KEYS TO THE NAVY GAME
Last year, neither Navy nor Rutgers were the pushovers that each had been in recent years. Navy, under second year Head Coach Paul Johnson, earned a bowl bid for the first time since 1996 only two years removed from a winless season. Rutgers, under third year Head Coach Greg Schiano, won five games – and two Big East games – for the first time since 1998. Yet, when the teams met in late September, both programs were still struggling to shed the losing culture of recent years. Navy had beaten Division IA doormat Eastern Michigan and Division IAA Virginia Military Institute but had been soundly beaten by Texas Christian. Rutgers had beaten Division IA bottom feeders Buffalo and Army but had been blown out by Michigan State after 20 minutes of competitive football. The Rutgers-Navy game featured two improved teams struggling. The Scarlet Knights beat the Middies 48-27 in an offensive shootout in which neither defense played terribly well. Rutgers gained 404 total yards while Navy gained 490 yards. The game turned on two blocked FGAs following two goal line stands by the Scarlet Knights. The game was much closer than the final score indicated, as Navy trailed by only seven points entering the 4th Quarter, before the ticking clock and desperation conspired against the Middies.
The game started ominously for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights went 3-n-out on their opening possession after failing to convert on 3rd-n-2. A 26-yard punt by P Joe Radigan gave Navy field position at the NA45. On their first play from scrimmage, Navy WR Andy Michalowicz, a converted QB, threw a 55-yard TD pass to wide open SB Eric Roberts on a reverse pass off the option. Rutgers again went 3-n-out on its second possession and Radigan again misfired with a 28-yard punt. However, a chop block penalty put Navy in 1st-n-25 – exactly the type of situation that the option is not designed to overcome – and Rutgers forced Navy 3-n-out. QB Ryan Hart found a rhythm and drove the Scarlet Knights 80 yards in fifteen plays and seven-and-a-half minutes before TB Clarence Pittman threw a 15-yard TB option pass to TE Chris Loomis for a tying TD. SLB Brian Bender forced a fumble from Navy QB Craig Candeto and DE Raheem Orr recovered on the NA33. However, FB Brian Leonard fumbled out of the end zone after an 11-yard gain on a drag route to return possession to Navy. Navy opened the 2nd Quarter with a 3-n-out after an incompletion and a sack. Starting at the RU47, the Scarlet Knights drove 63 yards in nine plays to take a 14-7 lead on a 3-yard TD run by TB Justise Hairston. Navy quickly responded with a five-play, 80-yard TD drive behind 40-yard (counter option) and 29-yard (option) runs by Roberts, the latter for a TD. Rutgers answered with a fourteen-play, 72-yard, five-minute TD drive that Hairston again capped with a 2-yard TD run. Navy drove to the RU02 behind the throwing of Candeto. However, the Middies committed illegal procedure on 1st-n-goal and then Candeto threw incomplete on 3rd-n-goal from the RU05. Bender blocked the ensuing 22-yard FGA to preserve the 21-14 lead at halftime.
Navy took the 2nd Half KO and drove 73 yards to the RU09 but Candeto again threw incomplete on 3rd down. FS Jarvis Johnson blocked the 24-yard FGA and CB Brandon Haw returned the blocked kick 88 yards for a game-breaking TD. A game that Rutgers would have been fortunate to lead by one point was now 28-14 thanks to some timely stops by the defense and two big plays by the special teams. Navy again drove to the Rutgers goal line but this time FB Kyle Eckel scored on 4th-n-inches. Rutgers answered with a fifteen-play, 71-yard, six-and-a-half minute TD drive that spanned the 3rd and 4th Quarters. WR Tres Moses reinvigorated the drive when he forced a fumble from Navy FS Josh Smith after Smith recovered a fumble by TE Ray Pilch. Hairston ended the drive with a 4-yard TD run. Unable to stop the clock-eating Rutgers offense, Johnson was forced to convert on 4th-n-8 at the NA48 – Candeto was stopped inches short on an option with 9:50 remaining. Rutgers failed to ice the game when PK Justin Musiek missed a 44-yard FGA. Johnson replaced Candeto with backup QB Aaron Polanco – the better passer – but Polanco fumbled and MLB Will Gilkison recovered at the NA19. Hairston finally iced the game with a 10-yard TD run to give Rutgers a 41-21 lead with 4:19 remaining after Musiek missed the XPA. Polanco drove the Middies 76 yards in eight plays and 2:44 when SB Trey Hines scored on a 21-yard option. Rutgers recovered the onsides KO and Pittman closed the scoring with a 25-yard TD run in the final minute.
Navy (7-2) has continued to build upon the success of the 2003 season. A manageable schedule against more evenly matched foes has been conducive to this success. But the Middies nonetheless are making plays to win games. Navy opened the season 5-0, with road wins at Tulsa and at Air Force. Only a blowout loss at Tulane has marred an otherwise successful season. Meanwhile, Rutgers (4-5) opened the season with a scintillating victory over Michigan State, demonstrating marked improvement over 2003. However, the Scarlet Knights stumbled badly thereafter and, though only one game off the expected pace of five wins, have generally not showed significant improvement. Rutgers is still competitive in most games but lacks the focus to demolish lesser opponents and the killer instinct to beat better teams. Rutgers could easily be 8-1. Or 0-9. The margins have been that close in most games. Against good opponents and bad. Nonetheless, a slew of losses by traditional bowl teams last weekend, while Rutgers had a bye, suddenly propelled the Scarlet Knights into bowl contention. With an eleven-game season, there will be fewer bowl eligible teams than with a twelve-game schedule. Plus, several teams still in contention have played 12-game schedules and must win seven to qualify for a bowl game. Needing to sweep its final two games to qualify to play in a bowl, Rutgers suddenly has a very realistic chance to earn an at-large big to one of several bowls unable to fill its lineup with a bowl eligible team from an affiliated conference. But first, Rutgers must beat Navy. Here are my five keys to a crucial win over Navy.
1. Assignment Football. Same as it was last year. The triple option is the core of the Navy offense. FB dive. QB keeper. SB 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 – FB counter, QB counter, and counter option. But if the triple option is working, Navy will ride that play the majority of the game, if possible. The key to defending the Navy is assignment football. Schiano will likely again deploy his WS as an OLB in a 4-4 alignment with his secondary in Cover 1 (man-to-man for the CBs with a single deep safety). 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, and then the SBs. 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, QB Aaron Polanco is watching the playside OG while riding FB Kyle Eckel on the dive exchange. If the OG has moved the second level to block a LB, Polanco will give the football to Eckel on the quick hitter. The DTs must control the center-guard gaps to take away the FB dive. If the DT moves into the guard-tackle gap, the OG can brush block the DT and then double tap the ILB. With the C blocking the backside ILB, the FB will have a big gap up the middle of the field that he can hit quickly before the DT can seal it.
If the OG is blocking to the DT, Polanco will fake to the FB and continue down the line of scrimmage where Polanco will encounter either the unblocked DE or the unblocked OLB. If the defender's shoulders are parallel to the line of scrimmage, Polanco will turn upfield if the defender opens an inside gap. With the SB blocking the ILB, Polanco will have gaps on either side of the unblocked defender through which to run. Polanco will often fake the pitchout to entice the unblocked defender to cheat on the pitch. The unblocked defender must not allow Polanco to run inside him. He must stop Polanco and force the pitch.
If the unblocked defenders shoulders are perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, Polanco will pitch the ball to the trailing SB. With the leading SB sealing the playside ILB to the inside and the WR blocking either the CB or safety, 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, whoever is unblocked, must 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, Polanco will drop back before encountering the unblocked defender and the SB and/or WR will streak downfield, past the cheating safety/CB. This gives the passing element quick strike capability from the triple option. Navy burned Rutgers twice on such plays last year, including the opening TD. WRs don't need blazing speed to beat a cheating CB. The playside safety and CB must cover the SB and WR until they engage in run blocks. Only then must they come up to make the tackle.
If the backside DE or LBs 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 WR on the reverse QB. The backside OLB must fill the guard-tackle hole on the FB counter and turn the run inside for the backside ILB to finish. Navy killed Rutgers with counter option last year. The counter option will likely result in the defense being one man short at the point of attack. Somebody has to make a play. Polanco fakes the FB dive to the counter side and Eckel tries to block the backside ILB. The playside OT brush blocks the DE and then double taps the playside ILB, lured inside by the FB fake. A pulling OG cut blocks the DE. The center seals the backside DT and the backside OT seals the backside DT. The motion SB reverses direction at the snap of the ball and becomes the blocking SB, running downfield to block the safety. The WR runs off the CB in man-to-man. That leaves the playside OLB to defend both the QB and trailing SB. If the OLB drills Polanco, the SB will run free down the sideline. The OLB must feather the play. Delay the pitch and allow backside pursuit to rundown the play. Do not let the play get outside, where there is no help. The backside ILB must beat the FB block and close on the play laterally while the playside DE must get off cut block and tackle Polanco.
The spread option is not a quick strike offense. In theory. Although Middies repeatedly gouged the Scarlet Knights for big plays last year due to blown assignments. 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 honor its assignments, Navy will not gain big yardage on first and second downs. If the Scarlet Knights can take away the FB dive without overcommitting, Navy will be running east-west looking for a hole to turn 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 in the secondary. Not a Cover 2 (two deep zone) alignment. Put the four DBs up tight on the Navy WRs and SBs. Force the receivers to work to get open. And force Polanco 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.
2. Turnovers. Rutgers has committed 29 TOs this season. Or over three per game. That ranks #115 (of 117) nationally. TOs cost Rutgers wins against New Hampshire and Syracuse. TOs buried Rutgers in a 20-3 halftime hole at Vanderbilt. TOs let Temple hang around and threaten to steal a win. TOs resulted in a 38-3 halftime deficit at Pittsburgh. And TOs cost Rutgers a chance to upset 15th-ranked West Virginia and 25th-ranked Boston College. TOs are poison to the west coast offense. Such a methodical, ball control offense can not afford so many TOs because it deprives the team of valuable possessions. Typical of a losing program, Rutgers does not play well on the road. The margin of error on the road is much slimmer than it as home. The Scarlet Knights must not commit more than one TO in Annapolis.
3. Run Between the Tackles. Rutgers is ranked #112 nationally in rushing offense at 89 yards per game. After finally establishing a viable running game last season, the Scarlet Knights have regressed this year behind an ineffective OLine and an unproductive backfield. Schiano has not been able to find a TB other than RS So Brian Leonard, who is not a threat to run outside. This allows opponents to stack their defense inside to stuff Rutgers inside running game. Schiano has not found another TB to add another dimension to the offense. And allow Leonard to play his natural position – fullback. Of course, Schiano has only really tried one other player – So Justise Hairston – at TB. Neither Sr Clarence Pittman, Jr Markis Facyson, nor Fr Dimitri Linton have seen more than spot duty all season.
Navy is a small team. And they employ a 3-4 scheme that makes them smaller if quicker. Sr NG Babatunde Akingbemi weighs 280 pounds. Sr DE Jeff Vanak and Jr DE Jeremy Chase each weigh only 250 pounds. Rutgers averages nearly 290 pounds across its OLine. That's a difference of nearly 30 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. Rutgers has struggled against smaller, quicker DLines this year. New Hampshire and Kent State controlled the line of the scrimmage. Rutgers must seize control of the line of scrimmage early and dominate the Middie front seven. Last year, Scarlet Knight TBs repeatedly broke into the second level to punish Middie safeties. Rutgers must do more of the same. Rutgers also was able to run off-tackle very effectively against Navy. This year, too many mistakes have rendered the outside running game an afterthought. Schiano must revisit the off-tackle play this week. Rutgers must rush for at least 200 yards on the Middie defense.
4. Ball Control. Rutgers has struggled to defend the option and misdirection plays all season. The Scarlet Knights are not a very disciplined unit. Backside containment has been wishful thinking. Syracuse scouted the 2003 Rutgers-Navy game and successfully employed a counter option that repeatedly gouged the Scarlet Knight defense for huge gains. Last year, the strength of the Rutgers defense against Navy was its offense, which kept the Middie offense on the sidelines, from which it could not score. Rutgers used a 15-play, seven-and-a-half to tie the game in the 1st Quarter. The Scarlet Knights added 1st Half scoring drives of nine and thirteen plays in controlling the ball for 19:46. Time of possession and number of plays were comparably only because Navy possessed the ball for the first ten minutes of the 2nd Half, sandwiching two long drives around a blocked FG return for a TD. Rutgers answered this exchange with another 15-play and seven-and-a-half minute TD drive. A dominating running attack and an efficient passing game were key in achieving ball control.
Rutgers must similarly control the clock this week. A task that will not be easy given the ball control nature of Navy's spread option offense. The Scarlet Knights must engineer long, clock-eating drives to keep the Navy offense off the field. Rutgers must rediscover its running game against the smaller Middies and must balance the ground attack with an efficient short passing attack. The less effective that the Rutgers defense is, the more important that ball control is for the Rutgers offense. Rutgers must win time of possession and must run at least five more plays than Navy.
5. Special Teams. Rutgers has superior athleticism. Special teams is one area where this difference is manifested. Special teams was the difference in the game last year, accounting for a 13 point swing in a game that Rutgers led by seven points entering the 4th Quarter. Rutgers blocked two chip shot FGAs and returned one for a TD. Rutgers did not record any return yardage last year. Every single Navy KO resulted in a touchback. And Rutgers fielded only one of two Navy punts. Schiano must get big plays from his special teams. Whether kick blocks or kick returns. Rutgers must average at least 15 yards on punt returns and 30 yards on kickoff returns. And special teams must score at least one TD.
1. Sr FS Jarvis Johnson. Last year, Johnson recorded eight tackles, including one TFL, and a blocked kick. However, Johnson was also victimized for several big plays. On Navy's first play from scrimmage, Johnson bit on an option reverse pass and let the SB run past him, uncovered. The resulting 55-yard TD pass stunned the Rutgers home crowd and staked Navy to an early 7-0 lead. Later, in the 2nd Quarter, Johnson let the WR run past him on option play action for a 33-yard gain. Johnson also was missing on several big gains, especially on counter option. Johnson has the most difficult assignment on the field. He must provide run support on the outside against the option without compromising his responsibilities as the last line of defense. If Eckel breaks through the middle on a FB dive, Johnson must stop him. If Polanco pitches to a SB, Johnson must fill the alley. If any SBs or WRs run down the middle of the field, Johnson must not let them get behind him. Johnson must register 10 tackles. And not give up any long TDs.
2. Jr QB Ryan Hart. Rutgers' #112-ranked rushing offense has put the pressure upon Hart to carry the offense with his passing. Not surprisingly, as Hart has gone, so has the Scarlet Knight offense. Hart has thrown 17 INTs this season, more than all but six other teams in Division IA. He threw an INT on the fifth play of the Boston College game that the Eagles returned for a TD to put Rutgers in an immediate 7-0 deficit. He threw an INT on the first play of the West Virginia game, which the Mountaineers converted into a TD jump up on the Scarlet Knights, 7-0. Rutgers cannot win without a clutch performance from Hart. Hart must make plays. He must throw accurate passes to his WRs and TEs on corner routes, against which Navy is vulnerable. He must convert 3rd down passes. He must make good decisions and accurate throws. He must not force passes into coverage. He must complete at least 65% of his passes. He must throw twice as many TDs as INTs. He must hit his receivers in stride to maximize yardage after catch against the Middie zone coverage. He must throw for at least 200 yards and cannot throw more than one INT.
3. RS Jr WR Tres Moses. Last year, Moses caught seven passes for 56 yards. Four of those seven catches resulted first downs. Three occurred on third downs. Moses' elusiveness proved especially troubling for Navy, as Moses gained much of his yardage on quick moves after short catches. Moses wasn't running smoothly on these catches. Rather, he often caught the ball on a comeback route, with his back to the defense. Moses must repeat that performance. Navy's defense lacks athleticism. Moses must exploit this vulnerability. Moses needs two receptions to break the Rutgers single season receiving record of 69 catches set by All American TE Marco Battaglia in 1995. Moses must catch at least eight passes for at least 80 yards.
4. RS So FB Brian Leonard. It's hard to believe that Leonard makes his debut on this list ten games into the season. How could such a consistently valuable player not be a regular on this list? Well, because he is so consistent and reliable. Leonard has a 13-game streak of 100 all-purpose yard performances. He leads the Big East with 129 all-purpose yards per game. And he doesn't return kicks. It is this reliability that makes Leonard's exceptional performances unexceptional. One gets used to them. Nonetheless, Brian has struggled as the feature back. He lacks the speed to run outside. And the stubborn refusal of Offensive Coordinator Craig Ver Steeg to throw play action drag routes to other FBs further encourages opposing defenses to stack the middle against Leonard. Opposing defenses have also added an eighth man to the defensive front to stop the Rutgers running game and force the erratic Hart to beat them with his arm. Even smaller opponents such as New Hampshire and Kent State have stuffed the Scarlet Knight running game. Leonard is averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. Leonard has not rushed for 100 yards since the season opener against Michigan State (150 yards on 25 carries). The running game that complemented the short passing game last year has been secondary to the passing game this year. Rutgers rushed for 249 yards against Navy last year. So TB Justise Hairston led the team with 161 yards on 31 carries. Leonard must have a big game against the undersized Navy defense. He must gain at least 150 rushing yards and 200 all-purpose yards.
5. RS So TE Clark Harris. Harris has more receptions and more receiving yardage than any TE in the Big East. He is ranked third nationally in receiving yardage among TEs and fourth in receptions. Harris has caught 40 passes for 548 yards and four TDs. Against a two deep zone defense such as the one Navy employs, the TE is a crucial weapon to exploit gaps in the middle and deep corners of the field. Last year, the Scarlet Knight TEs caught four passes for 52 yards and a TD. Harris dropped two TDs passes, too. At 6-6, Clark is an imposing target. Especially against the small Middie defense. Harris absolutely must be a frequent target this week. Harris must run post routes to force the Middies safeties inside, giving the WRs room along the sidelines. Then, Harris must run corner routes to get behind the CB and outside the safety. Harris must also find the holes between the LBs as well as the void between the LBs and safeties. Harris must catch at least six passes for at least 100 yards.
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