Last season, Navy’s patented triple-option offense torched Cincinnati to the tune of 622 yards, 569 of which came on the ground.
This season, the Midshipmen managed only 171 yards (124 rushing) while being shut out by the Bearcats.
Did Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell and staff figure out how to stop the unique attack over the course of one offseason? Or is Navy simply not running the option as effectively as years past?
It’s probably a little of the former and a lot more of the latter.
Everyone involved with Navy football knew it was inevitable that teams in the American Athletic Conference, especially those in the West Division, would gain a better understanding of the triple-option. College football coaches work hard and if they have to play against a certain offense every year they’re going to naturally put more time and effort into figuring out how to defend it.
Numerous American coaches have talked about conducting staff summits to discuss the best ways to combat Navy’s option. Those same coaches have also mentioned devoting practice periods to having the defense work against option schemes.
None of that should really matter. When executed properly, the triple-option should be extremely tough to stop regardless of how many times opponents have seen it.
“You have to execute your offense, whether it’s option or spread or whatever,” Niumatalolo noted. “If someone stops a spread offense they don’t say the opponent has figured out the spread. They say the defense was just better that day.”
As Exhibit A we give you Georgia Tech, which leads the nation in rushing offense with 377 yards per game. This is head coach Paul Johnson’s 11th season in Atlanta, which means the Yellow Jackets had played the other six schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division 10 times coming into 2018.
Last Saturday, quarterback Tobias Oliver directed an attack that rolled up 461 rushing yards as Georgia Tech beat North Carolina, 38-28. Head coach Larry Fedora is in his seventh season at North Carolina and also faced the triple-option while at Southern Mississippi, which played Navy.
So much for the theory of the more you see the triple-option, the better you defend it.
“Paul’s had a lot of good offenses down there, but this is one of his better ones. They look really good up front. It looks like they’re executing really well. They look like they’re humming pretty good right now,” Niumatalolo said when asked this week about Georgia Tech’s rushing attack.
“What’s most impressive to me is what they’re doing against teams in the league that have seen the offense for many years. Doing that in a tough conference like the ACC is doubly impressive,” Niumatalolo added.
STAFF TURNOVER HURTS FAMILIARITY
Truth be told, not many coaching staffs in the West Division have played against the triple-option consistently since Navy joined the American Athletic Conference in 2015. Houston, Memphis, SMU and Tulane have all undergone a head coaching change during the four seasons the Midshipmen have been in the league.
Navy’s never had any problem piling up yardage against Tulsa, which has been led by head coach Phil Montgomery throughout that time.
“There are a bunch of smart coaches out there. At the same time, there’s only so much you can do against us and there’s only so much we can do against our opponents,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said.
“At some point it comes down to execution: Blocking people, being assignment-sound, making the right reads and taking care of the football,” Jasper added. “It doesn’t matter how long we’re in a league or what a team does against us. If we execute properly, we should be able to move the ball.”
So why isn’t Navy moving the ball and scoring points this season? The Midshipmen rank 107th out of 129 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total offense (average of 358 yards) and 97th in scoring offense (25 points per game).
“There are a lot of different factors. As coaches, we’re trying to put our finger on what it is,” Niumatalolo said when asked about the offensive struggles. “You keep looking at how we’re teaching it and ask yourself if the players can comprehend it. Can they actually do what we’re asking them to do?”
Last Saturday’s embarrassing 42-0 loss to Cincinnati provided numerous examples of what has gone wrong for Navy this season. The Bearcats employed an eight-man front in a 4-4 alignment, a look the Midshipmen have seen many, many times over the years.
Jasper knew immediately what type of schemes he would employ to counteract that particular defensive strategy. The veteran offensive coordinator tried some mid-line option and misdirection plays while also altering the blocking assignments to account for certain defenders.
Those adjustments don’t make a difference when players fail to block effectively. A review of the film finds numerous instances in which key blocks that might have sprung the ball-carrier for a nice gain were not executed.
There are instances of slotbacks completely missing a linebacker or coming off the line too slow to cut off a cornerback. There is a misdirection play on which a guard was supposed to pull and didn’t do it.
Some of the poor blocking was simply a case of being beaten physically. Cincinnati defensive tackle Cortez Broughton was a handful and he simply beat blocks at the point of attack repeatedly during the game.
“It all comes down to play-calling and execution. We’re going to play against better talent, but our offense is designed to level the playing field. We have to make those great athletes on defense one-dimensional,” Jasper said. “It’s all about being assignment-sound, blocking the right people, making the right reads and getting the ball where it’s supposed to go.”
Obviously, turnover at quarterback has been a big part of the problem as no position is more vital to operating the triple-option. Navy is now on its third starting quarterback with Zach Abey replacing Garret Lewis (three starts), who replaced Malcolm Perry (five starts).
Jasper sees the quarterback as the on-field extension of himself and therefore shoulders the blame for any shortcomings at that position. Jasper put the Cincinnati debacle on his own shoulders, just like he did when Navy was limited to 178 total yards in a 35-7 defeat at Air Force.
“When you get shut out in a game you have to look at yourself, first and foremost. My job is to put these players in a position to be successful,” he said. “We have to keep things simple so they can go out and execute. I don’t think I did a good job of that on Saturday. We’re not very good right now so that means I’m not doing a good job and I have to get better.”
SIMPLY A LACK OF EXECUTION
However, the truth is that Jasper is not responsible for missed blocks or other mental and physical mistakes. Navy’s offensive players practice every element of the triple-option on a daily basis and the reason the program has been so successful ever since 2003 is because the execution has normally been flawless.
Over the previous 15 seasons, the Midshipmen set the standard for running the option to perfection based off clinical precision. That simply is not the case this season and last Saturday brought more examples of why.
Take for instance the second play of the game. Navy ran a read triple-option play in which Abey pulled the ball from the fullback and carried it down the line of scrimmage. A blitzing linebacker who was the pitch key charged the quarterback so Abey pitched the ball.
Navy blockers had the entire left side of the field completely sealed. Had the slotback caught the pitch in stride it would have been a huge gain, if not a touchdown. However, Abey’s pitch was slightly behind Malcolm Perry and resulted in a fumble and 7-yard loss.
“Malcolm has to catch the football. If Malcolm catches the ball it’s a good gain for us,” Jasper said. “Things like that have been happening all season.
Niumatalolo could cite dozens of similar examples during the current six-game losing streak. Watching tape of the Cincinnati debacle, the 11th-year head coach found a bunch of plays in which one mistake prevented a decent pickup.
“People don’t understand how close we are,” said Niumatalolo, who offered an analogy for how it feels to be so close to success. “It’s like we’re at the amusement park and we can see it, but we’re still on the outside looking in. If we do this or do that we put together a nice drive and get into the end zone.”
While much of Navy’s offensive woes are the result of self-inflicted wounds, some credit must go to the defenses. Notre Dame and Cincinnati are bigger, stronger and more athletic than Navy. The Mids managed only two first downs and 72 total yards in being shut out in the first half by the Fighting Irish.
No. 12 Central Florida, which hosts Navy on Saturday at Spectrum Stadium, is the latest in a steady stream of tough opponents. Houston, No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 25 Cincinnati and UCF boast a combined record of 32-3.
“We’re a team that’s trying to find our identity and we’re going against great competition week after week,” Niumatalolo lamented. “I’ve never seen a stretch like this during the entire time I’ve been here. Nobody feels sorry for us and I don’t want us to feel sorry for ourselves. It is what it is.”
In order to have any chance of upsetting Central Florida, Navy needs to find a way to operate at a much higher level offensively. Jasper said the Mids must start with eliminating the penalties and missed assignments that have led to so many negative plays.
“We have to get more consistent with moving the football. We have to be able to sustain drives,” Jasper said. “We have to stay on track as far as down and distance. We can’t get into second-and-16 situations. We can’t have any mental breakdowns, especially right in the middle of a drive.”
There is no question the Navy offensive line got beaten badly in the trenches on Saturday. Factor in a few false start and holding penalties along with the aforementioned assignment mistakes and it was a tough day at the office.
“We played a really good football team that got after us,” Navy running game coordinator Ashley Ingram said. “As a group we didn’t play well.”
Ingram, who coaches the offensive line along with Danny O’Rourke, said it came down to not winning one-on-one matchups or making assigned blocks. Again, Navy’s offensive linemen have been well-trained for how to deal with an eight-man front.
“We knew what they were doing so it was more execution. Those guys were super athletic and they had a couple stunts and games they were doing – popping linebackers, shifting the front, bringing backers off the edge,” Ingram said. “They just out-executed us and whipped us.”
Ingram agreed with Niumatalolo and Jasper that it should not matter how many times an opponent has gone against the triple-option. He pointed out that Houston defensive coordinator Mark D’ Onofrio has prepared for the option 10 times and employs the same scheme in every single game.
Many astute observers have noticed that Navy is not cut blocking as much this season. An NCAA rule change now mandates that all blocks below the waist must come within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That eliminates much of the downfield cut blocking Navy’s slotbacks and wide receivers have traditionally done.
However, it does not prevent offensive linemen from cut blocking inside the tackle box. However, the Midshipmen clearly are not cut blocking at the point of attack with anywhere near as much regularity as years past.
Navy has always tracked a statistics titled “defenders to the ground” and Ingram acknowledged those numbers are down in 2018.
“It’s probably lower this season,” Ingram said. “We’ve gotten called for a couple chop blocks. We can’t afford to give away 15-yard penalties so if there is any question we tell the guys to stay up.
“Would we like to get guys on the ground a lot more than we have been getting them on the ground? Yes, of course,” Ingram added. “A lot of that is execution and technique – getting where you’re supposed to be and getting there fast enough that you can get your head in front of the defender.”