Offensive line key to Navy's hopes against Air Force

Chris Culton has been an assistant coach at Navy for a decade, working with the team's fullbacks his first five years and the offensive line the last five. Given the importance of those two positions in Navy's triple-option offense, it is fair to say that Culton has played a significant role in the program's success.

Which is why Culton, like many involved with the Midshipmen these days, is trying to reverse what has become a disturbing and downward trend this season — an inability for a rushing offense typically ranked near the top of the Football Bowl Subdivision to muster any consistency.

Coming off its most anemic offensive output in a decade when it managed just 144 yards — only 70 rushing — in a 12-0 defeat at home last Saturday to San Jose State, Navy (1-3) will try to gets the triple-option back on track when the Midshipmen play at Air Force (2-2) on Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Navy is currently ranked 99th in offense and 24th in rushing. The Midshipmen would be even lower in those categories if not for the 403-yard, 41-point outburst against Virginia Military Institute (the only Football Championship Subdivision team on the schedule) in the team's lone victory this season.

"To say I'm frustrated and we're frustrated, I can't come up with a bigger term than frustration," Culton said after a practice earlier this week. "There's a lot of pride here, and we have a lot of pride in what we do.

"There's a formula to success and we're going to keep working at it. We know what we have to do and we haven't changed anything. The results haven't shown up on the field and that's very, very frustrating. … It hasn't clicked yet, but it's coming."

While much of an unwanted spotlight has been focused on junior quarterback Trey Miller, whose 10 turnovers have contributed significantly to Navy's worst start since 2002, Culton and his offensive linemen realize they are part of the problem, too.

"You put us in right there with everybody else," Culton said. "If we have a [poor] center-quarterback exchange, the drive's shot. If we have a deal where we don't pass protect [13 sacks allowed] and we don't get the right guy in there … we are as big a part of the problem as we will be a part of the solution."

Culton knew coming into the season that the offensive line was going to be overhauled given the loss of John Dowd and two other longtime starters. Senior guard Josh Cabral had started for two years, with senior tackle Andrew Barker and junior tackle Graham Vickers starting six and three games, respectively.

While sophomore guard Jake Zuzek is considered one of the more promising offensive lineman Navy has had recently, sophomore Tanner Fleming is the fourth different center Culton has used since spring practice.

The 6-foot-2, 270-pound Fleming has struggled to get any push off the line or precision in his snaps to Miller.

"I try to put a lot of pressure on myself, because I know the offense can't get started unless the center snaps the ball to the quarterback and he [the center] gets off the line," Fleming said. "I know we see all the pieces coming together and it's a matter of clicking at the same time."

Said Culton: "There's a lot of ingredients that go into making a good offensive line. … If you get one ingredient out of place, the entire thing is wrong. It's like if you're baking something and you don't put enough salt in, it tastes like crap."

The Midshipmen have had few, if any, of their typical clock-eating drives that keep opposing offenses off the field.

Their only touchdown in a 50-10 opening game defeat to Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland came on an uncharacteristic three-pass scoring drive to start the second half and cut what had been a 27-3 deficit. Navy didn't score until the second half of a 34-7 loss at Penn State two weeks later.

Then came last week's defeat, the first shutout loss for the Midshipmen in six years. After opening the game by driving from its own 25 to the San Jose State 12 before Miller fumbled, Navy could get no further than the Spartans' 33-yard line for the rest of the game.

"We've got a ton of improvement to make," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who preceded Culton as the team's offensive line coach, said this week. "We've got to get better against an Air Force team that obviously knows what we do. We've got to grow quickly."

Culton said the inexperience is no longer an excuse and he hopes the Midshipmen turn "moments when it's come together" into something more sustaining. Navy is trying to erase the memories of last year's overtime defeat to Air Force, costing the Midshipmen a second straight Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

The offensive line is where Navy hopes its offensive turnaround starts.

"Nothing simulates lessons learned on the field," Culton said. "You can coach a guy for two years and he can do everything right and then if he gets hit in the face, what are you going to do? Nothing simulates game-day experience and you only get one shot at it."


NAVY (1-3) @ AIR FORCE (2-2)

Time: Saturday, 11:30 a.m.

Site: Falcon Stadium

TV/Radio: CBS, 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series: Air Force leads 27-17

Last meeting: Air Force won the last meeting, 35-34, in overtime on Oct. 1, 2011 in Annapolis

Line: Air Force favored by 9 1/2 points

Navy offense vs. Air Force defense: The Midshipmen have struggled in each of their first three games against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents and are coming off one of the worst performances in the triple-option era. Junior quarterback Trey Miller will remain at quarterback and will have to do something he hasn't done all season — hang onto the football — for Navy to have any chance of winning for the first time over Air Force since 2009. The Falcons are vulnerable to giving up yards in the air (283.4 per game, 102nd in the country) but Miller hasn't had much time to throw (13 sacks). After catching seven passes for 126 yards and a touchdown in the first two games, junior wide receiver Shawn Lynch has caught only two for 18 yards in the last two contests. Junior Matt Aiken, who missed the first four games with a knee injury, is expected back. With senior slotback John Howell out for the season with torn knee ligaments, fellow seniors Gee Gee Greene (a season-low 13 yards on six carries last week) and Bo Snelson will have to step up.

Navy defense vs. Air Force offense: Navy's defense played decently against San Jose State, limiting a team that had been averaging 41 points in its previous three games to four field goals. While the young secondary — which could get younger if lone senior Tra'ves Bush is sidelined by a concussion suffered last week — continues to improve, the Midshipmen will have to control the defensive line to improve their chances. Navy put good pressure on San Jose State quarterback David Fales, but will have to stop the nation's leading rushing attack (396.3 yards a game) led by 5-foot-7 senior running back Cody Getz, who rushed for a career-high 225 yards last week in a win over Colorado State. Senior quarterback Connor Dietz isn't as big a weapon as Tim Jefferson was the last few years, but he has been efficient in keeping the Falcons in every game, including a 31-25 loss at Michigan on Sept. 8.

[Don Markus]

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