Navy’s offense has struggled mightily for the better part of the last two seasons.
Last season’s final statistics were the worst of the current triple-option era (2002 to present) as the Midshipmen averaged 16.6 points and 275 total yards.
This season’s numbers are basically the same as Navy ranks 126th nationally in total offense (273.7 yards per game) and 121st in scoring offense (17.5 points).
There have been flashes such as the 21-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that lasted almost 12 minutes in last Thursday’s loss at Memphis. However, starting quarterback Tai Lavatai and the rest of the unit has been wildly inconsistent.
However, Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell nonetheless remains quite concerned about Navy’s patented triple-option attack. Fickell no doubt remembers how the Midshipmen dissected the Bearcats’ defense during his first season at the helm.
In 2017, Navy set a single-game school record with 569 rushing yards in a 42-32 victory over Cincinnati. Quarterback Zach Abey ran for 128 yards while then-slotback Malcolm Perry added 100 yards.
“It’s something you never forget,” Fickell said of what happened versus Navy in 2017. “The triple-option is always going to be unique. As soon as you think you’ve got everything figured out, it can get ugly really quick.
“Sometimes, it’s not just about talent, especially when you’re playing a triple-option team. It’s about fundamentals and talent. Sometimes, you get into games and let talent take over. This is a different animal,” Fickell added.
Of course, Cincinnati defended the triple-option much better the following year, limiting Navy to 171 yards of total offense en route to a 42-0 shutout. With Abey still under center, the Midshipmen managed only 124 rushing yards and struggled to simply pick up a first down.
Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Tressel and the Bearcats put extra effort into preparing for the triple-option this week. Fickell told the media he leaned heavily on graduate assistant Kyle Bolden, who learned a lot about the option as a standout linebacker at Colerain High in Cincinnati.
Coach Tom Bolden employed a triple-option attack and often schools his son in the intricacies of how it operated. Bolden, whose collegiate career was cut short by a knee injury, was kept on scholarship by Fickell and oversees the scout team offense.
“This week, he’ll coach more than he’s ever coached,” Fickell said of Kyle Bolden. “More than anything, that’s the biggest difference from when we played them in year one to what we’ve done the past few years. We’ve given those guys [on defense] a much better look, which allows them to play faster.”
Fickell has also forewarned starting quarterback Desmond Ridder that he and the offense need to be efficient and make the most of their opportunities. He no doubt mentioned the nearly 12-minute drive against Memphis and Navy’s penchant for dominating possession.
“Earlier this morning, we had had an offensive staff meeting, and we agreed that we might see 12 possessions,” Ridder said during Tuesday’s weekly media session. “We know that, on every possession, we have to execute. You never know. Navy might have the ball the whole quarter. We have to execute on every drive and, hopefully, get points.”
Looking to rebound
Navy’s defense needs to rebound from a disappointing outing against Memphis, which piled up 415 total yards during a 35-17 victory.
Big plays were the undoing of the Midshipmen, who allowed the Tigers to score touchdowns on five of their first six possessions. Navy gave up four plays of 49 yards or longer, including a 69-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Calvin Austin and a 74-yard scoring strike from quarterback Seth Henigan to wide receiver Eddie Lewis.
“It was really disappointing because we had been pretty good at not giving up big plays. We simply lost leverage and allowed the ball to get thrown over our heads,” said Newberry, adding that Austin’s long run off a reverse was the Midshipmen not tackling well and “their best player making a play.”
Newberry employed the 3-3-5 alignment featuring three high safeties throughout the game. However, it often did not appear that way as there were only two safeties deep on several of the long pass plays.
Navy often used a safety to blitz or provide run support as Newberry was concerned about the run-pass option plays of Memphis.
“It’s a three high safety package but you’re not always in three-high, like when you blitz and do some other things,” he said.
Navy is expected to be without senior starting free safety Kevin Brennan for a second straight game, meaning young safeties such as freshmen Rayuan Lane and Marcus Moore will be on the field quite a bit against Cincinnati.
“We are playing a lot of young safeties and they’re going to get better,” Newberry said. “We have to keep coaching them, we have to keep watching film and practicing.”
During the postgame press conference, Navy linebacker-safety John Marshall said defenders had trouble reading run-pass option plays because Henigan was holding the ball in the running back’s belly for so long while waiting to see how things developed.
Newberry declined comment when asked if Memphis had offensive linemen too far down the field as a result. College football rules are that no offensive linemen can be more than three yards behind the line of scrimmage on a pass play. The Tigers were not penalized for having an illegal man downfield during the game.
“That’s the thing with the RPO — there’s a lot of gray area. Sometimes it’s close, sometimes you think it’s obvious,” Newberry said. “The quarterback holds it and rides it, sucks the linebackers up and they get receivers behind the safeties. It’s problematic and we probably weren’t as well prepared for it as we should have been.”
AAC better than ever?
Navy’s games notes have come to include one constant piece of information – the number of transfers on the roster of the upcoming opponent.
Houston had 16 players that transferred from Power 5 schools and another 18 that transferred from the junior college ranks. Central Florida featured 23 transfers, including 16 from Power 5 programs.
SMU had 37 transfers with more than half coming from the Power 5 ranks, while Memphis had 26 and nine.
“One of the biggest things I’ve seen that’s been really, really evident to me, and I’ve been in the league [seven] years, teams are way better this year. Just being on the field, that’s my sense. Teams are way better,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
“We have a lot of Power Five players that have transferred. Kind of feel like our league is a kind of a good landing spot. We know that we have to be on point every week. Our margin of error is minimal.”