COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The Navy defense did exactly what was needed to upset Air Force on its home field. Unfortunately, the offense once again did not play its part.
Stop reading if you’ve heard this story before because it’s become a familiar theme over the past three seasons.
Quarterback Haaziq Daniels, fullback Brad Roberts and wide receiver David Cormier provided almost all the key plays as Air Force mustered just enough offense to beat Navy, 13-10, on Saturday at Falcon Stadium.
Take away a blown coverage on the opening possession of the game and the Navy defense could not have been much better. The host Falcons managed just two field goals on eight subsequent possessions as the Midshipmen forced four punts and two turnovers.
Navy played a lot of bend-but-don’t-break defense as both field goals came after goal-line stands. Air Force had driven to the 14-yard line and appeared poised to score when Navy outside linebacker John Marshall made a huge hustle play — racing from the back side to chase down Daniels and knock the ball out of his hands for a fumble recovered by end Justin Reed.
Defensive end Jacob Busic displayed similar elite effort late in the first half, beating the offensive tackle and swooping in from behind to strip Daniels as he attempted to throw. Not only did Busic cause the fumble, but he recovered it as well.
Free safety Rayuan Lane (Gilman), who appeared to be responsible for the 67-yard touchdown toss from Daniels to Cormier on just the third play of the game, bounced back and played extremely well with nine tackles.
Marshall and Busic both totaled six tackles, while inside linebacker Tyler Fletcher, outside linebacker Nicholas Straw and safety Eavan Gibbons all finished with five. The Midshipmen amassed four tackles for loss and two sacks.
Air Force was limited to 200 rushing yards, less than half of its nation-leading average. That is quite a testament to the Navy front seven, anchored by nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. and tackle Clay Cromwell. Will Harbour returned to action with a heavily bandaged right wrist and contributed four tackles, as did fellow inside linebacker Jianni Woodson-Brooks.
The Falcons came into the contest scoring almost 38 points per game and were held to 13. Bottom line, the stout defensive effort gave the Midshipmen a great chance to win.
Meanwhile, the Navy offense moved the ball in spurts but was unable to sustain drives at the level required to win even a defensive-oriented service academy showdown such as this. Quarterback Tai Lavatai directed a rushing attack that mustered a mere 114 yards as Air Force completely controlled the line of scrimmage.
There were countless occasions in which Navy running plays never had a chance because it was a complete jailbreak with multiple Air Force defenders breaking into the backfield. All credit to down linemen Kalawai’a Pescaia, Payton Zdroik and Christopher Herrera for dominating at the point of attack and allowing the linebacker to roam free.
Inside linebacker Alec Mock was rarely blocked in recording a game-high 13 tackles, while outside linebacker Vincent Sanford also had free runs at ball carriers in totaling 10 tackles. Two other inside linebackers — Bo Richter and TD Blackmon — finished with seven stops, as did cornerback Michael Mack II.
There has not been a single game this season in which the Navy offensive line consistently knocked the defense off the ball. That has to change or the rushing offense will have no chance.
At this point, Navy is more effective throwing the ball than running it. Who would have ever thought we would be saying that about one of the most vaunted triple-option offenses in the history of college football?
Navy never averaged less than 270 rushing yards per game from 2002 through 2019. After another subpar performance Saturday, the Midshipmen currently rank in the lower half of the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 176 rushing yards.
Lavatai threw for 129 yards and what is most notable is that a lot was left on the table as he only completed 11 of 20 attempts. There were several times when the “Throwin’ Samoan” had open receivers and could not connect with them — usually because he was under heavy pressure.
A perfectly thrown pass dropped right into the arms of wide receiver Mark Walker resulted in a 27-yard gain and led to Navy’s lone touchdown on the day. A 27-yard completion to wideout Jayden Umbarger (Archbishop Spalding) jump-started a drive that reached the Air Force 14 before stalling. That possession came up empty as kicker Daniel Davies missed wide left on a 33-yard field goal attempt.
Yes, had Navy scored touchdowns instead of settling for a pair of field goal attempts after getting into the red zone it would have won the game. However, the reality is the Midshipmen got into scoring territory just four times on 10 possessions.
I’m not sure I can honestly continue to write that Navy employs a triple-option offense because it simply does not appear to be the case. There are a lot of double-option elements in which the quarterback can either keep or give to the fullback or keep and pitch to a slotback.
From what I can tell, most of Navy’s offensive plays are designed and require very little decision-making by the quarterback. There are handoffs to the slots on jet sweeps, called quarterback keepers or fullback dives and quick pitch-outs.
I like some of the wrinkles and believe they are necessary to keep defenses guessing. However, it seems like the Navy offense at this point is just a potpourri of scripted plays with the coaching staff grasping at straws to find stuff that works.
At this point in the season, Navy’s offense has no identity and no element to truly hang its hat on.
One new element that was incorporated Saturday should be quickly shelved. Navy opened the game with slotback Maquel Haywood and fullback Anton Hall Jr. in the backfield. A direct snap to Haywood went for just 2 yards. In the second half, Haywood lined up alone in the backfield and took another direct snap and ran into a wall of defenders for no gain.
I think we can safely say the Navy version of the Wildcat offense was not successful and the offensive staff would be wise to mothball it.
Four games into the season, it seems obvious the Midshipmen must conduct a complete reset of the offense.
I have no idea why coach Ken Niumatalolo is no longer running the true triple-option offense in which the quarterback reads the defense and makes decisions from start to finish. What I do know is that whatever Niumatalolo and the offensive staff are doing now simply is not working well enough to consistently win games at this level.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 1430 AM