Sports Comment: Season slipping away from Navy football team

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Everyone associated with the Navy football program — players, coaches, support staff — needs to take a long look in the mirror in the wake of Thursday night’s debacle in Philadelphia.

Struggling Temple dominated Navy on both sides of the ball in posting a 34-26 win in a game that was not nearly as close as the final score would indicate. Backup quarterback Garret Lewis led the Midshipmen to a pair of touchdowns in the final six minutes to make the result appear more respectable.

There is no sugar-coating what this seasoned observer would label as one of the worst performances of the current triple-option era. Navy did not show up to play and it was obvious from the outset as Temple drove downfield with surprising ease on the game’s opening possession.

It has been more than a decade since I have seen a Navy football team turn in such a lackluster effort. The Midshipmen had zero energy and emotion, which was puzzling considering they were appearing in the ESPN Thursday Night Game of the Week at an NFL stadium.

Lincoln Financial Field has become a second home for Navy, which entered Thursday’s contest with a 12-0 record there. Temple has joined the Philadelphia Eagles as a permanent tenant of the facility and defended its home field in fine fashion on Thursday night.

Simply put, Temple played like this game really meant something with head coach Geoff Collins and his staff putting together a solid game-plan. Meanwhile, Navy looked like it would rather be somewhere else and showed absolutely no intensity or focus.

It was a pretty pathetic performance considering the Midshipmen were coming off a bye week and were as healthy as they have been since early in the season. Several injured players returned to the lineup, but that positive development made no difference at all.

By every possible measure — records, statistics, the eye test — Navy came in as a better team than Temple. That certainly was not the case on this night as the Owls outplayed the Mids from start to finish.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said it quite succinctly during the post-game press conference: There is something seriously wrong with this team right now. The Midshipmen have lost three straight and looked progressively worse in doing so.

During the 10-year tenure of Niumatalolo, Navy has normally shown improvement as the season went along. For reasons not easily explained, this 2017 squad is regressing. It’s almost hard to believe this team was 5-0 and nationally ranked after beating Air Force on Oct. 7.

Miffed Navy fans can only hope that Thursday night was rock bottom. Niumatalolo and company need to right the ship in a hurry because the bottom line is that Navy will not win another game if it continues to play the way it has for the last month.

“No, it’s not going in the right direction. We’re on a landslide right now. We’ve got to figure things out quickly,” a dejected Niumatalolo said late Thursday night. “I felt it in the last week. Even though we were 5-2, we were out of sync and out of sorts. I coach by feelings and I just felt that something was amiss with us.”

One does not need to be a football expert to see quite clearly that Navy’s offense is out of sync. The Midshipmen have become one-dimensional, running the ball between the tackles with quarterback Zach Abey or the fullbacks.

Diversity is the whole point of the triple-option and Navy simply does not have it this season. Abey has literally been asked to carry the offense on his back, amassing a whopping 233 rushing attempts. The Archbishop Spalding product is averaging almost 30 carries per game, easily the highest figure for any player of the triple-option era.

Starting fullback Chris High ranks a distant second on the team with 101 carries. Four other fullbacks have combined to run the ball 40 times. Quarterbacks and fullbacks have 387 of 496 rushing attempts for the Mids this season.

Those numbers make it quite clear the perimeter element of Navy’s offense, particularly the slotback pitch, has become nonexistent. Opponents have figured that out with Temple joining Central Florida and Memphis by playing an eight-man front. Basically, defensive coordinators know the Mids want to run between the tackles and are employing alignments that make it almost impossible to do so.

Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper is the best in the business and a very smart coach so it’s been surprising to see very few adjustments to see such few adjustments to this defensive strategy. It tells me that Navy cannot do what everyone knows it should to counter a defense that is stacking the box — throw the ball downfield or take it to the perimeter.

What I am seeing this season does not nearly resemble the triple-option offense I have become accustomed to watching since former head coach Paul Johnson brought the attack back to Annapolis in 2002.

Having studied and learned about the option over the past 16 years, I can only presume that Abey is having trouble making the necessary reads. Navy very rarely runs a true triple-option play in which the quarterback pulls the ball out of the fullback’s belly and carries it down the line of scrimmage to set up the keeper-pitch element of the triple-option.

What I’m seeing are a bunch of fullback dives and inside quarterback runs that do not look read-based. One could say that Jasper is simply playing to the quarterback’s strengths as Abey runs like a fullback and does most of his damage between the tackles and is not as adept an outside runner.

However, it might also mean that Abey is just not very good at operating the perimeter portion of the offense, not effective running outside and/or uncomfortable pitching the ball. Whatever the problems, the Navy offense looks stagnant, predictable and unimaginative at the moment.

Meanwhile, the new defensive strategy of playing man-to-man pass coverage in order to put more pressure on the quarterback is not working. Frank Nutile, a backup quarterback making his second career start, looked like the second coming of Tom Brady in picking apart the Navy defense on Thursday night.

The Midshipmen are not generating any sort of pass rush and the defensive backs are getting exposed as a result. Cornerback Elijah Merchant certainly did not look like he should have been left in one-on-one coverage against wide receiver Adonis Jennings, who had five catches for 127 yards and two touchdowns.

Navy’s coaching staff has to find some answers in a hurry and it may be time to go back to the drawing board on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the players must do some serious soul-searching to figure out why there was no intensity and effort on Thursday night.

Navy closes the season with four tough games, beginning Saturday at home against an SMU team that is playing very well. Notre Dame (7-1) is looking more and more like a national championship contender every week while Houston remains one of the top programs in the American Athletic Conference.

Meanwhile, archrival Army (7-2) is already bowl-eligible and put itself in position to claim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy by beating Air Force on Saturday. Sad to say, but the Black Knights look like a much better team than the Midshipmen at the moment.

Niumatalolo and staff must join forces with their troops to make sure that isn’t the case when Navy returns to Lincoln Financial Field on Dec. 9.

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