Air Force defense overwhelmed Navy triple-option last season

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

It is extremely rare to see an opponent completely stonewall Navy’s vaunted rushing attack. Very few schools have done so ever since Paul Johnson returned to Annapolis in 2002 and re-installed his version of triple-option offense.

Navy has averaged 314 rushing yards per game over the 15 seasons – ranking first, second or third nationally in that category 11 times during that span. So it is stunning to witness a game in which the Mids can get nothing done on the ground.

That is exactly what happened last season out at Colorado Springs as Air Force held Navy to just 57 rushing yards. The Falcons stuffed the fullback dive, hammered the quarterback keep and swarmed the slotback pitch in one of the most overpowering defensive performances the Mids have encountered during the triple-option era.

“They got after us. They had a good plan and tackled well,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “There’s no excuses. We couldn’t block them. We couldn’t get back to the line of scrimmage.”

Navy entered the contest averaging 316 rushing yards per game, but quarterback Will Worth and company were totally bottled up. Worth looked slow and tentative in totaling minus-6 yards on 17 carries. Fullbacks Chris High and Shawn White were contained to 53 yards on 16 attempts between them. Dishan Romine and Toneo Gulley managed a mere 13 yards on four pitchouts as the slots barely touched the ball.

For an offense that takes pride on imposing its will on the opponent, what happened last year at Falcon Stadium was tough to swallow.

“You’re always wounded when you can’t do what you want to do and a team physically beats you,” Niumatalalo said. “It’s tough because we couldn’t do anything against them. They just beat our butts for the entire game.”

Air Force’s defensive front dominated, overwhelming the offensive line in limiting Navy to 1.5 yards per rush. What makes the triple-option so difficult to defend is the fact it is designed to create a numbers advantage in which there are more blockers than defenders. It seemed like the opposite was the case during last year’s game as the Falcons got repeated penetration and basically blew up running play after running play.

“Give them all the credit in the world. They really got after us. They didn’t do anything unique or different. They were good on defense last year and just kicked our tail,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said.

Navy sustained success running the ball has been due largely to its ability to make in-game adjustments. Jasper and Niumatalolo have been operating this offense their entire coaching careers and have seen every possible strategy for to stop it. Those two men, just like their mentor Paul Johnson, have become masters at adjusting to whatever the defense is doing.

Against Air Force last season, Navy had no answers. That is why Jasper accepts much of the blame for the 28-14 defeat.

“As a staff, we pride ourselves on doing things to help our players and we didn’t do that at all against Air Force. We didn’t give our kids a chance,” Jasper said. “It’s our job to put our players in a position to be successful and we didn’t do that. It was devastating for me personally because I felt like I didn’t do my job in that game.”

Air Force fielded a senior-laden defense led by standout strong safety Weston Steelhammer a year ago. Grant Ross had a huge game against Navy with 11 tackles while fellow linebacker Haji Dunn Jr. added seven tackles, 2 ½ of which went for loss. Defensive end Ryan Watson along with safeties Brodie Hicks and Hayes Linn also had big games as the Falcons recorded a total of seven tackles for loss.

“I’m not taking anything away from Air Force. They had a lot of seniors on defense last year and were really sound. But you’ve got to block people sometimes,” Jasper said. “Football always comes down to blocking and tackling. We didn’t do a good job of blocking them last year and they did a great job of getting to the ball and tackling.”

An Associated Press photo from last year’s game shows Navy fullback Chris High being thrown for a loss by three Air Force defenders. That was basically the story of the day as the Falcons were all over whichever Midshipman wound up carrying the ball.

“It was very sad. It didn’t go at all the way we thought it would,” High said. “Their defense was very sound. They were hitting the gaps perfectly. It seemed like they were always in the right place at the right time.”

Unable to generate any type of ground game, Navy was forced to throw the ball and Worth wound up completing only 17 of 30 passes for 260 yards and two interceptions. Steelhammer had both pickoffs while the Falcons finished with six sacks.

“We had to throw the ball because they put a lot of people in the box. Our protection broke down because – once again – we didn’t help our kids as far as the schemes we put in,” Jasper said. “It’s about coming up with a plan that will help our kids. Last year, we didn’t put in a plan that helped them move the football and win the game.”

Ashley Ingram, Navy’s running game coordinator and primary offensive line coach, also took a long look in the mirror following last year’s loss to Air Force.

“We didn’t play very well up front. Of course, a lot of that had to do with the way they played,” Ingram said. “They whipped us at the line of scrimmage. Does it bother us? Heck yea it bothers us. We have a high standard here and if we don’t live up to it we’re disappointed.”

Ingram said there is no point in dwelling on the offensive failures of last year’s meeting between the service academy rivals. He has no interest in showing the offensive line how blockers got beaten, only in helping them prevent it from happening again.

“There isn’t really a lot of discussion about what happened last year, other than how they’re going to line up and how they’re going to defend us,” Ingram said. “Our thought is 100 percent on preparing to win this football game.”

Navy can take solace in the fact Air Force really didn’t do anything different defensively from the previous campaign. In 2015, with Keenan Reynolds at quarterback, the Midshipmen rolled up 387 yards of total offense in a 33-11 routing the Falcons at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

“It was the same exact defense they lined up in the year before,” Ingram noted. “They just had a good day and we had a bad day. Hopefully, it’s a little different this Saturday.”

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