But the only team to hold Navy to less than 100 yards rushing in the Ken Niumatulolo era (70, 2012 against the Spartans) is not here, as Jimmy Durkin of the Mercury News points out. Many of the players who had big games last year have moved on or are injured for this game. Keith Smith, who leads the nation in tackle, missed that game with an injury.
That defense has been replaced by one that is among the nation’s worst run defenses, and was humiliated by a Nevada team that had nothing to play for last Saturday. The Midshipmen represent the Spartans last good chance to earn a bowl berth (Fresno State may not be unbeatable, but it’s not going to be easy and it’s best to avoid having that game mean anything.)
One thing is certain, the game plan the Spartans have carried the last two weeks will need to change. They need to slow Navy’s defense and have success on offense running the ball and really doing something other than lobbing long passes.
Here’s some key things to follow for Friday’s game:
- Watch the option: It’s not a hard offense to defend against, but it’s become so uncommon that it is a puzzle to most defensive coordinators (who apparently don’t remember their high school years.) With the prevalence of the spread, many defenders are seeing it less and less. But as Spartans’ defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson points out, it’s all about following assignments and not the ball. If the Spartans remember that one simple mantra — follow the assignment, not the ball — the pain could be greatly reduced.
- Yet another dual threat quarterback: Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who mostly runs the ball (284 carries, 887 yards, 17 TDs) but is more than able to parlay that strength to throw the ball also (54.3 completion percentage, 982 yards passing, 7 TDs.) The Spartans record against dual threat quarterbacks is … um, not good. Chuckie Keaton (Utah State) and Cody Fajardo (Nevada) made mincemeat of this defense on the ground and through the air. Reynolds has the potential to be jus as good, and could be a deciding factor.
- Keep Navy from running down the clock: With a running based offense comes a moving clock that is built to keep the opposing offense on the sideline to limit their effectiveness. What’s the perfect way for the Spartans to play into this? Huck three incompletions then punt, or doing things that stop the clock and lead to punts. Really, this comes down to the generic and cliche “the defense has to play better,” but, yeah, it works. So sue me.
- The Spartans running game will be huge: Navy’s running defense is their one weakness, allowing 191 yards per game (91st in the nation). Their passing defense is among the nation’s top 30, allowing just 209.9 yards per game. The Spartans have demonstrated the ability this year to run the ball and parlay it into a strong passing game, and that needs to be the game plan against the Midshipmen. Last week against Nevada, the playcalling could charitably be called panicked, as Rob Caragher and Co. opted to throw the ball often once they got down, which had the reverse effect because it put the ball back in Nevada’s hands and the defense back on the field because the passing game was off. This also comes back to the offensive line, which did a poor job last week of both protecting David Fales and clearing lanes for Jarred Lawson, Thomas Tucker or
- Big play potential is a big pile of shit: No, dinking and dunking teams down field is not fun to watch. But it’s effective and it moves the ball. Sportscasters talk about the Spartans’ ability to get big chunks of yards down field, but the problem is that you complete one of those plays at best once every two or three drives, and even then, it usually doesn’t put them in the end zone. The Spartans need to make a key part of the strategy giving the ball to their running backs or finding receivers or tight ends on quick routes and being happy with 4- and 5-yard chunks rather than hoping one out of six long passes completes for 50 yards. It’s exciting to see a team that can throw it far down field with some success, but that doesn’t equal touchdowns or overall success.