Three games into the 2009 football season and Navy is facing an unusual statistical place amongst their 119 FBS peers. There are currently 28 teams ahead of the Mids in rushing offense. In fact, Navy is barely eclipsing the 200 yard per game mark (201.67) which means they have some work to do if they want to win the rushing title for an unprecedented fifth consecutive time. Moreover, since 2002, Navy has yet to finish any lower than third in the country in rushing. Take a look at these impressive numbers:
Year Rank Average
2002 3rd 270.8
2003 1st 323.2
2004 3rd 289.5
2005 1st 318.7
2006 1st 327.0
2007 1st 348.8
2008 1st 292.4
Meanwhile Army, a team that flirted with an option-based offense last season, has had more success than Navy thus far running the triple option, at least statistically. The Cadets currently rank seventh with 257.67 rushing yards per contest, which is about 16 yards per game better than last season. However, even despite their record (2-1), there is still reason for some concern up the Hudson as Army has struggled to run the ball effectively in the second half of their last two games. Against Duke and Ball State combined, the Cadets had 14 offensive possessions and scored only twice, including a meaningless touchdown drive to end the game against the Blue Devils. The other thirteen drives ended in eight punts, three turnovers, and one failed fourth-down conversion. Their average second-half drive, minus the final one against Duke, went 18 yards on five plays.
Army isn't alone when it comes to second-half futility for triple option teams. One of Paul Johnson's calling cards while at Navy was his ability to make second-half adjustments. However, that magic seems to have been temporarily misplaced as Georgia Tech has been less than spectacular after intermission this season. In fifteen second-half drives, the Yellow Jackets have scored only 33 percent of the time. That might not seem too terrible if not for the fact that the ACC team has been outscored 30-7 in the third quarter alone. Another telling stat comes from the Clemson game when Georgia Tech punted on six consecutive possessions spanning the second and third quarters. The seventh drive (after the failed six) ended in an interception.
In addition, both Army and Georgia Tech have had trouble holding onto the ball. The Cadets have fumbled the ball 12 times (losing four) and the Yellow Jackets have coughed it up 8 times (losing three).
If you are looking for a triple option success story three games into the early season, look no further than Air Force. The Falcons have their rush-happy offense running on all cylinders, even in the second-half. As a matter of fact, Air Force has turned their offense up another notch after intermission. In fifteen second half drives, the Falcons have scored on eight of them including a twenty-play drive against a respectable Minnesota defense. In the third quarter, Air Force has outscored its opponents 33-0. As noted earlier, Air Force's opener against Nicholls State helped beef up their stats a bit, but even against the Golden Gophers, Troy Calhoun's offense managed to move the ball consistently.
Back in Annapolis, scheduling could be the first place to look if one is wondering where the rushing success has gone. According to Jeff Sagarin, the Mids have played the 20th toughest schedule in the country with games (and losses) against BCS conference powers Ohio State and Pittsburgh. Another popular argument for Navy is that their rushing attack may not need to average close to 300 yards per game because of the new found potential of a passing attack. Against Ohio State and Louisiana Tech, Ricky Dobbs showed flashes of brilliance in his vertical game which gave its next opponent, the Panthers, pause while preparing for the triple option attack. However if anything could be taken away from the Mids last game, it is that while Dobbs does have a strong arm, he still has some work to do in order to make teams really fear his passing abilities. Indeed, Navy's offense had very few answers for Pittsburgh's defensive pressure which forced the junior signal-caller into several bad decisions. At the end of the day, Dobbs completed only 6 of 21 passes for 89 yards and was sacked six times.
Likewise, a passing game to balance a running attack has been woefully inconsistent at both Georgia Tech and Army. The Black Knights definitely have more of an excuse in that department as they are breaking in a new quarterback, Trent Steelman. The freshman has completed only 7 of 18 passes for 94 yards in three games. Meanwhile Tech's Josh Nesbitt, in his second year running the offense, has been dreadful passing the ball. With the exception of two clutch, third down throws against Clemson, the junior has been off target, completing only 15 of 40 throws.
If any of the quarterbacks at Army, Navy or Georgia Tech were more consistent, they could have all won winnable games thus far. So far this season, Air Force has definitely benefited from an efficient passing attack (19 of 31 for 300 yards) which has yet to produce an interception.
At this point in my column, you'd probably think that the world is falling apart for three of these four teams. However, Army and Georgia Tech are both 2-1, and Navy is 1-2 which is not at all disappointing considering their first three opponents. Put those marks together with the Falcons and triple option teams are 7-5 thus far, and the team with the most experience running the attack has the worst record. Additionally, Navy had Ohio State on the ropes; Georgia Tech beat what could turn out to be a really tough team in Clemson; and Army, well, the Cadets are 2-1…what else could their fans possibly ask for?
And while it is probably a fair bet that Air Force will come back down to reality a bit in terms of rushing success (albeit after this week's tussle with San Diego State), Navy should not have any problem surpassing the 300-yard mark this Saturday against an overmatched Western Kentucky squad. Army and Georgia Tech though have tougher assignments against Iowa State and North Carolina respectively.
TRIPLE OPTION NOTE #1: Georgia Tech's schedule features three teams (Vanderbilt, Wake Forest and Duke) that will have faced a triple option offense earlier in the season. Army already played Duke and will play the Commodores (10/14) before the Yellow Jackets face them on Halloween. And Navy will play Wake Forest two weeks before the Demon Deacons visit Bobby Dodd Stadium.
TRIPLE OPTION NOTE #2: Nothing helps a good triple option team (or any team for that matter) more than a good defense. And so far, Air Force (#18), Army (#25), and Navy (#34) have benefited from excellent defensive efforts for the most part. On the other hand, Georgia Tech hasn't been so lucky. The Yellow Jackets have given up 377 yards of offense per game which is bad enough to be ranked 87th out of 120 FBS teams in total defense.