players pull off this shutout because Navy defended its own third of the field remarkably well. Every NIU drive except the last one (when the game's outcome had already been decided) ended on Navy's side of the field. The fact that the Huskies could never score, despite all their forays past midfield, serves as the ultimate tribute to a defense that has been outstanding in these past two games.

The winning season has been clinched. Now, only Army remains before the EagleBank Bowl. Nothing will come easy against the Black Knights of the Hudson, but one can say, at this early date (9 days before tackling Stan Brock's bunch on CBS), that Navy will have one big advantage in its pocket: Buddy Green's defense will have an extended break. If the past few weeks are any indication, Army's offense will have a very tough time scoring points.

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