Of course, any college football fan worth his or her salt at this point knows that the service academy teams are different from the rest, and Navy uses a unique flexbone triple-option attack as well as a defensive attack meant to try to mitigate the team's massive size difference.
So what do the Midshipmen bring to the table? We asked Jim Lawler of GoMids.com to break it down in this first version of The Other Side.
What stands out about Navy QB Keenan Reynolds? Can he do to Ohio State what Ricky Dobbs did a few years ago and direct the Navy offense to enough points to be in the game? Is he much of a throwing threat?
Keenan Reynolds means to Navy football what injured Ohio State superstar quarterback Braxton Miller meant to Ohio State. Reynolds obviously isn't as talented as Miller but, like Braxton, he is a special player who has that magic “it” you want in a quarterback. Reynolds ability as a playmaker, his toughness, his precision in running the offense and the confidence he inspires in his teammates makes him a great player. Navy had lost that mojo at QB when Ricky Dobbs graduated. It’s easy to forget now but between Sept. 17, 2011, and Sept. 29, 2012, the Mids lost 10 of 14 games. Reynolds changed that as a plebe when he came off the bench to replace an injured Trey Miller against Air Force and led the Mids to a comeback 28-21 overtime victory. Reynolds has compiled a 15-6 record (.714 winning percentage) as a starter since that game. Reynolds understands the offense and can execute it. He's overcame injuries in games against Pitt, San Jose State and the bowl win against Middle Tennessee State to lead the Mids to victory. Reynolds finished last season with 1,346 rushing yards and a quarterback record setting 31 rushing touchdowns. He scored 188 points which shattered the old Navy school record set by Bill Ingram way back in 1917. Last year he was named honorable mention All-American by the Sports Illustrated. Reynolds is already the best Navy quarterback in the triple-option era.
Reynolds can potentially scare Ohio State the way Dobbs did in 2009. Reynolds is a already a better quarterback than Dobbs. Reynolds is a much better in reading the defense and making the right pitch decisions. He is also a better runner than Dobbs with similar power but Keenan is quicker. even though neither player possessed a true top-end gear. Reynolds led Navy to 35.8 points per game last year, if one excludes the Western Kentucky game when he suffered a concussion early in the first half and the Mids were shutout the rest of the way. Potentially he can have a big game but in my opinion this is a more talented, explosive and better coached Ohio State team than the one Navy faced in 2009. It would be a monumental upset.
Reynolds can throw the ball. He is on his way to establishing himself as the best passing quarterback in the option era. Last season he completed 68 of 128 passes (53.1 percent) for 1,057 passing yards with eight touchdown passes and just two interceptions. While those stats don't seem impressive remember Navy uses mostly go and post routes in looking for the home run ball. Ohio State fans saw this when Dobbs hit slotback Marcus Curry for an 85-yard touchdown pass in the last game. Reynolds had a streak of throwing at least one touchdown pass in six straight games last season. Navy will need to hit a few passes and make a few plays to keep Ohio State's defense honest. Navy is starting two new receivers and both lack the speed to threaten the Buckeyes deep unless the cornerbacks sell out against the run. If the Buckeyes force a lot of third and long passes then it will get ugly for the Midshipmen. Navy's undersized offensive line is built for run blocking. The Mids struggled to protect Reynolds at times last year. Navy ranked 123rd in the nation in sacks allowed percentage. If Ohio State can force Navy into third-and-long passing situations their talented defensive line will dominate the Mids.
Navy plays a fair number of BCS-level teams each year. What are the calling cards of those teams when they have success against Navy and what are some of the problems these teams often have with slowing down the Midshipmen?
The Mids have had good success against BCS schools. Since 2003, Navy has won 21 games against schools from a BCS conference. Those 21 wins have come against 10 different opponents and are the most in the country by a non-BCS school. When Navy is successful on offense its usually because they establish the fullback dive, have their offensive linemen get to the second level and cut block linebackers, block well on the perimeter creating running lanes for the slotback and quarterback. Navy at its best controls the tempo of the game and when opponents get complacent they will pass over their heads and complete a long passing play. Navy struggles in the same way most teams do. Navy can get outmanned up front, the defensive front penetrates and upsets the rhythm of the offense. The defensive team stops the fullback dive and the slotbacks find little running room outside. If the Mids are forced to pass a lot they will not be able to handle a defensive line as big and as talented as Ohio State's.
Not many people know too much about the Midshipmen personnel other than Reynolds, so which plays might be household names by the end of Saturday's game on both sides of the ball?
Navy fields a veteran offensive unit. This season, in a rare occurrence, the Mids return all of last year's starting Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl-winning offensive line. Senior right guard Jake Zuzek, a beast who can bench press over 500 pounds, and senior left tackle Bradlyn Heap both earned All-East honors last season. Navy uses a lot of different personnel in the running game. Noah Copeland and Chris Swain share the fullback spot. Copeland has the best run vision while Swain is a big 245-pound bruiser. The Mids rotate in a lot of slotbacks. None of the slotbacks are going to scare anyone getting off the bus since they are short and small; some are so short you can eat soup off their heads. Still they all have good speed and can get to the edge. All of the top returning slotbacks in the rotation Geoffrey Whiteside, DeBrandon Sanders and Demond Brown averaged at least 7.4 yards a carry last fall.
On defense senior free safety Parrish Gaines is Navy's co-captain and best defender. He has made 31 consecutive starts and earned FBS first-team All-Independent honors in 2013. Navy has two athletic outside linebackers in their 3-4 defense. Chris Johnson is a very athletic defender with range to drop in coverage and make plays all over the field. He earned honorable mention All-East recognition. His backup William Tuider was moved over to the other outside linebacker because he's too fast and talented to be kept on the bench. If Navy is to have any success in slowing down the Buckeyes running attack they will need a big game from 303-pound nose guard Bernie Sarra to keep Ohio State's guards off Navy's new inside linebackers.
Does Navy's defense have enough athletes to slow down Ohio State?
No and since the Buckeyes scored 45.5 points per game last season I doubt many other program do either. Navy plays a bend-but-don't-break style 3-4 defense under longtime defensive coordinator Buddy Green. The Mids defense allows a lot of yards and a short passes to be completed against them but they limit the big play. Navy was the only team in the country last year who did not give up a pass of 50 yards or more the entire season. This is a pretty athletic defensive side for Navy but they lost both of their talented inside linebackers from last season’s nine win team. Navy's only hope is that their offense clicks and J.T. Barrett has some opening game butterflies in his first start on the road. Navy need to do what they did last time get a few stops and win the turnover battle if it hopes to hang with Ohio State.
Is this Navy team good enough to shock the college football world and pull out the win?
First let me say this is a good Navy team coming off a nine win season. However its not Big Ten good. A lot of Ohio State fans probably do not realize Navy has posted a 92-49 (.652) record since 2003, have won at least eight games and gone to bowl games in 10 of the last 11 years. The 92 wins represent the 25th most victories in the nation over that span. While we can beat a Big Ten team like Indiana, last year 41-35 on the road, we still understand our limitations. This is an Ohio State team who would be competing for a national championship if Braxton Miller didn't get hurt. It’s still the best team in the Big Ten. Urban Meyer is the best coach in the game and has done a great job recruiting talent. In addition Ohio State had the summer to prepare for our option offense and Urban Meyer and former Army coach Ed Warinner probably assisted the defensive staff in sharing their understand of how to defense the option attack. To say this is a huge challenge for the Mids would be an understatement.
Navy's only chance is to play its "A" game and for its offensive to click on all cylinders. Last year Navy finished tied for fourth in the country tied with Ohio State in fewest three-and-outs with just 17 percent of its drives (23 of 135) ending in a three-and-out (or less). The Mids need to keep the ball and hope Barrett makes a few mistakes in his first start. As a Navy fan, no matter the outcome, I enjoy our guys challenging themselves playing against one of the best college programs in the nation. Navy is ending its 133 history as an Independent next year to join the American Athletic Conference so it will be difficult to schedule marquee teams other than the annual Notre Dame game outside the conference in the future.
In the end to paraphrase Dirty Harry, we know our limitations. For Navy football the goals are always the same: Beat Army, win the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, win at least eight games and make a bowl game. Anything above that is gravy. Ohio State would be gravy times a thousand. I just hope we play well, compete and get out healthy.