The Buckeyes had held a 29-14 lead going into the final half of the fourth quarter in that ’09 season opener, but two quick Navy touchdowns later and Ohio State was holding on for dear life. But as Navy went for two to tie the game with 2:23 left in the north end zone of Ohio Stadium, quarterback Ricky Dobbs threw the ball right to Rolle, who raced down the left sideline to cinch the game for the Buckeyes.
“It was one of those things that you practice so much on stopping the play that when it actually happens, it kind of, like, shocks you and scares you,” Rolle told BSB. “When you prepare for something and you stop it, it makes you feel good. I remember the whole week we practiced that two-point conversion play where the receiver runs in, he stops, the quarterback says something and they roll out. And before that play, just to walk you through it, Coach Fickell told me ‘If they roll out I want you to blitz, and if he doesn’t, just sit back and I promise you he’ll throw you the ball.’
“And (Dobbs) did a half roll and, I’ll be danged, he threw me the ball and in my mind when the ball touched my hands, I thought, ‘Get to the end zone.’ Most guys would have taken a knee or slid or something, but my job is to get the ball and go. That’s a play that I cherish. It kind of was the foundation of my career that started off my somewhat successful career at Ohio State.”
Rolle was right, as the interception came in his first game as the team’s starter at middle linebacker. Thought to be too diminutive by some at 5-10 to be an impact player at Ohio State, the South Florida native burst onto the scene in that Navy game before going on to combine for 170 tackles, 18.5 TFL and three interceptions the next two seasons for a pair of teams that won BCS bowl games.
Add in an NFL stint with the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers it’s fair to say Rolle knows football, and he talked with BSB last week to lay out a blueprint for the young Buckeye defense to have success against Navy. Here are some highlights.
Respect Your Opponent
After spending six years as Navy’s offensive coordinator under Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo took over as the head coach in Annapolis in 2008 and has gone 49-30 in his first six seasons.
A strong offense has been a hallmark of the Navy program under Niumatalolo. Each of his teams as head coach has averaged at least 25.0 points per game, and last year’s squad averaged 33.5, including scoring 41 in a victory at Big Ten foe Indiana and 34 in a four-point loss at Notre Dame.
“It’s challenging, obviously, because you don’t get to play against a team like that often and there aren’t too many teams that run that offense,” Rolle said. “But that just means you have to be really disciplined. You have to take that work and that preparation very seriously because not having the experience of playing offenses like that you can get hurt by it if you don’t prepare, you don’t take it serious. But we did a great job in 2009 we played Navy, of preparing and I’m pretty sure those guys are doing the same thing and hopefully the same recipe we had before works even better this time.”
Of course, most OSU fans remember the 31-27 victory that Rolle clinched five years ago, a game that showcased the never-say-die ferocity of the Navy program, as the Midshipmen scored two touchdowns in a four-minute span in the fourth quarter to nearly upset the Buckeyes.
Much has been written about the toughness and spirit of the Navy players who are training to become military officers, and Rolle saw it firsthand in 2009 as the Buckeyes fell short of playing a 60-minute game and almost fell short.
“You’re talking about guys that, when we go to college here at Ohio State we go to class, we go to practice and that’s it,” he said. “Those guys are actually training to protect this great country of ours. So their willpower, their desire, their passion I feel is maybe a lot deeper than ours because they’re playing for something a lot bigger than we are on the field.”
When asked just how different the schemes the Buckeyes will play against Navy are from the rest of the schedule, all OSU safety Tyvis Powell could do was laugh.
“It’s night and day,” Powell said. “The things you see with Navy, it’s like, we would probably never see this again. We definitely spend a ton of time on it. Yesterday (Aug. 17) we had a ton of walkthrough and film watching. It’s a totally different defense from what we play.”
Each practice during camp included Navy periods that lasted five to 10 minutes, head coach Urban Meyer said. Now, the preparation is not about the press-quarters scheme the Buckeyes are installing to stop the pass this year but all about stopping the Midshipmen’s triple-option, flexbone offense.
“Put some long hours in because, you know, no matter what we are able to do in practice is going to be magnified in the game, and it was,” Rolle said. “But Coach Tressel did a good job of getting insight (of their offense and defense) and how they can counter that. I think if they do the same thing this year, I don’t have any doubt in my mind that they’ll be more successful.
“I just think that they have to take (Navy) seriously. As soon as that quarterback, I know it’s not Ricky Dobbs anymore, but whoever’s in there, they’re going to be running it to a T. They are playing against some of the most highly trained, highly skilled athletes in college.”
Navy’s M.O. is to run the ball – which everyone knows, given the team’s option attack – but the strategy behind the attack is simple.
With the option aspect, the offense is trying to use deception to force the defense into making a mistake – even one slight enough to allow the Midshipmen to pick up enough yards to keep the chains moving. It’s a patient offense, one content to grind out yards – the Midshipmen had drives of 15 plays, 80 yards and 15 plays, 99 yards vs. Ohio State in 2009 – while knowing it can break off bigger chunks if the defense makes a huge mistake.
The goal, then, for the defense is to play what is known as “assignment football,” with each defender tasked with carrying out a specific job on each play. In that sense, it’s not that much different than a normal contest, the assignments are just unusual, and that unfamiliarity can lead to big mistakes.
“That offense is designed to, if one guy is not where he needs to be, to break open,” Rolle said. “And that’s why you see teams like Navy, like the Air Force, who run that offense, they have success because most people get in there and one guy on defense, whether it’s a D-lineman, safety, linebacker, corner, they make a mistake and that’s where those creases are made. They run it to a T. They’ve been doing it for years and they perfected it.”
The Navy attack doesn’t often usually lead to the big run – the Midshipmen don’t have the skill athletes of other schools, and the team was just 41st in the nation of rushes of more than 40 yards – but it does set up another part of the big-play attack.
Beware The Pass
Generally, Navy’s attack is predicated on long drives in which the option aspect of the flexbone offense allows the team to grind out yards and consistently move the ball down the field. Navy threw just 146 passes – that’s 11.2 per game – a season ago, with Keenan Reynolds completing 53.1 percent for eight touchdowns and just two interceptions.
But the Midshipmen will also look for the big play once a defense has been conditioned to expect the run, as Reynolds completed passes of at least 40 yards to five different receivers in 2013. For evidence of that, look no further than the 2009 game when, trailing 29-14 in the fourth quarter, Dobbs hit Marcus Curry – who got behind a safety in single coverage – for an 85-yard touchdown that changed the game.
“You can get kind of lulled to sleep with them running the ball 10 times in a row and then that play-action pass comes,” Rolle said. “And the great teams, whether it’s the Wing-T or veer option or just pro-style offense, when you run the ball great you set yourself up well for the pass game. We have to be prepared for that deep ball because they’re not a team that’s going to throw little, short passes. They’re going to run the ball successfully or take the long shot.”