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College Sports

Bill Wagner: Three keys to Navy football upsetting Air Force in Colorado Springs | COMMENTARY

For Navy football, the last two meetings with service academy rival Air Force were a nightmare.

Fullbacks Timothy Jackson and Brad Roberts led the way as the Falcons rolled up 410 total yards of offense in routing the Midshipmen 40-7 during the 2020 season.

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That was a strange game on a lot of levels as it was the season opener for Air Force on Oct. 3. The Mountain West Conference had canceled the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic then reversed course and put together a six-game schedule.

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Navy gets ready to take the field before last Saturday's game at East Carolina.

After the Mountain West announced it would play a spring season, Air Force football had approximately 40 players withdraw from school after being granted administrative “turnbacks” because of circumstances caused by the pandemic.

Despite being without some of its best players, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the Falcons dominated all facets of the game in destroying the Mids.

Take away a 73-yard touchdown pass from Tyger Goslin to slotback Myles Fells and the Midshipmen were limited to 164 total yards.

Remarkably, last season’s matchup was even worse for the Mids. Air Force came to Annapolis a month earlier than normal as the service academy showdown was held on Sept. 11 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the United States.

Navy’s offense was a complete no-show, totaling just six first downs and managing only 68 total yards of offense in a 23-3 loss — ruining a day of pomp and circumstance at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk fired offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper in the locker room, a decision that was rescinded a few days later. Jasper was demoted to quarterbacks coach.

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Now, Navy heads to Colorado Springs this Saturday seeking its first win at Falcon Stadium since 2012. Here are three things the Midshipmen must do to have any chance of upsetting Air Force, which is a 15-point favorite:

Navy slotback Maquel Haywood is hit out of bounds by East Carolina safety Teagan Wilk during last week's game.

Possess the ball, score points

That is easier said than done against a defense that is as good as it gets against the option. Air Force has a new defensive coordinator in Brian Knorr and lost some tremendously talented players.

It appears the Falcons have simply reloaded as linebacker Alec Mock and safety Trey Taylor lead a unit that ranks 19th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 287.8 total yards through four games.

Navy has struggled mightily on offense through three games as the rushing attack has sputtered, producing just 196.7 yards per game. The Mids rank 126th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo has been criticized by fans for his play-calling, which has been heavy with quarterback keepers and fullback dives between the tackles. Lavatai leads the team with 51 carries, while the fullback trio of Daba Fofana, Anton Hall Jr. and Logan Point has 100 totes between them.

This Saturday, Niumatalolo and staff must figure out a way to mount sustained drives that eat up the clock and keep a potent Air Force offense off the field.

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There were signs of progress this past Saturday against East Carolina with Niumatalolo introducing some wrinkles. The Mids had success with the fullback running off-tackle, while bringing a slotback or wide receiver in motion across the formation was a different and effective look.

By far the biggest positive was the throwing of Lavatai, who completed 7 of 11 passes for 152 yards and a touchdown. Slotback Vincent Terrell II was also a revelation, catching three passes for 114 yards. The junior showed tremendous finishing speed in turning a pass across the middle into a 65-yard touchdown.

Terrell and fellow slotback Maquel Haywood are clearly this team’s most dangerous weapons and this is a game in which their speed and dynamic running ability need to be utilized to the fullest.

It will be interesting to see if the Midshipmen implement any new wrinkles. Jasper spoke in preseason about putting together a package for backup quarterback Xavier Arline, who is faster, quicker and more elusive than Lavatai. Is this the game in which the staff pulls that out?

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Navy defensive tackle Clay Cromwell has been a key piece to the Mids' stingy rush defense this season. It will need to produce another big effort to shut down Air Force this week.

Stop the run

Navy’s rushing defense to date has been nothing short of phenomenal. Nose guard Donald “Biscuit” Berniard and tackle Clay Cromwell have been the anchors of a front seven that swarmed and stufffed the tailbacks from Delaware, Memphis and East Carolina.

Navy ranks fifth nationally in rushing defense, giving up just 69 yards per game on the ground. Inside linebackers Gianni Woodson-Brooks and Colin Ramos along with outside linebackers Nick Straw and John Marshall have also been key run-stoppers.

East Carolina had a talented tailback duo in Keaton Mitchell and Rahjai Harris and Navy was up to the challenge. Take away a 41-yard run by Harris and the Pirates only mustered 62 rushing yards on Saturday night.

However, Air Force is a completely different animal as quarterback Haaziq Daniels is the director of a powerful rushing attack that ranks No. 1 nationally with an average of 486.8 yards per game.

Roberts, who amassed 1,352 rushing yards last season, is the lynchpin. Daniels is a dangerous runner and has hurt Navy in the past on quarterback keepers. Junior John Lee Eldridge III, who is coming off a 102-yard rushing effort versus Nevada, has superb speed, moves and change-of-direction ability.

If the Navy defense can contain the run the way it did last season against Air Force, the visitors will have a shot at pulling the upset. It all starts with stopping Roberts inside.

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Navy's Daniel Davies kicks and onside kick last season against Cincinnati. Due to injuries, Davies is handling the team's primary kicking duties. He hit the game-winner against East Carolina.

Win the special teams battle

Key plays on special teams have decided many Air Force-Navy football games and could do so again this season.

If both teams struggle to move the ball, kickoff and punt returns could prove crucial to the field position battle.

Navy has question marks in the kicking game going into the contest. Starting kicker Bijan Nichols has yet to play this season because of a leg injury. Starting punter Riley Riethman left the East Carolina game with an undisclosed injury.

Daniel Davies, who began the season No. 3 on the depth chart, got the call to handle placekicks against East Carolina and booted three field goals, including the game-winner.

Kellen Grave de Peralta replaced Riethman and averaged 43 yards on two punts. Niumatalolo was uncertain whether Nichols or Riethman would be able to play against Air Force.

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The Midshipmen boast a dangerous kickoff returner in Haywood and that could prove an advantage.


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