Brian Newberry believes the Navy defense took a big step forward during Saturday’s 27-23 victory over East Carolina.
The Pirates piled up 372 total yards but were limited to two touchdowns and three field goals. Those numbers did not seem demonstrably better than the previous game when Navy gave up 29 points on 407 total yards in beating Temple, but the second-year defensive coordinator saw a lot to like.
“I thought that was the most solid game we’ve played all-around. I was really proud of some of the improvements we made,” Newberry said during his weekly media session Tuesday. “I was really pleased. It started to look more like Navy defense.”
Newberry thought Navy was much more physical at the point of the attack and credited that to personnel changes in the front seven. Inside linebackers Diego Fagot and Tama Tuitele returned after sitting out the Temple game with injuries.
In a surprise move, freshman Donald Berniard Jr. started at nose guard and apparently made his presence felt. Tobe Okafor started at defensive tackle over J’arius Warren, which was also unexpected. Warren had started 13 games over the last two seasons.
“We got off the ball much better,” Newberry said. “Getting Diego and Tama back helped us a lot.”
East Carolina was handed a short field several times during the game, as a fumble and two bad punts gave the home team possession at Navy’s 25-, 37- and 44-yard line, respectively, in the first half.
Ultimately, East Carolina managed just six points on those three drives, settling for two field goals by kicker Jake Verity, who had a third attempt blocked.
“We got ourselves out of some really bad situations. They were 1-for-5 scoring touchdowns in the red zone, which is huge,” Newberry said. “We were resilient and came up with some really big stops down there.”
When Newberry took over as defensive coordinator last season, he established some metrics he considers key to success. Most notable is the “Get Six” mantra, which is a formula Newberry developed to measure defensive effectiveness.
A three-and-out, fourth-down stop or turnover equals one point toward the goal of getting six total in a game. A turnover returned for a score is an additional point.
Against Tulane, the Navy defense established a new record with nine such results in 12 possessions. The Midshipmen had an interception and safety, while forcing five three-and-outs and stopping the Green Wave on downs twice.
Navy achieved the “Get Six” goal for just the second time this season against East Carolina thanks to a blocked field goal by Okafor. That counted as a fourth-down stop to go along with two forced fumbles and three three-and-outs.
Navy is now 10-0 over the last two seasons whenever accomplishing the “Get Six” goal.
“Our goal is to be 20 percent disruptive and we were 24 percent in that game, which is the best it’s been all season,” Newberry said.
Additionally, East Carolina was just 3 for 13 on third down conversions. Newberry credited that success to forcing the Pirates into a lot of third-and-long situations.
“That goes back to being disruptive on the early downs,” he said.
East Carolina did some damage on the ground thanks largely to talented tailback Rahjai Harris. The 5-foot-10, 228-pound freshman showed speed and power in rushing for 172 yards and a touchdown. The Pirates finished with 268 rushing yards, which is more than Newberry would like.
“We didn’t fit up some of the run game stuff as well as we should. A large part of that is on me for not adjusting and getting that fixed over the course of the game,” he said.
Newberry thought Navy nonetheless controlled the line of scrimmage and noted the rushing yardage total was bolstered by an 80-yard touchdown run by Harris. Fagot had left the game and been replaced by junior Mitchell Johns, who did not fill the gap properly. That was the lone “explosive” run out of 45 attempts by the Pirates.
Navy now turns its attention to a high-powered Houston attack that ranks 18th nationally in scoring (37.5 points per game) and 20th in total yardage (457 average) after two games. After that comes a road trip to No. 15 SMU, which is averaging 42.6 points (No. 7) and 563 yards (No. 4).
“We still have a long, long way to go and our players know that. We’ve gotten a little bit better every week. Now we need to make a big jump,” Newberry said. “With the games coming up… we’re about to run the gauntlet against some really good offensive football teams. If we don’t get a lot better, we’re not going to have a chance to win those games.”
Navy’s defense was bolstered by the return of three of four defenders that did not play against Temple due to injuries. In addition to Fagot and Tuitele, sophomore nose guard Alefosia Saipaia returned to the lineup.
However, safety Evan Fochtman missed a second straight game and there is no word on when, or if, he’ll be available. The Archbishop Spalding product was knocked out during the second half against Air Force.
“I don’t want to comment on Evan and where he’s at in his recovery,” Newberry said. “We certainly miss him. I hate that he had the injury. It’s unfortunate. He’s one of the best kids in our program and has worked harder than anybody.”
Sophomore Derek Atwaters started at free safety in place of Fochtman the past two games and totaled 10 tackles — five apiece versus Temple and East Carolina. Newberry said Atwaters (6-1, 193) made tremendous improvement this past Saturday.
Meanwhile, starting outside linebacker Tommy Lawley did not make the trip to East Carolina due to an undisclosed injury.
Sophomore Nicholas Straw shifted to the “raider” position in place of Lawley and tied for second on the team with eight tackles. The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Lebanon, Ohio, added a sack, half a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.
It was an impressive performance considering Straw started at inside linebacker in place of Fagot against Temple.
“I thought Nick Straw, to change positions in a week, was exceptional with what we asked him to do,” Newberry said. “Coach [Kevin] Downing did a tremendous job getting him ready to play in such a short amount of time. He still has a long way to go with learning the positions and certainly made some mistakes. Considering the circumstances, I thought he was outstanding.”
Leading the charge
With each game, it becomes clearer that Fagot is the heart and soul of the defense.
Fagot’s return to the starting lineup bolstered the entire unit, providing an obvious emotional uplift. The aggressive and physical 6-foot-3, 240-pound junior led Navy with 12 tackles against East Carolina. Fagot was credited with two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hurry.
It seems obvious the hard-hitting inside linebacker’s attacking mentality rubs off on teammates.
“Diego is not a captain on paper, but he’s like a captain out there on defense,” Newberry said. “I thought Diego played really, really well Saturday. He always plays extremely hard and that galvanizes the guys around him.”
Newberry also had high praise for Berniard, who became the fourth different player to start at nose guard this season. Michael Flowers started the opener, Christian Pearson started against Tulane and Temple, while Saipaia started against Air Force.
Berniard (6-0, 280) was a first team All-State selection as a senior at University Laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Newberry described the plebe as “an undersized guy who is really explosive and strong.”
“I’m really excited about Daniel and his future here. He’s going to be a really good player,” Newberry added.
Fagot was named Defensive Player of the Game by the Navy coaching staff. Berniard and cornerback Michael McMorris earned honorable mention notice, while Straw received the “Blue Collar” Award.
Okafor came up with one of the biggest plays of the game when he blocked a short field goal attempt, earning Special Teams Player of the Game from the coaching staff.
“Coach [Jerrick] Hall subbed him in just for that reason. He’s a 6-foot-4 guy that has some reach. He did a great job of getting some penetration there,” Newberry said of the block.
Okafor contributed three tackles (one for loss) and played physical at the point of attack, Newberry said.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
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