At the start of its past two games, Navy was caught off-guard by its opponent's defensive formation. The Midshipmen expected Notre Dame to put eight men in the box to stop the triple option, but the Fighting Irish lined up more traditionally. Then the Mids expected Troy to use Notre Dame's strategy only to find the line of scrimmage flooded with defenders.
Navy couldn't adjust in South Bend, Ind., and was routed, 56-14, but it was able to switch its game plan quickly — and effectively — last Saturday in Annapolis. The result was a 42-14 victory that broke a six-game losing streak and revealed a secret: that Navy's passing game works when the opposition is expecting the Midshipmen to pound the ball on the ground.
Which brings Navy (3-6) to Saturday's game against Southern Methodist (6-3) in Dallas. It is a game that the Midshipmen must win to keep their hopes alive of a ninth straight bowl invitation. They'll be facing a team that still runs the trademark vertical passing game (15th in the nation) of June Jones but suddenly is stopping opponents on the ground (18th against the rush) as well.
So which type of offense will coordinator Ivin Jasper dial up? Without getting into specifics, Navy hopes it will be one to keep the Mustangs on their heels. To do that, the Midshipmen will have to be able to hit on a few play-action passes as they have done in each of their victories, and even most of their close losses, this season.
"You've always got to keep them off balance, always keep them thinking," Jasper said after practice Wednesday. "The play-action pass is the one thing they're scared of because they don't want to give up an easy touchdown. If you get everybody to fall for the run, it will be an easy touchdown pass."
Navy worked play-action to near-perfection last week. Returning after missing the Notre Dame game with a dislocated elbow on his throwing arm, left-handed senior quarterback Kriss Proctor set up Navy's first touchdown with 42-yard play-action pass to slotback John Howell, then hit slotback Gee Gee Greene for a 48-yard touchdown using the same play. It was the longest completion of Proctor's career.
This marks the fourth straight season the teams have played, and Navy's offensive approach against the Mustangs has varied depending on its own personnel and SMU's.
Three years ago, Navy kept the ball exclusively on the ground while playing in a rainstorm when a relatively inexperienced quarterback named Ricky Dobbs came off the bench. Last year, the Midshipmen came back from a 14-0 halftime deficit with the help of a 51-yard play-action pass from Dobbs to slotback Aaron Santiago that set up the second touchdown in a 28-21 win.
"You run the ball and you run the play well, you've got to respect it [the pass]," Proctor said this week. "If the secondary is making plays in the run game, then you throw it over their head. It's just Navy football. At this point in the season, you've seen everything; it's just a matter of coming off the ball and hitting it."
What has helped Navy's passing game this season — and should also be a plus next year — is that the Midshipmen have two wide receivers capable of making big plays along with a slew of slotbacks.
Sophomore wide receiver Matt Aiken is quickly gaining a reputation as Navy's go-to guy in the little-used passing game, evidenced by a couple of plays he made in losses to South Carolina, Air Force and East Carolina. At 6 feet 4, junior wide-out Brandon Turner is a big target who can often get separation from defensive backs.
Sophomore quarterback Trey Miller, who came in against East Carolina after Proctor was injured, hit Aiken and Turner each for fourth-quarter touchdowns and also had near-touchdowns to both, with Aiken's apparent touchdown ruled a drop after Miller overthrew a wide-open Turner moments before.
"The way we prepare, we're kind of ready for everything," said Aiken, who leads Navy with a modest 12 catches for 192 yards, two catches more than Turner (253 yards) and Greene (152). "We had worked on eight-man [defensive fronts] a lot [earlier in the season], so we knew what we doing there."
Said Jasper: "They've seen it for three years; they'll be prepared. We've just got to go out and see how they're going to defend and we have to adjust."
Because of that, Jasper said, he expects the Midshipmen to try to pound the ball in the option at the start. Or at least that's what he's saying publicly.
"It's going to be a game where we're going to have to strap down, come off the ball, 2 yards here, 3 yards there," Jasper said. "If it comes down to that, I hope we can hang on to the football and eat the clock up. It's going to be a knockout, grind game."
With a possible knockout punch coming in the form of a play-action pass.
NAVY (3-5) @ SMU (6-3)
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Site: Gerald Ford Stadium, Dallas
TV: Fox Sports Net
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Navy leads 8-7
Last meeting: Navy won, 28-21, in Annapolis
Line: SMU by 81/2
Navy offense vs. SMU defense: The Mustangs surrendered 253 yards on the ground to the Midshipmen last season and once gave up 224 yards to Ricky Dobbs alone, but this year they are holding opponents to a paltry 106.4 yards a game. Some of it has to do with the pass-happy Conference USA, but June Jones is certainly paying more attention to that side of the ball. Navy was helped last week by the return of junior slotback Aaron Santiago, who after missing six weeks (all losses) with a broken arm, returned for a game-high 80 yards on six carries in the first half against Troy. If Proctor can stay upright and get outside for his pitches, the Midshipmen have a chance to control the ball offensively.
Navy defense vs. SMU offense: After getting torched by a succession of average-to-good quarterbacks, the Midshipmen finally made some plays last week against Troy by getting decent pressure up front and not giving up many big plays (none longer than 14 yards until late in the fourth quarter). Freshman cornerback Parrish Gaines caused one turnover and junior defensive end Collin Sturdivant recovered one on a botched handoff. SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott has thrown for 2,515 yards and 13 touchdowns but is a bit prone to interceptions (11). If Jabaree Tuani and the defensive line can add to McDermott's 16 sacks this season, the Midshipmen should be in the game.