The Mids may come into Saturday's game as the clear underdogs against the 6th ranked Buckeyes, but that doesn't mean Navy's players won't still have the chance to prove themselves. And while everyone will want to talk about the matchup problems created by quarterback Terrelle Pryor or the much-anticipated debut of Navy fullback Alex Teich, there are several under-the-radar position battles which will help make or break the game for Navy. Here are three to keep an eye out for.
Ohio State has been stacked at linebacker in recent years, with James Laurinaitis (2008 Big Ten Defensive POY) and Marcus Freeman (2nd Team Big 10 in 2008) leading the way last year. Both moved on after the 2008 season however, while the Buckeyes took a huge hit earlier this month when projected starting strongside linebacker Tyler Moeller was lost for the season. To make matters worse, senior captain Austin Spitler may not be 100% for the opener, a fact which has allowed Brian Rolle to assume the starting middle ‘backer position over the last two weeks of camp. Rolle is incredibly athletic and agile despite his 5-foot-11 size, and will present a challenge for Navy to block on option plays. Depending on the defensive look Ohio State gives Navy, the job of blocking Rolle may very well fall to left tackle Jeff Battapaglia, who will be asked to release off the defensive end and cut-block Rolle. Battapaglia has proven able to take on this sort of assignment in the past, but he has struggled when teams use that same defensive end to "block" him and slow his progression to the middle linebacker. This was the case against Pittsburgh last year, and has been an issue for the talented junior against some of the more athletic defenses which Navy has played in the past. For Navy to be successful in running the option against Ohio State, it'll be essential that Battapaglia gets a free release and is able to take the aggressive Rolle out his pursuit angle.
This is a matchup which clearly figures to favor Ohio State, but it'll be interesting to see if Navy nose guards Chase Burge and Jordan Stephens (who are both likely to play against the Buckeyes) can compete with the former Michigan transfer. Boren is considered by many to be Ohio State's best interior lineman, but he has had to sit out a year per NCAA's rules and could be rusty coming into the game. Burge and Stephens, meanwhile, didn't even expect to be in this situation two weeks ago, but because of the dismissal of Nate Frazier they will be called upon to try to clog up the middle of Ohio State's offensive line. Neither of these players is likely to have much success in pass rushing against the interior of Ohio State's line, but if they can stand firm against the run they'll make things much easier for linebackers Tony Haberer and Ross Pospisil in filling the A and B gaps.
Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher vs. Navy ILB Ross Pospisil
The junior wide receiver proved to be one of Terrelle Pryor's favorite targets a season ago, and returns as a starter at the position after snagging 21 passes last year. Sanzenbacher is unique in that he is incredibly quick and instinctive when working the middle of the field, and remains underrated as an athletic possession receiver in space. Obviously this figures to be a problem for a 3-4 defense like Navy's, which typically relies on soft zone coverages in the middle of the field. While this type of defense is great at limiting big offensive plays, it is nevertheless exploitable by players just like Sanzenbacher, who have no problem working in tight spaces and making linebackers and extra defensive backs miss on tackle attempts. While the Midshipmen coverage packages should be able to prevent Sanzenbacher from stretching the field unimpeded, the job of taking him out of the game will fall on the inside linebackers. Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil has proven himself an able tackler before (leading the team with 106 stops in 2009), but he's never had to deal with a slot receiver with the same level of quickness or shiftiness of Sanzenbacher. If he can keep the junior receiver in check – and perhaps step in front of a Pryor pass or two – the game has the potential to become very interesting.
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