When Navy's triple option was operating at its peak last season, scoring touchdowns from close range became so routine that the coaching staff called the same play over and again, indifferent as to whether the defense was aligned to stop it. Ricky Dobbs would take the snap, tuck the ball away and burrow into the end zone, disregarding size mismatches or dogged pursuit in his direction.
The results were record-setting. Dobbs ran for 27 touchdowns, the most in a single season by a quarterback in NCAA history, and the Midshipmen amassed double-figure wins for the third time in program history, largely because of their brute efficiency at the goal line. So with Dobbs and both starting tackles back for their senior seasons, Navy had every reason to assume red zone scoring would be all but automatic again.
That has hardly been the case over the first two games this season. The Midshipmen instead have regressed considerably in their production from near the goal line, and with injuries on offense starting to mount, there's no telling how soon Navy will be able to extricate itself from this predicament. What coaches and players can confirm is that they've been devoting a good deal of practice time to goal-line packages as they prepare to play Louisiana Tech on Saturday in the first of three consecutive road games.
"We've got to get it done," offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said of Navy's recent scoring slump. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's not an issue. It's a big issue, our red zone [production]. We've got to get it done. That's the bottom line. We've got to get down there, and we've got to score."
It hasn't been happening at all as Navy envisioned. The Midshipmen have made 10 trips inside the 20-yard line this season, scoring just three touchdowns and a field goal. Their other six attempts yielded two lost fumbles, a missed field-goal attempt, surrendering the ball on downs and twice having the first-half clock expire, although one of those was a kneel down.
Navy's aversion to the end zone began early in the second quarter of a 17-14 loss to Maryland in the season opener Sept. 6. The Midshipmen had reached the 1, but Dobbs fumbled and the Terrapins recovered. That type of miscue started becoming contagious; Dobbs fumbled at the 2 on Navy's next possession. Dobbs recovered, but the halftime clock expired before the Midshipmen could attempt a field goal. In all, Navy failed on five of seven red-zone attempts against Maryland after converting 46 of 56 last season.
The following week against Football Championship Subdivision team Georgia Southern, Navy scored one touchdown in three attempts inside the 20 in a 13-7 victory that was far from a thing of beauty. Now the Midshipmen must try to correct those flaws in a game that has the makings of a high-scoring affair. That's because Louisiana Tech (1-1) uses a spread offense under first-year coach Sonny Dykes, a disciple of former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, and has averaged 36 passes per game.
"I've got to try to stay positive," said Dobbs, who after seven 100-yard rushing games last year, including the final five in a row, has none this season. "If anything, just look at it like where is there room to improve and what I have to do and just encourage all the guys around me because a lot of people may say I had a nose for the end zone, but it was the guys around [me] that kind of made that happen. They were blocking the right guys and executing."
Despite compiling 412 rushing yards against Maryland, Navy misblocked on several occasions near the goal line. The one time the Midshipmen did block on a goal-line play correctly, they scored.
Injuries also are partly to blame for Navy's red-zone woes. Dobbs hurt his ankle in the opener, and his burst wasn't the same against Georgia Southern. He is practicing this week, but not at full speed, and while wearing a brace around his right ankle.
Also ailing is starting senior right tackle Matt Molloy, a fixture at the position since midway though his sophomore season. Molloy, according to coach Ken Niumatalolo, probably will not play for a second straight game after he left the opener with a concussion.
"When you're in the red zone, it's all about pride," said starting left tackle Jeff Battapaglia, a senior. "Pride and attitude and getting the ball in there, so that's where we've really got to dig deep as an offensive line and as a unit offensively and just pound the ball in there and move people so we can get the ball in."