When Appalachian State went into the Big House and defeated Michigan in 2007, the defining (and game clinching) moment came when safety Corey Lynch blocked Jason Gingell's 37-yard field goal attempt as time expired. When Navy shocked Notre Dame that same year in South Bend, the inability of the Irish to convert field goal attempts on a regular basis factored in when Charlie Weis decided to go for it on fourth-and-eight with just 45 seconds left in the game. With the game tied at 28, all the Irish needed to do was convert a 41-yard field goal to win. That option never came however, as Ram Vela took advantage of Weis' lack of confidence in the Irish kicking game, helping Navy make a defensive stand which sent the game into overtime and an eventual Navy victory. And who can forget about Iowa shocking Penn State last year to shut the door on the Nittany Lions' National Title aspirations? Certainly the Hawkeyes earned the victory in all three phases of the game, but the upset would never have been clinched had kicker Daniel Murray not connected on a last second 31-yard field goal in swirling winds.
There are other factors which make the greatest upsets in the game what they are – not the least of which include turnovers, offensive diversity, and plain old dumb luck (think Class IV hurricane here, people) – but winning the various special teams battles is right up there with those factors. With the "third phase" of the game playing such an important role in equalizing the factors which make favorites the favorites and underdogs the underdogs, it'll be essential for the Midshipmen to be at their best in the kicking, punting, and return games when they travel to Columbus, Ohio this Saturday.
Unfortunately for Navy, recent history is not completely on their side.
One of the essential elements of special teams is the kickoff return game, with the ability of a single kickoff return to swing momentum in one team's favor or another. But the Midshipmen were 107th in the country last season in terms of average kickoff return yardage, compiling just 19.24 yards per return. The Buckeyes, meanwhile, were incredibly stout when it came to kickoff return defense, finishing forth in the country in terms of yards allowed (just 17.5 per return.) Navy did not score on a kick or punt return all season. Sounds like a clear advantage for the Buckeyes, eh?
Let's quote Lee Corso here with a ‘not so fast, my friend.' The good news for Navy is that those numbers were from last year, and starting on Saturday, the Midshipmen will have a chance to drastically improve their return production. After rotating a number of players in and out of the primary kickoff return position in 2008, the Midshipmen may be close to finding an answer to the question of who will return kickoffs in 2009. Freshmen Gee Gee Greene, who rushed for 2,746 yards during his junior and senior seasons of high school, has emerged atop the depth chart, and according to Annapolis Capital writer Bill Wagner, Greene was a blown whistle away from returning a kick for a touchdown in last Friday's situational scrimmage. Greene brings great speed and vision to the position, and will likely be in the mix with several other Navy skill players, including fellow slotback Cory Finnerty and speedster wideout Greg Jones. While the Mids may be more athletic at the kickoff return position this year, it remains to be seen whether or not they'll be able to translate that athleticism into success against Ohio State. It will be difficult considering the Buckeyes return kickoff specialist Aaron Pettrey, who had 13 touchbacks in 2008. Still, the potential is there for Navy's returnmen to prove their worth against Ohio State, especially if the weather isn't as conducive to touchbacks as Pettrey would have it.
If the kickoff return game doesn't give Navy an edge in special teams against Ohio State, perhaps the kicking game will. While Navy will be without the services of the now graduated Matt Harmon (19 of 22 in 2008 on field goals), the Mids have had a productive summer position battle between sophomore Jon Teague and Junior Joe Buckley. Both have improved their accuracy over the summer, while Teague has continued to develop as a kickoff specialist and shown one of the strongest legs for a Navy kicker in recent memory. Teague had nine touchbacks a season ago – good news considering that Ohio State was one of the few teams that finish behind Navy in terms of average kickoff return yards. Advantage Navy? Quite possibly, yes.
One area Navy may struggle against Ohio State is in the punting game. Navy returner Mario Washington averaged just 6.2 yards per punt return a year ago – not exactly All American type numbers. The good news for Navy fans is that while Ohio State may have had one of the best punt return defenses in the country last season, they could take a big hit this year as last season's punter AJ Trapasso moves on. The bad news for Midshipmen fans looking for a Navy edge? Buckeye punt returner Ray Small proved a pleasant surprise last season, averaging 15.2 a return and scoring a touchdown. For Navy to keep the game close, they'll need returner Mario Washington to maximize the productivity of his punt return chances, while keeping Small in check on his own returns.
Granted, it'll take more than a few touchbacks or decent kick returns to keep Navy in the game with Ohio State this Saturday, but given the challenges of playing a team as talented as Ohio State, one can't afford to overlook the opportunities that the third phase of the game represents. Although relatively unproven, Navy's specialists aren't short on talent, and could play a huge role in helping to keep the game close. If that happens, all that's left is for Teague or Buckley to show that they really do have nerves of steel.
Adam Nettina can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.