With hopes of making a bowl and prolonging eight straight winning seasons hanging in the balance again this weekend, Navy’s defense has a margin of error bordering somewhere between “extremely small” and “nonexistent.” No one knows this more than Buddy Green, whose unit will be looking to hold a very powerful Line in check on Saturday.
Southern Methodist running back Zach Line isn’t just the “under-the-radar” bruiser who burst onto the scene a year ago. Following a 1,494 yard, 12 touchdown campaign as a sophomore, the 6-foot-1, 230-lb Mississippi native has been the single most effective weapon in the Mustang stable. Not only are his 121 yards rushing a game good for eighth in the country, but Line’s 17 touchdowns put him amongst an elite group of national superstars that include Heisman trophy hopeful Trent Richardson.
Not bad for a guy playing in what has traditionally been considered a “pass happy” offense.
“We know (SMU) is a good football team and June (Jones) does a great job with the passing game, but they’ve got the added addition with the running back who’s averaging 130 (yards) a game,” said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green on Wednesday.
Stopping the run hasn’t exactly been the M.O. for the Midshipmen defense this year. Through nine games the unit is ranked 87th in the country, giving up an average of 187.56 yards per game, and 4.78 yards per carry. Take away wins over Western Kentucky and Troy and those numbers look even more alarming, highlighted by an especially ugly loss against a zone-based Southern Mississippi running attack which piled up 283 yards in a 63-35 rout.
One of the reasons Southern Miss was so effective against Navy was because of the balance the Golden Eagles employed. Using a variety of screens, short passes, and draws in addition to the zone-read, quarterback Austin Davis and company were able to take advantage of the entire field against the Midshipmen defenders, who for their part didn’t help themselves out with missed tackles and blown assignments.
Green and his defense face a similar challenge in stopping Line and the SMU offense, as the running back’s hard-charging style and nose for contact make the decision to give greater emphasis in defending the run or the pass a Catch-22.
“(Line) creates problems on the outside,” explained Green. “You’d like to be able to keep those DBs dialed in on those four wideouts, and take care of the run with your front seven and your linebackers. But he has forced teams this year to bring a safety down to help out with the run.”
“He creates problems because a lot of people are playing pass and dropping, and it creates huge running lanes,” added Green, who pointed out that Line ran for two touchdowns against Navy as a freshman in 2009.
“He’s gained a lot of yards that way, and he has also broken a lot of tackles,” Green added, before saying, “people have had trouble getting him down on the ground.”
A significant element in Line’s production, as one might expect, has been aided by another line – this one, the veteran group in front of him.
“Their offensive line is so good – those guys have been playing forever,” said Green, before adding, “they do good job of blocking for him, and he gets you on big plays on the draw game.”
According to Green, the pressure to bottle up the SMU defense and stop Line will fall largely on the two inside linebacker positions. The MIKE and SAM linebackers, as they’re called in Navy’s scheme, have a difficult task against a run-and-shoot offense like the one June Jones runs at SMU because of the dual responsibility to stop crossing routes and maintain gap integrity against the run.
“Those two guys – MIKE and SAM – should have a ton of tackles in the running game,” Green said. “They’ve got a big job – it’s a big week for our SAM and MIKE.”
In addition to finding success on the ground with Line, the Mustang’s 15th ranked passing attack has thrived under the direction J.J. McDermott. The 6-foot-4 senior is coming off one of his best games of the season, going nearly mistake free in 29-for-40, three touchdowns and no interception outing in his team’s 45-24 win against Tulane. Together with top targets Darius Johnson and Cole Beasley, McDermott and the precision oriented SMU passing attack have given coach June Jones the perfect counterweight to the brahman bull running of Line.
“It’s a combination of one-on-one routes and a combination of slants,” Green said of the Mustang passing game. “They do a good job of ‘catch and throw.’ (McDermott) throws the ball very quickly, and at times in the open field, they’ll throw the deep ball at times. They make you play honest on both sides as far as the passing game and the running game.”
While some Navy fans are taking comfort in the improved performance of the press-box led defense in Navy’s dominating 42-14 win against Troy last weekend, Green is quick to point out the challenge this week will test whether or not his players have really made strides. Knowing that fundamentals – especially in tackling and breaking on the football within the secondary – are still a concern, Green cautioned against putting too much stock too soon in the defense’s turnaround.
“No one is patting themselves on the backs and saying we’ve ‘arrived.’ No one has arrived. We’ve got to play better than what we did a week ago and get much better fundamentally.”
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