Navy football fans who figure the offense is suddenly fixed following an impressive output against Alabama-Birmingham might want to take a deep breath.
Quarterback Xavier Arline directed an attack that produced 363 yards and 24 points. Neither of those were season-highs for the Midshipmen but after a miserable month filled with minimal production, it marked a major step forward.
There were certainly many bright spots, highlighted by Arline tossing a 45-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Regis Velez, then breaking loose for a 50-yard scoring scamper off an option keeper.
By far the most encouraging development was a classic 20-play, 80-yard touchdown march that took almost 13 minutes off the clock. As coach Brian Newberry correctly stated, that was Navy option football at its finest.
It was Navy’s longest scoring drive in terms of time since its epic 26-play, 94-yard campaign against New Mexico in the 2004 Emerald Bowl. That drive, which ended with a field goal, chewed up 14 ½ minutes.
However, the reality is that many of the problems present during the Charlotte, Air Force and Temple games were on display for most of the first half against UAB. The Mids had numerous staple plays of the option attack result in little or no gain primarily because of subpar blocking.
According to Mike James of The Mid Report, there were a wide range of schemes — outside zone, midline trap, halfback sweep, you name it — that got shut down simply because one or two defenders were not blocked.
Navy started the game with seven straight possessions that lasted five plays or less. One produced a touchdown thanks to the long bomb from Arline to Velez. The Mids managed only one first down and had to settle for a field goal after cornerback Dashaun Peele returned an interception to the Alabama-Birmingham 31-yard line.
Navy had 10 points midway through the third quarter before the offense scored two touchdowns in the fourth frame to help turn the game into a rout.
James explains that much of Navy’s offensive production was the result of some new schemes introduced by coordinator Grant Chesnut. There were some run-pass option plays that resulted in completions to slotback Eli Heidenreich for nice gains. There was also a counter trey option run out of shotgun formation that worked to great effect.
It will be interesting to see if those wrinkles continue to be successful going forward. Obviously, East Carolina and other future opponents have now seen those concepts and can prepare to defend them.
During his weekly media session this week, Chesnut said the offensive success the Mids found in the second half Saturday was simply the result of better blocking and execution. He did acknowledge the RPO and counter trey plays were designed to exploit what UAB was doing defensively.
“There’s always a feeling out process early in the game where you get a real sense of exactly how they want to defend you then you can make little adjustments to take advantage of that,” Chesnut said. “We took a very important step forward on Saturday and we absolutely have to keep the momentum going.”
One major reason for optimism involves the Midshipmen settling on a starting quarterback. Senior Xavier Arline is expected to make his third straight start and he has brought a steady hand to the unit.
“X has done a great job of digesting the game plan going through the week then going out and executing the game plan and just making plays,” Chesnut said. “I’m very pleased with the progress he made last week in practice and, obviously, in the game as well.”
Arline, who has now made 11 career starts at quarterback, plays with tremendous confidence and his experience has shown through in several instances over the past two games. He has done a good job of reading the defensive alignment, making checks at the line of scrimmage and getting Navy into the right play.
“I’m very excited about the way X is playing right now. One of his greatest qualities is his demeanor and style of leadership. He’s never too high, never too low,” Chesnut said. “That consistency and continuity at quarterback is really, really important.”
Chesnut did not hesitate when asked if the Navy seniors, who will play the final home game of their careers Saturday against East Carolina, are playing with more purpose with the end in sight.
“We talked to the whole team, especially the offensive unit, about coming out of the locker room ready to play,” Chesnut said. “Sam Glover is a guy that probably played his best game of the season on Saturday. Sam had a great look in his eye during pregame then went out and played that way. You absolutely see a greater sense of urgency among our seniors.”
Chesnut and East Carolina defensive coordinator Blake Harrell know each other well. They coached together at Kennesaw State in 2019 and matched wits on a daily basis in practice.
Harrell was hired by Kennesaw State to replace Brian Newberry, who left to become defensive coordinator at Navy and, of course, is now the head coach.
Harrell has a great understanding of option offense because he coached at three schools — Kennesaw State, The Citadel and Lenoir Rhyne, that employed the unique system. It certainly does not hurt that he has intimate knowledge of Chesnut’s offensive package and overall philosophy.
“There is definitely familiarity on both sides. I know [Harrell] will have a great plan. We’ll need to execute at a very high level in order to get first downs and score points,” Chesnut said.
Chesnut said Harrell has “evolved considerably” during his four years as East Carolina’s coordinator and having knowledge of what he did at Kennesaw State is no longer all that applicable.
“[Harrell] has his core playbook, but always has some tweaks and wrinkles game to game and presents things in multiple ways,” Chesnut said. “Blake has his plan, his defensive package and is going to do what he does. You’re going to see things that he’s used in the past against Navy and we’ll probably also see things he has not.”
The Pirates have been very stingy this season as they rank 25th in rushing defense (114.3 yards allowed), 37th in total defense (337.4 yards) and 47th in scoring defense (23 points).
Harrell is known for using a wide range of alignments and blitzes (both run and pass) to get opposing offenses off schedule. East Carolina stands 18th nationally in tackles for loss with seven per game and ninth in FBS with three defensive touchdowns.
“They’re very, very aggressive. I think the biggest thing you notice is how aggressive and physical they are,” Chesnut said. “They do a good job of creating negative plays with their multiple looks and movement up front.”
Defensive back Julius Wood leads East Carolina with 72 tackles. Linebacker Michael Edwards III has 50 tackles including seven for loss.
“Coach Harrell gets his guys to play very hard and very physical,” Chesnut said. “Of course, they’ve got very good personnel. They’re really big and athletic. They’re as good as we’ve seen with the exception of maybe Notre Dame.”
Banged up unit
Navy’s offensive struggles during the three-game stretch coincided with multiple starting offensive linemen suffering nagging injuries.
Left tackle Connor McMahon has been hobbling around on two bad ankles, right tackle Sam Glover has a sore shoulder and center Brent Self has been bothered by an ankle issue.
There was more bad news on that front coming out of the Temple game as left guard Javan Bouton sustained a foot injury and is out indefinitely. He was replaced in the lineup by sophomore Ben Purvis, who had started the Temple game at right tackle in place of Glover.
“Brent is starting to get a little healthier, but the others are having to manage (their injuries). We’re still battling a bunch of bumps and bruises up front,” Chesnut said. “Unfortunately, we lost Bouton last week to a freak thing. We’ll have to move some deck chairs around.”
Chesnut said this week that 6-foot-3, 290-pound freshman Hoke Smith II may see more playing time against East Carolina. Smith, out of Birmingham, Alabama, can play center or guard.
Fullback Alex Tecza leads Navy in rushing with 629 yards on 91 carries. The sophomore ranks eighth nationally in yards per carry (6.9) and has scored four touchdowns. Fellow fullback Daba Fofana is a distant second on the team with 271 rushing yards on 63 totes ... Navy has six touchdown drives that lasted one minute or less, ranking seventh-most among 130 Football Bowl Subdivision teams... The Midshipmen have only lost seven turnovers this season, sixth-fewest in the country ... Navy has won 67 consecutive home games when leading after three quarters, the nation’s longest such streak.