College Sports

Stout Navy rushing defense will get stiffest test against Air Force and its top-ranked ground attack

End Jacob Busic (95) and nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. (90) anchor a Navy defensive front seven that has been extremely stout against the run. (AP Photo/Terrance Williams)

COLORADO SPRINGS — Saturday morning at Falcon Stadium, the immoveable object meets the irresistible force.

Host Air Force boasts the No. 1 rushing offense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging an impressive 412.2 yards per game on the ground. Meanwhile, Navy counters with the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing defense — allowing an average of just 69 yards.


That matchup of strength versus strength will go a long way toward determining which service academy wins the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy.

Quarterback Haaziq Daniels directs a powerful attack that has Air Force (3-1) putting up 37.8 points per game. Fullback Brad Roberts is the primary weapon, a powerful runner who leads the Mountain West Conference with an average of 116.2 rushing yards.


Navy defensive coordinator Brian Newberry said priority one is to contain Roberts.

“Everything starts with the fullback. He’s going to get a lot of touches and if they can get him cranked up it’s going to be a long day,” Newberry said. “When you can control the fullback then fit things right on the perimeter, you can defend this offense fairly well.”

Daniels has a career 15-7 record, a testament to his ability to oversee the Air Force version of triple-option offense.

“I think the quarterback is a really good player who has been in the system for a long time and operates the offense well. He gets them into the right plays and executes at a high level,” Newberry said.

Wing back John Lee Eldridge has emerged as a dangerous threat, an elusive runner with superb cutback and change-of-direction ability. Eldridge surpassed 100 yards rushing against Wyoming and Nevada.

Stack the box to stop the run and the Falcons will hurt you with a play-action pass. Air Force ranks third nationally in yards per completion with 24.8. Wide receiver David Cormier, a big target at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, is both a possession receiver and a deep threat. Tight end Kyle Patterson (6-6, 250) is very adept at exploiting openings in the middle of the field.

“I think the tight end could play anywhere in the country in a traditional system,” said Newberry, who went on to praise the Air Force offensive line as “big, physical and talented.”

Navy defensive end Jacob Busic chases East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers during their game on Sept. 24.

This will be Newberry’s fourth time game planning against the Falcons, who have a veteran offensive coordinator in Mike Thiessen. He and head coach Troy Calhoun have continued the Air Force tradition of using multiple formations and a significant amount of motion to confuse defenses.

Newberry also praised the efficiency of the Falcons, who may run the same five plays repeatedly and always execute at a high level.

“Of all the option teams I’ve gone against, they’re the most creative — from the types of plays they run to the formations they give you,” Newberry said. “They don’t run a ton of different plays, but they run them out of a lot of different formations and looks. They run a lot of motion to distract you.”

Navy did a superb job of stopping the option in last season’s meeting with Air Force, allowing just 176 rushing yards in a 23-3 loss. Roberts ran for 97 yards on 29 carries and had to earn every one. Daniels (51 yards on 14 carries) was the only other effective runner for the Falcons.

Newberry believes the Navy defensive staff has another good game plan implemented for Saturday’s showdown and is counting on the players to execute their assignments.


“We’ve got to be more physical up front, we have to execute the calls and we have to have our eyes in the right place,” he said. “If we have 11 guys doing their job … then it comes down to the physicality and effort piece.”

Nose guard Donald Berniard, tackle Clay Cromwell and end Jacob Busic have been the unsung heroes of Navy’s stout rushing defense so far this season. Those three down linemen are holding the point of attack and allowing the four linebackers to make tackles.

“I think we have a really good interior with Biscuit, Busic and Clay. Those guys just doing their jobs and occupying multiple blocks are freeing up others to make plays,” said outside linebacker John Marshall, who leads Navy with 28 tackles. “It allows myself and the other linebackers to scrape over and fill gaps.”

Nicholas Straw, who plays the hybrid outside linebacker-defensive end position known as raider, has been outstannding at setting the edge to the boundary. Colin Ramos (22 tackles) leads an inside linebacker corps that has done a good job of getting downhill.

Safeties Rayuan Lane and Eavan Gibbons, who have totaled 18 and 16 tackles, respectively, have stepped up strong in run support.

“I think our front seven is playing at a high level. I think we’ve fit things really well and been able to be disruptive in the early downs with the movement and stunts we’re running,” Newberry said. “We’ve been pretty efficient about getting teams into second-and-long, third-and-long situations.”


What the Midshipmen must reduce, starting Saturday, are the long gains in both the running and passing game. Memphis quarterback Seth Hennigan connected on two deep passes in which receivers got behind the defense. East Carolina scored a 67-yard touchdown off a catch-and-run by wide receiver Isaiah Winstead and a long breakaway run by Rahjai Harris.

“If you look at all the scoring drives we’ve given up, there’s been an explosive play on every one,” Newberry bemoaned.

Navy has solid depth at most positions on defense with nose guard Nolan Barber, end Justin Reed, inside linebacker Tyler Fletcher and safety Joe Hutson among the backups playing well. Newberry believes it will be important to “roll” personnel in-and-out of the game to keep everyone fresh at the high altitude of Falcon Stadium.

The Midshipmen had forced fumbles and gotten their hands on passes without creating many turnovers through two games. That changed against East Carolina with Barber forcing a fumble that led directly to a Navy touchdown and Fletcher intercepting a pass in his own territory on the home team’s final drive of regulation.


Newberry felt those turnovers, two of only four Navy has forced this season, were crucial to the uplifting road victory in Greenville. He believes the Mids will need to get some more to slow the Falcons.

“We’ve got to get a takeaway or two in this game. If you win the turnover battle you historically win this game,” Newberry said. “We need to get the ball out on defense. The way you do that is by running to the football, playing extremely hard and knocking that thing out whenever you have an opportunity.”

Calhoun has been impressed by what he’s seen in three meetings with Newberry. “I think they do a good job of mixing things up. Each year it’s been a little different approach,” he said.

Asked to assess this season’s edition of Navy defense, Calhoun said what stood out was the ability to get off blocks, the overall cohesiveness and the collective effort of getting multiple tacklers to the football.