Delaware scored on eight consecutive possessions against Navy last weekend en route to a 59-52 victory. The Midshipmen defensive unit was only able to thwart two Blue Hens drives the entire game. The previous week, against Wake Forest, Navy only stopped the Demon Deacons twice. In the second week of the season, Rutgers offense was also only stalled two times by the Mids. Starting to see a common theme? Navy is 0-3 in games when its defense hasn’t been able to get off the field more than twice by way of a turnover, missed field goal, punt or failed fourth down conversion.
Get more than three defensive stops in a game and the Mids are 4-1 – with the one loss coming against Ball State.
That’s probably why Paul Johnson has set the following objective for his young and depleted unit.
“Right now our goal is to get three or four stops a game and if we do that we may have a chance,” said Johnson.
For a little more perspective, consider that in Navy’s 34-0 loss to Rutgers last year, its defense still managed to halt the Scarlet Knights six times.
One of the major problems on defense is misalignments, or as Johnson explains, players are just focused on the wrong thing.
“If I’ve got somebody playing on man-to-man then [they] should have [their] eyes looking at them and not looking for the ball in the backfield. Or if [they are] keying certain down lineman or back on offense, then [their] eyes should be on him as opposed to looking for the ball.”
And even though one misalignment may seem to be a minor mistake, multiply them together says Johnson and the consequences can be enormous.
“It’s like I tell the team it’s a lot of little things that make big things happen. [You’ve got to be] disciplined enough to do little things and a lot of it comes with experience.”
For the past few seasons, fans have embraced the notion of Navy’s bend-but-don’t-break defensive strategy. A major part of that scheme comes from the fear of giving up the big play as prior to Johnson’s arrival in Annapolis in 2002, teams would consistently throw the ball over the secondary’s collective heads. So Johnson and defensive coordinator Buddy Green came in and ensured Navy defenders knew the importance of keeping things in front of them.
Now, it seems that the bend-but-don’t-break strategy is, well, breaking. Critics point to the 8-10 yard gap that exists, before the ball is snapped, between Navy’s corners and the opponent’s receivers as evidence.
Johnson wishes it was that simple.
“Well everybody says that they play with too big a cushion. I don’t know if the corners play with too big a cushion. They got run by three times [against Delaware] so evidently the cushion wasn’t big enough. If they throw it in front of you, you have too big a cushion. If they throw it over your head, you don’t have enough [of a] cushion. If it were that easy you’d have everybody go back there and play,” said Johnson.
“We don’t have the guys who are going to be able to line-up two or three yards off the receivers we play. Their going to throw it over our head if we do because it’s not like we are getting a lot of pressure on the quarterback,” emphasized Johnson.
So how did Navy get in a position where there seems to be so much depth on offense but so little on defense? To the casual observer it appears that if a part goes down in the triple option machine, Johnson is able to replace it with a spare (Bryant, Kettani, insert slot back name of your choice here), and the offense doesn’t miss a beat. That hasn’t been the case on the other side of the ball. So is there an issue in recruiting defenders at Navy?
“When we recruit, we try to recruit defensive guys…and take the ones who can’t play over there and move them to offense,” said Johnson. “Look at the guys playing on offense, they couldn’t play on defense. We don’t have one lineman on offense that they would have taken on defense. Greg Sudderth couldn’t play over there…he was there for three years [on defense]…he’s playing receiver [now].”
“We moved two of what I thought were our fastest a-backs over there…Jordan Reagan and Ram Vela…. Jordan still is not playing.”
Even with the defensive struggles, Johnson thinks some doubters may not be giving enough credit to Navy’s most recent opponent.
“I think the biggest misnomer about the game was that it was Delaware. That might have been one of the best offensive teams we’ve played. They had some weapons. That quarterback will get drafted. The two tight ends…the running back were big time players,” said Johnson.
And while the defense is getting a lot of attention for its struggles, the Navy offense has been lighting up the scoreboard. However, there is still room for improvement according to Johnson. One of the areas being addressed in practice is fullback Eric Kettani’s recent fumbling problems.
“It’s fundamentals. We need to coach him better. He needs to get the ball up high and tight. He’s got the ball too low. It’s correctable. It’s got to be.”
One of the reasons for the offense’s success is Johnson’s ability to count on a reliable back-up quarterback when starter Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada has been less than 100% as was the case in the Delaware game.
“I could just tell [Kaipo] wasn’t right. I think [he] was just coming off the injury. I don’t think it was a big deal.”
And as for Jarod Bryant’s performance, Johnson said, “I thought he came in and did a great job. I think we scored on every drive other than when Eric fumbled the ball. He was 8 for 11 [passing]. The efficiency was good.”
But don’t go pinning the All-American label on Bryant just yet. He too needs some work says Johnson.
“It’s all relative. He throws the ball so far behind (Zerbin) that he has to stop and catch it. And the guy who was up in the line of scrimmage catches him and tackles him. Now if he catches the ball on stride there’s no way the guy gets to him.”
Now with Delaware in the rearview mirror, Navy’s focus turns to stopping Notre Dame’s 43-year winning streak against them. And since Notre Dame is 1-7, there is a lot of hype in the media that, once again, this is ‘the year.’ Of course any Navy fan who expects to hear Coach Johnson adding to that hype, well, they should keep dreaming.
“Look at their schedule…there would be a lot of teams that were 1-7. When you turn the film on, they’ve still got great players. On paper, it shouldn’t be a contest,” said Johnson.
“I don’t know if Navy has an advantage over anybody when you play physically. I’m not sure the majority of the public knows that.”
The Navy head coach then pulled out an old reliable quote for Notre Dame Week.
“Call me when we are favored.”
Furthermore, Johnson would actually prefer, in a way, if the Fighting Irish were undefeated coming into this week and looking past the Mids.
“1-7 is more dangerous to me than the other way. They gotta be looking at our tape and [saying], ‘we’re gonna get well.’”