COLORADO SPRINGS – Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper had a shell-shocked look on his face as he walked down the tunnel and into the visiting locker room.
Jasper looked like he still could not believe what he just saw, and indeed that was the case.
Navy had just put forth one the most disappointing offensive performances during the 11 seasons Jasper has been the primary play-caller and it was clearly the root cause of a 35-7 blowout loss to service academy rival Air Force.
Quarterback Malcolm Perry had nowhere to run, nowhere to hide as the Midshipmen managed a mere 119 total yards and six first downs through three quarters. Only some meaningless yardage during garbage time of the fourth quarter prevented Navy from finishing with the worst offensive output of head coach Ken Niumatalolo’s 11-year tenure.
“They lined up like Army did last year. They had a good game-plan, did some good stuff and we just didn’t do a very good job of executing,” Niumatalolo said when asked what went wrong.
That statement about Air Force using a similar alignment as Army did during its annual showdown with Navy last December was very telling. The Black Knights had normally employed an odd front against the Mids, but pulled somewhat of a surprise by going with an even front during last season’s meeting.
Guess what, Air Force did the same thing – except this time it was much more shocking to Jasper, who was absolutely certain Navy would see an odd front on Saturday at Falcon Stadium.
“This one is entirely on me. You know, we spent two weeks working on a defense… and they came out in something totally different,” Jasper said with a heavy sigh.
There was much speculation this past week about whether Air Force would do something different defensively since it has a new coordinator this season. Steve Russ, the defensive coordinator from 2014-2017, is now an assistant with the Carolina Panthers.
Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun never named a replacement for Russ and that has left opponents guessing as to which defensive assistant is making the calls. Asked last week about the situation, Jasper did not think it really mattered who was the defensive coordinator because the Falcons have been an odd-front team for more than three decades.
“I’ve been playing Air Force since 1992 when I was in college. They’ve always been an odd front team, a 50 team, and it hasn’t changed,” Jasper told The Baltimore Sun Media Group after practice on Wednesday. “New head coach and they’re still an odd front team. They’ve had a few defensive coordinators come through there and have stayed an odd front team.”
That comment was a clear indication Jasper was expecting to see an odd front again from the Falcons. Whoever is the defensive coordinator, and most insiders believe it is either secondary coach John Rudzinski or linebackers coach Brian Knorr, decided this particular service academy showdown would be a good time to unveil an even front for the first time.
“I give Air Force all the credit in the world. They came out of their character from what they’ve normally done and did something completely different today,” Jasper said. “This is 100 percent all on me. I didn’t prepare our guys properly. We worked on the other look and our kids weren’t prepared.”
Navy torched Air Force for 48 points and 557 total yards in last season’s thrilling overtime victory. The Mids surprised the Falcons somewhat by coming out in a shotgun formation and using some zone blocking concepts.
Air Force turned the tables on Navy this season by anticipating the shotgun again and lining up in such a way that gaps were different.
“I had to be stubborn and say they won’t change because they never do change,” Jasper said. “They got smart and said ‘You know what, we’ve got to do something differently in this game. We had a hard time stopping them last season so we’ve got to do something differently than what other people have done.’ I dropped the ball and completely put our players and our staff in a bad position.”
Navy has seen the exact same defensive look in the past, most notably from Army a year ago along with Temple and a few other opponents. However, the difference this time was that Jasper was so certain Air Force would not come out in an even front that he did not develop a backup game-plan for just that possibility.
Perry, who was limited to 54 rushing yards on 19 carries, tried to downplay the fact Navy had not prepared for an even defensive front.
“They were switching to a couple different defenses. It threw us for a loop for a second, but it was nothing we haven’t seen before. We saw what they were doing and got it down,” Perry said afterward.
Niumatalolo sort of hinted that Navy did not have a very good game-plan when asked about Perry’s inability to get going. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster was bottled up the entire game and averaged just 2.8 yards per carry. If not for a 20-yard run late in the second quarter, those numbers would have been even worse.
“I think it’s two-fold – blocking and also schematically. We’ve got to have some better stuff for (Perry),” Niumatalolo said.
TARGETING CALL: Navy inside linebacker Taylor Heflin was ejected early in the first quarter after being called for targeting while tackling Air Force quarterback D.J. Hammond.
In real time and on replay the tackle certainly did not appear illegal. Heflin came at Hammond from the side and somewhat low and appeared to make a basic form tackle. No penalty was called on the play, but after realizing Hammond had been injured the officials called for a replay review.
Multiple angles did not seem to show Heflin doing anything egregious during the tackle. If anything, it appeared Hammond lowered his head and delivered a blow to Navy outside linebacker Elan Nash.
Niumatalolo was befuddled by the replay booth’s decision to call targeting on Heflin, who by rule was disqualified.
“They said if he’s leading with his head they have to call it,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t know what else to tell the kid. I don’t know how to coach it.”
Division I collegiate coaches have been up in arms about how the new targeting rule is enforced, feeling there is no uniformity. Niumatalolo wondered aloud what a defender is supposed to do when the ball-carrier suddenly dips his shoulder and head during impact.
“Their kid is going low so what do you do, tackle with your knees?” Niumatalolo asked rhetorically. “When a runner goes low, I guess you just tackle with your knees. I don’t know.”