Hawaii's late season turnaround has been impressive, but the Warriors aren't in the clear yet. While the team looks to make a bowl game (an improbable scenario just a month ago) their past three wins have come against teams with a combined seven victories on the season. Last week, Hawaii struggled without Moniz at quarterback, and barely got past a 1-9 San Jose State team in overtime. That being said, the Warriors will still present numerous matchups problems for the Midshipmen, as they come into the game with the nation's eight most productive offense and third best passing offense. Can Navy weather this Pacific Storm? Here are three key personnel battles which will likely decide the outcome of Saturday's game.
It's amazing that Salas doesn't get more national attention. True, he plays in a "system" offense and yes, he plays on a mid-level WAC team, but all the junior slotback has been able to accomplish this year is to catch 93 balls for 1412 yards. Both marks are good for second in the nation, as are his 128.36 receiving yards per game. Point being, the 6-foot-2 California native is going to get catches, and will be a focal point of Hawaii's offensive attack come Saturday. Normally I might be inclined to give the precision route-runner the edge even against a seasoned defender like Ram Vela, but it was apparent last Saturday that Salas was not playing at 100% after missing practice time due to a sprained ankle. Not a physically dominating wide receiver like a Michael Floyd, Salas instead relies on his quickness and planting ability to make plays after the catch – attributes that could be compromised because of his injury. This could make Vela's job of keeping Salas contained easier on Saturday, especially when you consider that Navy's senior has played exceptionally well against bigger and faster players in the past. While Hawaii has many options aside from Salas on offense, if Vela can contain the junior, expect Navy's other linebackers and secondary members to matchup favorably against their Warrior counterparts.
Hawaii RB Leon Wright-Jackson vs. Navy LB Tony Haberer
Don't be fooled by Hawaii's 102nd ranked rushing offense; the Warriors can and will run the football, and once more, they can do it effectively. Just ask Utah State and former Utah defensive genius Gary Andersen, as the Warriors gashed the Aggies for 360 yards on the ground three weeks ago. While Hawaii didn't have the same success on the ground in subsequent wins over New Mexico State and San Jose State, the Warriors are likely to try to establish the running game against Navy, especially with the health of quarterback Bryant Moniz still up in the air. Moniz missed the game last week because of sore ribs, and could be limited this week. Fortunately for Hawaii, the team has a talented back in Wright-Jackson, who has come on strong the last three weeks while rushing for six touchdowns. A powerful runner who at 6-foot-1 can be tough to bring down out of the zone-read, the job of stopping Wright-Jackson will fall upon Navy's inside linebackers, who also must contend with Hawaii's slotbacks and wide receivers in the underneath passing game. It's a lot to ask of Haberer and Pospisil, who've at times struggled against balanced teams which run out of the zone read. The key for Haberer and Pospisil will be to stick to their keys on Saturday, and not allow Hawaii's receivers to distract them from the possibility of the run.
Hawaii DE Liko Satele vs. Navy QB Ricky Dobbs
When it's third or fourth down and short, is there ever any question as to whom coach Niumatalolo will call upon? With 22 rousing touchdowns on the year, Ricky Dobbs is second only to Stanford's Toby Gerhart, and has shown an ability to power past much larger defenders all season. Dobbs real maturation has come in his ability to read defenses, however, in particular opposing defensive ends. This was especially apparent against Notre Dame, where Dobbs made several check at the line of scrimmage that neutralized Notre Dame's athletic linemen. This week, Dobbs will be running the option against a Hawaii defense which ranks 103rd nationally against the run. Hawaii's defensive ends, including 6-foot-2 Liko Satele, have struggled this year against zone-read and option teams. Nevada, which utilizes option looks in Chris Ault's "Pistol" formation, racked up 312 rushing yards on the Warriors, in large part because Satele and his fellow defenders proved unable of staying with their keys and assignments. He'll have to show more discipline if he's going to be able to stuff Dobbs this week, or else it will be a long day for the Hawaii defense.