KEYS TO THE NAVY GAME
One month ago, the Navy game looked like the third easy win on Rutgers schedule. And I don't mean "easy win" like Villanova and Buffalo were last year. Where Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano found ways to lose both convincingly. Rutgers appeared improved entering the 2003 season. The talent that Schiano had recruited was a year older and more experienced. The coaching staff was finally on the same page. The OLine appeared to be upgraded. All signs pointed to Rutgers improving to the point where games against Division IA bottom feeders could be considered sure things. And at first glance, that list of Division IA bottom feeders included a Navy team that finished 2-10 last season. A Navy team whose defense was among the absolute worst in Division IA. A Navy team that was the descendent of teams that bad Rutgers teams have beaten twice recently.
Rutgers beat Navy 23-17 in 2001 on the basis of career performances from QB Ryan Cubit and WR Aaron Martin. Navy fumbled on its opening possession after a kickoff return across midfield gave them excellent field position. Rutgers drove 69 yards in only 4 plays and TE LJ Smith scored on a 24-yard TD pass. PK Ryan Sands missed the extra point so Rutgers only led 6-0. The teams exchanged 3-n-outs and then Navy pinned Rutgers at the RU09 with a punt. On the next play, Cubit hit Martin in stride on a fly route for a 91-yard TD pass. Navy responded with a 10-play, 64-yard drive but fumbled on the eleventh play from the RU05 and Rutgers recovered on the RU13. The Scarlet Knights took the give and drove to the NA26 early in the 2nd Quarter before two penalties pushed them out of FG range. Navy again drove to the RU05, but the Rutgers defense held and Navy gacked a 22-yard FGA. After the teams exchanged punts, Cubit again connected with Martin on a fly route for an 80-yard TD that extended the Rutgers lead to 20-0. The Middies drove to midfield, where a roughing the punter penalty extended their drive, but CB Tony Berry intercepted Navy QB Brian Madden at the RU13 to end the half.
The 2nd Half was all Navy. Just not enough Navy. Rutgers drove to the NA23, where Cubit threw an INT. Four plays later, Madden threw a TD pass to seal a 62-yard TD drive. Two more penalties quickly ended the next Rutgers possession. The teams exchanged punts yet again before Navy opened the 4th Quarter with a 27-yard FGA to end a 6-play, 47 yard drive to the RU10. Cubit promptly fumbled inside the RU10 and Navy recovered. The Middies scored on 3rd down to close within 20-17 with 10 minutes remaining and all the momentum on their side. The teams exchanged four consecutive punts before Rutgers embarked upon a 9-play, 48-yard drive. Sands kicked a 30-yard FG to push the lead to 23-17 with a minute remaining. Navy was 4-n-done after the kickoff to end the threat. A game that Rutgers had led convincingly ended much too close for comfort.
Rutgers has improved beyond that level, right? Not exactly. Rutgers already has beaten Buffalo and Army for two of its guaranteed wins. But the Scarlet Knights dominated neither opponent, whom other mediocre teams have dominated. Hell, Division IAA Colgate beat Buffalo more convincingly. Rutgers also led convincingly in its two wins over Buffalo and Army but both games ended much too close for comfort. Much as did the Navy game in 2001. But what of Navy? They're still horrible, right? Not exactly. Navy is making remarkable strides under second year Head Coach Paul Johnson. The Midshipmen can no longer be considered pushovers. The Middies demolished IAA Virginia Military Institute and Division IA bottom feeder Eastern Michigan. Navy also gave Texas Christian a tough game on the road. First glances can be deceiving. Under closer scrutiny, Navy has been more impressive than has Rutgers against comparable competition,. Navy is no longer a "guaranteed win." However, Navy still carries that perception. Therefore, Navy is an opponent that Schiano absolutely must beat. Schiano has just about used up his allowance of bad losses. Sure, fans expect him to lose to Miami and Virginia Tech. And even lose badly. But Schiano has to start consistently beating fellow lower echelon programs like Navy to demonstrate that he has turned around the Rutgers program. Nice recruiting classes mean nothing unless those recruits can be developed and coached at a level that produces wins. Otherwise, the talent wells will begin to run dry. Here are my five keys to the Navy game.
1. Assignment Football. The triple option is the core of the Navy offense. FB dive. QB keeper. TB pitch. The Middies will throw to keep the defense honest. Or if facing 3rd-n-long. But in reasonable down-n-distance against an honest defense, Navy is running the football. Navy will run some counters out of the spread - a counter option and a FB counter. But if the triple option is working, Navy will ride that play the entire game, if possible. The key to defending the triple option - and Navy - is assignment football. Every defender has a responsibility at the snap of the football and each must honor that assignment. The triple option is designed to condition the defense to a steady diet, to get the defense to cheat on its assignments in response that steady diet, and then exploit the defense through those blown assignments. That's why the option works inside out - the FB had the most carries, then the QB, then the SBs, and then the WRs. That's also why the players with the least touches usually average the most yardage per touch - because their defenders blow assignments for big gains while cheating towards the inside.
It must start with the first option - the FB dive. At the snap of the ball, the QB is watching the playside OG while riding the FB on the dive exchange. If the OG has moved the second level to block a LB, the QB will give the football to the FB on the quick hitter. The DTs must control the guard-center gaps to take away the FB dive. If the DT moves into the guard-tackle gap, the OG can quickly double-team him with the OT before double tapping the OLB. With the C blocking the MLB and the safeties straight up on the SBs, the FB will have a big gap up the middle of the field that he can hit quickly.
If the OG is blocking on the line of scrimmage, the QB will pull the ball out and continue down the line of scrimmage where the QB will encounter the unblocked DE. If the DE's shoulders are parallel to the line of scrimmage, the QB will turn upfield. With the SB blocking the safety, the QB will have gaps on either side through which to run. The QB will often fake the pitchout to entice the DE to cheat on the pitch. The DE must not allow the QB to run inside him. The DE must stop the QB and force the pitch.
If the DE's shoulders are perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, the QB will pitch the ball to the trailing SB. With the leading SB sealing the safety to the inside and the blocking the CB, the pitch man will read the WR's block and either run up the sideline or up the alley (between the CB and safety). The CB and/or safety must beat their block and make the tackle. The safety must fill the gap outside the DE and the CB must either turn the pitch man back inside or push him out of bounds. The pitch man can not turn the corner.
If the safety or CB is anticipating the option and coming up too quickly, the QB will drop back before encountering the DE and the SB and/or WR will streak downfield, past the cheating safety/DB. This gives the passing element quick strike capability from the triple option. WRs don't need blazing speed to beat a cheating DB. The playside safety and CB must cover the SB and CB until the QB pitches to the trailing SB. Only then must they come up to make the tackle.
If the backside DE, LB, and safety are cheating too much in anticipation of the option, Navy will run a FB counter, counter option, or reverse to the backside into the openings created by the blown assignments. The backside DE must tackle the QB on the counter option and the WR on the reverse. The backside OLB must fill the guard-tackle hole on the FB counter and turn the run inside for the MLB to finish. The backside safety must tackle the trailing SB, who reverses motion at the snap of the ball, on the counter option.
2. Hit the QB. How often does a DE get to drill the QB? Several times on a good day in pass rush duty. Maybe. Hopefully without drawing a roughing the passer penalty. However, the triple option brings the QB to the DE every time it is run. And the DE is unblocked. With a clear shot at the QB. What is the DE supposed to do? Hit the QB. What about the pitch man? Hit the QB. But the QB is motioning to pitch the ball. Hit the QB. It is truly amazing to see how often DEs pass up a free shot at the QB on option plays. And get played for big gain after big gain. Above, I noted that the DE must stop the QB keeper and force the pitch. The best way to accomplish this assignment is to hit the QB every time he comes down the line of scrimmage. He's a ballcarrier. Not a QB. Hitting the QB will remove the QB keeper from the option and turn the play into a pitch. Except the anxious QB, knowing he is going to get belted, might make a poor pitch. And put the ball on the ground. Where the offense will lose a bunch of yardage in the worst case. And where the defense can recover it in the best case. The constant punishment also might knock Navy QB Craig Candeto out of the game and force Navy to play a less experienced backup. The DE's assignment is really simple - hit the QB.
3. 3rd Down Defense. The spread option is not a quick strike offense. Especially in the hands of inferior talent - as exists at the academies. However, the spread option will bleed a defense dry, if allowed. Scoring drives of 15+ plays, consuming half a quarter or more, are not uncommon. Rutgers must not allow Navy to piece together long drives. If the defense consistently honors its assignments, Navy will not gain big yardage on first and second downs. Without the quick-hitting FB dive, Navy will be running east-west looking for a hole to turn up into. Rutgers must close those holes and string out the option towards the sideline for minimal gain - or even loss. That will put Navy into the long yardage situations on 3rd down. And force them out of the option. Navy is not a proficient passing team. And the Navy QBs are not prolific passers. Once Rutgers forces Navy into the 3rd-n-long, the Scarlet Knights must not allow Navy to convert first downs. Put in the nickel defense. Not the dime defense. And use a Cover 1 scheme (deep FS) in the secondary. Not a Cover 2 (two deep zone) alignment. Put the four CBs up tight on the Navy WRs and SBs. Force the receivers to work to get open. And force Candeto to make plays with his arm, not his feet. A 4-2 Cover 1 nickel package in 3rd-n-long will allow the Scarlet Knights to cover the receivers without leaving themselves susceptible to the ever-present option threat.
4. Run Between the Tackles. Navy is a small team. And they got smaller this year as Johnson switched from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4 scheme to compensate for a lack of DL and a relative glut of talent at LB. Jr NG Babatunde Akingbemi weighs only 270 pounds. Jr DE Pierre Moss weighs 250 pounds. Jr DE Jeff Vanak checks in at only 240 pounds. Rutgers averages nearly 300 pounds across its OLine. That's a difference of nearly 50 pounds per man on the line of scrimmage. The Middies average 220 pounds at LB. Rutgers is much more likely to have a size advantage over Navy at the line of scrimmage rather than a speed or quickness advantage. Schiano has so far not demonstrated an interest in running outside. And that shouldn't change this week. Rutgers should run straight at Navy and turn the running game into a strength contest, not an agility drill.
Some have suggested that Rutgers needs to throw 2TE formations at Navy. I disagree because such a strategy pulls either RS So WR Tres Moses or So WR Shawn Tucker off the field and I don't think the 2TE compensates with equal talent. Schiano ought to run at Navy from the basic "I" formation. Rutgers must rush for at least 175 yards on the Middie defense.
Schiano's preferred running play is the Power G, featuring a pulling backside OG and the FB leading the TB through a hole between the playside OT and TE. This is the bread-n-butter of the Rutgers ground game but the OL are still struggling with their blocking assignments. When run to the strong (TE) side against the 3-4 scheme, the OL will block down - with the playside OT and TE blocking up the ILBs, the FB will occupy the SOLB, and the pulling OG will either hook or kick out the playside DE, depending upon whether the DE slants inside or charges upfield. When run to the weak side, the play side OT will double team the DT just long enough for the OG to hook him, then double tap one of the ILBs - preferably the WILB, the FB will occupy the WOLB, and the pulling OG will lead the TB up through the guard-tackle hole.
5. Base Defense. I watched the 2000 Notre Dame-Navy game. Notre Dame successfully employed a 4-2 Cover 1 nickel package against Navy all game. The nickel enabled the Fighting Irish to put eight men on the line of scrimmage and yet cover the Navy WRs/SBs with DBs. Since the Navy SBs are slight and the FB isn't a blocker, Notre Dame was not sacrificing size at the point of attack. Unfortunately, Rutgers lacks the relative talent at DB to venture this strategy. The Scarlet Knight LB corps is the most talented unit on the defense. Employing a 4-2 Cover 1 nickel package against Navy would pull RS Sr SLB Brian Bender, So WLB William Beckford, So SLB Berkeley Hutchinson, or RS So WLB Brad Cunningham off the field in favor of Jr CB Eddie Grimes. I don't think that is a trade for equal talent/experience. Schiano should defend the spread option with his base 4-3 Cover defense. Schiano should only employ his 4-2 Cover 1 nickel scheme in 3rd-n-long situations, as noted above, unless he can't defend the spread option with his base defense.
Against the spread option, the DEs will align outside the OTs but inside the SBs. The MLB will align over the center and the OLBs will align over the guard-tackle gaps. Once the SB starts in motion, the MLB should slide into the guard-tackle gap on the play side (in the direction of motion) and the play side OLB should slide outside the SB. The backside OLB will stay in the backside guard-tackle gap to cover the FB counter. This movement will allow the LBs to simultaneously cover the FB dive, the SB pitch, and the FB counter. It will allow Schiano to keep his best athletes on the field. It will also allow Schiano to keep his two safeties deep to prevent the big play. If Navy can run its triple option on the base 4-3 Cover 2 defense, Schiano will be forced to adjust by either bringing WS Bryan Durango up to the line of scrimmage (Cover 1) - leaving a LB to cover a SB - or by employing his nickel defense - sacrificing size at the point of attack. Neither is preferable.
1. RS Sr DE Raheem Orr. Through three games, Orr has been the best playmaker on the DLine. He rarely leaves the field to rest. Against Navy, Orr will often be the unblocked DE on the triple option. Orr must put the wood to Candeto. Whom he outweighs by over 60 pounds. Orr must set the example for his bookend DEs to follow. Hit the QB. Make the QB jittery. Get him to put the ball on the grass with quick pitches. If Candeto drops back to pass of the option, Orr must sack Candeto if he is the unblocked DE. Orr must run down from the backside options away from him. But not so recklessly as to get victimized on a reverse, as happened against Army. Orr must be a disruptive force and discourage Navy from running its option in his direction.
2. RS Sr C Marty P'zmuka. The key to running against a 3-4 defense is controlling the NG. Except when running the Power G to the strong side, that assignment will fall to P'zmuka. The NG likely will not align directly over P'zmuka but rather in the strong side gap on either side of him. P'zmuka won't in position to block the NG on the strong side Power G but instead will block down on the backside DE. On lead draws, isolation runs, and off tackle runs, P'zmuka will be responsible for blocking the NG. P'zmuka must prevent the NG from disrupting the backfield. Preferably, P'zmuka will drive the NG backwards and disrupt backside pursuit.
3. So MLB Will Gilkison. Gilkison played his best game yet against Army, leading the team with 7 tackles. He also recorded 2 sacks, two pass breakups, a FF, a QB knockdown, and a QB hurry. One of his sacks included the forced fumble, which was recovered in the Army end zone for a Rutgers TD. His other sack pushed Army of out of the red zone and into a long FGA - which Army missed. The two pass breakups occurred in the Rutgers end zone and denied Army TDs. Gilkison must have another outstanding game against Navy. Gilkison's primary assignments will be the FB dives and FB counters. Once the SB goes into motion, Gilkison must slide into the playside guard-tackle gap to remove the FB dive option - or make the tackle if Candeto forces the dive. Gilkison must not clear the hole until Army FB Kyle Eckel clears Candeto. Gilkison will also have backside responsibility for the FB counter. He must read Eckel and fill the backside guard-tackle hold on the FB counter. Therefore, he must not overcommit on the FB dive or he will be out of position for the FB counter. Gilkison's pass coverage responsibilities will be minimal. He primarily must guard against shallow crossing routes and drag/flare routes to the FB. Gilkison has been weak in those areas. He must not let a run-oriented Navy team victimize him in his pass coverage responsibilities. He must make the tackles in the open field.
4. RS Fr WS Bryan Durango. Durango will likely start the game in the Cover 2 package. His primary responsibilities will be the pitch man on the option and counter option when either is run to his side. Durango will have to beat the SB's block on the option and force the pitch man back inside. However, Durango can't run past the blocking SB until the Candeto makes the pitch. Otherwise, Durango can get beaten deep on a fly or corner route. Durango will be unblocked on the counter option so he must make the open field tackle. However, first Durango must not overcommit to the option and abandon his backside responsibilities. Otherwise, he will leave the DE to defend both QB and pitch man. Durango must not get beat deep on any pass routes. And he must not give up more than two runs for more than 10 yards. But only in the 10-20 yard range. No long TD runs.
5. Jr TB Clarence Pittman. I've been told that Brian Leonard is going to play. However, I'm going to assume that Leonard either won't play or will be hampered by the knee injury that he suffered last week. That means the Schiano needs a big performance from either Pittman or Fr TB Justice Hairston. I'm going with the veteran, Pittman. Pittman must run hard inside. But he also must be patient, especially on the Counter G. Pittman must set up his blockers with quick cuts and then hit the hole hard. Pittman must have a 100-yard rushing effort in Leonard's presumed absence. He also must catch at least two passes for 25 yards. And he must not fumble.
Coming Next: Navy Post-Mortem. A look back at the Navy game to see how Rutgers performed with respect to my perceived keys.
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