Navy's beleaguered defense has one last shot to make a stand.
The Midshipmen have been picked apart all season by spread offenses and face another one on Friday afternoon in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.
Quarterback Ryan Higgins and slot receiver Trent Taylor lead a Louisiana Tech attack that is averaging 44 points and 516 total yards. Defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson has tried everything to shore up his leaky unit to no avail as Navy ranks at the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in almost every category.
Pehrson and the rest of the defensive staff will try one more time to craft a winning game plan, although it won't be easy against the Bulldogs.
"Tremendous quarterback, gigantic offensive line, bunch of receivers that can run and catch the ball, two really good running backs," Pehrson said when asked what he sees on tape out of Louisiana Tech. "This is as explosive an offense as we've seen, a real juggernaut."
Pehrson has watched an entire season's worth of tape and come away very impressed with Higgins, who is completing 66 percent of his passes. The redshirt senior has done a good job of reading defenses in amassing 4,208 yards and 37 touchdowns.
"This quarterback can make all the throws. He throws the long out on a rope and the deep ball on the money. You pretty much have to cover the whole field with this guy," Pehrson said. "I think the quarterback is tremendous at knowing where to go with the ball."
One way to disrupt a passing attack predicated on timing is to blitz, but Pehrson said the Bulldogs are adept at exploiting such tactics.
"We've seen some teams bring six and it's two steps and the ball's away," he said.
Taylor has 124 receptions for 1,570 yards, routinely turning short passes into long gains with his elusiveness. Carlos Henderson is a true speedster and dangerous deep threat, averaging almost 20 yards per catch and scoring 17 touchdowns.
"Those two receivers are both phenomenal. They catch everything," Pehrson said. "Taylor has made some of the most spectacular catches I've seen on tape while Henderson can get deep on you at any time."
It will be a stiff test for a young Navy secondary that has been under siege all season. The Midshipmen are starting a freshman in free safety Alohi Gilman along with two sophomores in strong safety Sean Williams and right cornerback Jarid Ryan. Left cornerback Tyris Wooten is a first-year starter who was converted from wide receiver last spring.
Louisiana Tech presents problems because it also boasts a solid ground game led by tailback Jarred Craft (1,011 rushing yards).
"You don't really know what they're going to do. They could come in and run the ball 50 times," Pehrson said. "This team is very efficient running the football, and both backs are talented."
Pehrson said it has become impossible to stop all the various elements of spread offenses, which are designed to put playmakers one-on-one with defenders out in space.
"It's hard to cover all the things these teams do. You try to take away one thing and it opens up another so it's a real difficult task," Pehrson said. "You have to take away something. We always try to take away the run, first and foremost."
Navy has struggled mightily in two crucial areas, ranking 108th out of 128 FBS programs in red zone defense and dead last in third down conversion defense. Pehrson said blown coverages, missed tackles and assignment mistakes have all contributed to the breakdowns.
"The problem we've had is that a lot of things have been self-inflicted. We need to get rid of those self-inflicted wounds. These offenses are good enough as it is, we don't need to help them out," Pehrson said. "When you turn somebody loose or don't go where you're supposed to go, they take advantage of it every time. We've had more of our share of those this season."
One of the more amazing statistics of the season is that Navy's defense has allowed the opponent to score a touchdown on its opening possession in nine straight games. Pehrson just shook his head when asked why that has happened, unsure what the reasons are.
"Maybe we don't have them ready to play defensively. I definitely know we don't see in practice the type of speed we see in games, but eventually you should start catching up with it. A lot of times early on the kids are fired up and excited, and that's when a lot of our breakdowns occur," Pehrson said. "We need to get better at that. We can't give up a touchdown every first drive. We've done that in the second half a lot, too."
Senior defensive end Amos Mason acknowledged that it's high time for the Navy defense to do its part to help the team win.
"I think it's very important for our defense to step up and make some plays in this game. This team has a great offense and everyone thinks they're going to score a lot of points. We can't allow that to happen. We need to find a way to get these guys off the field," Mason said.
PLAYING KEEPAWAY: Navy's formula for beating spread offenses all season was to hog the ball, using its option offense to mount long, sustained drives that chewed up the clock. The Midshipmen rank among the national leaders in average time of possession, holding the ball for almost 31 1/2 minutes per game.
"One of the things that Navy does such a great job of is limiting your possessions. You're used to scoring 40 points and getting 14 to 15 possessions a game, all of a sudden you look up at the end of the first half and you've had the ball four times," Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz said. "I have great respect for the way Navy gets its done. They say: 'We're going to limit your touches and score every time we get it.' They are incredibly efficient on offense."
Navy leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in third down conversion offense and also rank No. 1 in fewest penalties. The Midshipmen had been among the national leaders in turnovers lost, but fell to 24th after committing three apiece against Temple and Army.
"We have to take care of the ball. We have to get back to the way we were playing for most of the season when we drove controlled possession," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "If we turn the ball over against these guys, the game will be over. If we lose possessions, it's going to kill us."
Navy's offense has already set single-season school records with 67 total touchdowns and 56 rushing touchdowns. The Midshipmen need 26 points and 97 yards to break the program marks in those categories, both of which were set in 2007.
STOPPING THE OPTION: Holtz has not gone against the Navy option since he was head coach at East Carolina and did not feel his team defended the tricky attack all that well in a 28-23 loss to open the 2006 season.
Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Blake Baker has never coached against a triple-option offense. However, Baker did play against the unique system as a linebacker at Tulane from 2000 to 2004 and does not have fond memories of chasing the ball against Army and Navy.
"I absolutely hated it," Baker admitted. "I remember as a player, your knees and shins and ankles would be so beat up because they were always diving at you. It's going to be a game of getting off blocks. To me, physicality and pad level and tackling is going to be the name of the game."
Baker had the Louisiana Tech offensive scout team employ tight ends as tackles to simulate the mobility of Navy's blockers, who are often responsible for reaching linebackers or safeties.
"First couple days that was the biggest thing we were missing in my opinion is the third level, the safeties, and understanding if a lineman doesn't get to the linebacker he's going to keep climbing to you. We've really emphasized that," Baker told The Shreveport Times.
"I think we've done a good job of it on the scout team. I just think the speed of it is going to be dramatically different. That's my big concern. Hopefully it only takes a series or two to get adjusted. I know it's going to take time. I'm not naive enough to know that but obviously with the extra practice time that benefits us."
Holtz said Louisiana Tech used an old trick to get defenders to understand the importance of executing individual assignments play after play.
"We've been practicing a lot without a football. If you're job is to take the football, you need to do that every time regardless of whether or not he has the football. Guys are taught to find and chase the football, but you can't do that in this game," Holtz said.