Their names are Jeff Battipaglia, Josh Cabral, Brady DeMell, John Dowd and Ryan Basford, and it's almost certain they won't be showing up anytime soon on the stat sheet after a Navy football game. Those accolades normally are reserved for the so-called skill players, though ask any member of the coaching staff and they'll say starting on the offensive line for the Midshipmen demands dexterity in bunches as well.
Last Saturday against Notre Dame, that unit played with the kind of clinical precision unmatched in generations at the academy. So gaping and plentiful were the running lanes that Alexander Teich, with 210 yards, became the first fullback in school history to amass 200 rushing yards in a game. By halftime, the Midshipmen were well on their way to 367 rushing yards and their most emphatic showing against the Fighting Irish in more than five decades.
Following the 35-17 victory at New Meadowlands Stadium, Teich and quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who ran for three touchdowns, had the spotlight from the nationally televised game squarely on them after combining for 300 rushing yards. That's normally how it works when Navy compiles ridiculous rushing numbers, yet the players carrying the ball grow wary when the lion's share of recognition gets directed their way. It's the largely anonymous group creating the holes that's most deserving of acclaim.
"Any good quarterback is going to give it all back to the line because they are the sole reason why it's being done," Dobbs said. "It's like they are the backbone. As long as whoever's running the ball gets all the credit, [the offensive line] can stand happy because they know they are the reason why."
Dobbs said the offensive line has been exclusively responsible for Navy's resurgence in the red zone during the past three games. Over that span, which began with a 28-27 win over Wake Forest in the closing seconds Oct. 9, the Midshipmen are 12-for-12 inside the 20, all for touchdowns. Before that, they had scored just seven touchdowns on 19 such opportunities and were ranked 118th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in overall red zone efficiency.
Thanks to the development of an offensive line that began the season untested in spots and then had to withstand injury and position shuffling, Navy now more closely resembles the offense that last season routinely scored from close in. The regularity with which the Midshipmen have scored touchdowns to complete long drives has contributed significantly to a three-game winning streak in which Navy (5-2) has run for 894 yards and nine touchdowns.
"I think it's just the natural progression of the season," said Battipaglia, a senior who started his 34th straight game at left tackle last week. "We came into camp and we were finding our identity as an offensive line. Obviously, we struggled the first couple games getting the ball in the end zone. That was a big thing for us, red zone struggles, but then the coaches changed up our practices a little bit. We started doing more practicing in the red zone, scoring touchdowns. I think it actually carried over well into games, and we've been meshing really well, working the ball upfield and making big holes for guys to run through, so it's been working out."
Battipaglia has been the bedrock of an offensive line that has undergone major renovations both from last year and during this season. The starting left guard is Cabral, a sophomore whose college resume coming into the season comprised 15 snaps against Rice. DeMell is the center, but the junior began the season projected to start at right guard, where Dowd, another junior, currently resides. Dowd started the season third on the depth chart at tackle. At right tackle is Basford, who has become the regular starter because senior Matt Molloy is out for the season in the wake of multiple concussions. Molloy had been the starter at right tackle since halfway through his sophomore season.
"It's to the point now where we've played seven games. We've played a lot of football," interior offensive line coach Ashley Ingram said of the unit's maturation. "I've been pleased with the way they're playing."
Ingram made sure to mention DeMell's progression as among the most noteworthy of the unit. In Navy's blocking scheme, eliminating penetration from the nose guard is a top priority when playing against 50 defenses, which just happened to be the alignment Notre Dame deployed.
DeMell handled Fighting Irish nose guard Ian Williams so well that Teich got plenty of daylight on inside runs, including his career-long 54-yard burst in the first quarter on third-and-one.
"I think like with just anything it comes with experience," DeMell said. "Dowd was moving down to guard. Cabral is coming in for his first starts. I didn't have that much experience, and we had Matt and Jeff, so the inside guys had to jell, and once we lost Matt, then Ryan's got to come in and jell, so I think now everybody just knows how to work together. Everybody's experienced enough that we can just roll off the ball and not make any mistakes."