Criticism of Calhoun off the Mark

Journalists who cover Air Force football were quick to blame Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun for his team's latest defeat to Navy - a 16-13 overtime loss on Saturday. Calling Calhoun's offensive strategy "inept," "conservative," and "unimaginative," two reporters held no punches in dissecting the entire game only hours, if not minutes, after it ended. I think their assessment is wrong.

My main issue with both David Ramsey's rant and John Henderson's issuance of blame is that in neither piece does either author give any credit to Air Force's opponent. The closest either comes to giving a compliment to Navy, and specifically its defense is when Ramsey calls the center of the Mids defense "unforgiving." Instead both Ramsey and Henderson went after Calhoun's play-calling. Based on their statements and conclusions, one would think that Air Force got manhandled in this game. Yes, it was the Falcons' seventh consecutive defeat to Navy, but Calhoun's decisions did not make or break this particular loss. And it was anything but a blowout. 

 

Ramsey's main point of contention is that Air Force's head coach should have asked sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson to throw the ball on third and nine at the Navy 13-yard line on what became the next-to-last play of the game. Ramsey argues that if Calhoun had the gumption to take "a massive gamble" on fourth and inches a few plays earlier in overtime, why not take another risk? Perhaps the reason Calhoun decided not to throw the ball was because Jefferson's last effort in that department was freshly ingrained in his mind. With just over a minute to play in regulation, the Air Force signal caller lofted a wounded duck in the air, into heavy traffic, and eventually into the hands of Navy standout safety Wyatt Middleton. Despite the cries of the Falcons' coaching staff for Jefferson to just throw the ball away, he made what could have been (if not for a questionable late hit call against Navy) a game-ending blunder. On a day when all of the big plays were made by both defenses, blaming Calhoun for not asking his rattled and battered sophomore quarterback to make one in overtime is misguided. There is no doubt in my mind that if Jefferson throws an interception in that situation, or even an incompletion, the critics would have said that Calhoun should have used third and long to set-up a field goal attempt and let his defense try and win the game for the team.

 

Moreover, and I admit that I could be reading this wrong, but I think Ramsey actually said in one sentence in his piece that the Falcons offense was struggling and in the next sentence that the Navy defense was "reeling" with only "one knockout blow required for victory" against them. Ramsey seems to insinuate that Navy's defense was stopping Air Force's offense and at the same time "reeling." At some point, feel free to give Navy's 37th ranked defense some credit already – the same defense that starts seven seniors and one of those seven isn't named Middleton (just a junior).

 

Henderson, on the other hand, does make one good point about the critical third and nine play in overtime, by stating that fullback Jared Tew's run to the short side of the field in that situation left Air Force kicker Erik Soderberg with a tight angle for his kick. If Calhoun was content with settling for a field goal attempt, perhaps a run to the center of the field would have been a better strategy. However, Henderson, just like Ramsey faults Calhoun for running the ball at all in overtime – even though Air Force had just made a first down via the ground on their first series in the extra session. Sure it took four downs, but the Falcons were having some success without putting the ball in the air.

 

Henderson also says that Air Force "could have had five overtimes and not scored a TD." Well the way the Falcons defense was dominating the Mids' offense all day, along with the solid showing thus far on the season by Soderberg; it's possible a touchdown would not have been necessary.

 

Both teams put this game into the hands of their defenses. The one time Air Force didn't was on the drive to tie the game. I think they would have been better served to run some timely draw plays, but instead they spread out the field, allowing Navy to drop seven or eight defenders into coverage. The result was Jefferson throwing an interception. In overtime, Air Force was inside Navy's 15-yard line and had a kicker on the sideline that just made a 39-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. And Ramsey's answer is to "test Navy's secondary" where their best player (Middleton) was looking to end the game…again.

 

According to Christian Swezey of Navy Sports, 52 of Navy's final 55 running plays went to either the fullback or the quarterback. After Ricky Dobbs' pass was returned for a touchdown in the second quarter, Navy only attempted two more passes the entire game – even though they were having no success on the ground - averaging only 3.1 yards per carry (.4 less than Air Force's offense). The Mids never tried a reverse or even faked one (Air Force did both). 

 

Ramsey thinks Air Force offense requires "fresh thinking." I wonder what he would have said about Navy's offense if he covered the Naval Academy beat and the Mids would have lost.

 


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