Sept. 16, 2011
By Bob Socci
A few days ago, Ken Niumatalolo praised his counterpart for this weekend, calling South Carolina's Steve Spurrier "one of the greatest game-day guys who ever coached football."
Spurrier may not have fared particularly well inside the Beltway, but outside of his two ill-fated seasons with the NFL's Washington Redskins, he's long been one of college football's most ingenious play-calling counterpunchers.
He's received nine conference coach-of-the-year awards at three different schools; guided Florida, where he was a Heisman Trophy winner, to seven SEC titles and one national championship in 12 years; and presided over more career victories than all but four active Division I coaches.
In the history of the sport's most rigorous conference, only Paul "Bear" Bryant (159) is credited with more SEC wins than Spurrier (106). Whereas one pictures Bryant stoically on an Alabama sideline in sport coat, tie and houndstooth fedora, the image of Spurrier is a bit more animated.
A gambler he can be; poker faced he is not. Especially in his dealings with quarterbacks. Can't you just envision Spurrier slamming his visor to the ground?
At age 66, in his seventh season since leaving Washington to return to the college game, he coaches what certainly has the makings of his best team yet at South Carolina. Last year the Gamecocks beat then No. 1 Alabama and reached the SEC championship game, only to get hammered by Auburn.
This fall, while Alabama and LSU slug it out for supremacy in the SEC West, USC is favored to repeat in the East. Last Saturday's 45-42 come-from-behind win at Georgia was a big step in that direction.
It also was a way into the Top 10. Carolina fans are counting on the climb continuing much higher, and banking on the Ole Ball Coach to lead them there.
Meanwhile, Niumatalolo is trying to do what Navy predecessor Gary Tranquill did 27 years ago this November. Without star running back Napolean McCallum and quarterback Bill Byrne because of injuries, Tranquill oversaw a 38-21 upset of South Carolina.
The Gamecocks were ranked second, seemingly on the verge of supplanting No. 1 Nebraska, which had lost to Oklahoma on that very Saturday. Alas, USC turned the ball over six times to a Navy team shutout by Syracuse a week earlier. Those Mids, in fact, would go on to fall to Army and finish at 4-6-1.
For Navy to stage a redux at Carolina's expense, Niumatalolo needs a sharp performance from his own play caller, Ivin Jasper: something he's learned to expect.
"He's done a great job," Niumatalolo says of Jasper, who views the field from beneath a ball cap -- usually turned backwards -- in his fourth year as the Mids' offensive coordinator.
On his watch, Navy again leads the nation in rushing, just as it did four straight years from 2005-08. And averaging 473.5 total yards, the Mids struck for 28 plays of at least 10 yards, from 10 different players, their first two games.
Such early-season success stems from the staff meeting room to the press box to the players on the field.
"It's no fluke," Niumatalolo says succinctly. "Ivin knows what he's doing."
Calling a game demands constant adjusting and readjusting.
In the opener, the Mids used tail motion by slot backs to misdirect the Delaware's defense. The following week, Jasper called for the pass when Western Kentucky got too eager against the run. More than quantity (three completions for 100 yards), the quality and timing of Kriss Proctor's throws (good for a first-down and two touchdowns) allowed Navy to quickly seize control.
What's most reassuring, Niumatalolo says, is the way Jasper is leading not just players but coaching colleagues as well.
"There's dialogue in the room," said Niumatalolo, who like Jasper learned the foundation of Navy's offense from Paul Johnson. "Other people coming in here have opened both of our eyes."
He cites assistant Ashley Ingram as an example. Unlike others, Ingram wasn't picked off Johnson's coaching tree. Niumatalolo hired him from Bucknell, where he coordinated the Bison's offense, to coach the Mids' offensive line.
Like everyone else -- including Buddy Green, who lends insight into Navy's offense from a defensive coordinator's point of view -- Ingram is encouraged to share suggestions in staff meetings.
Jasper doesn't just welcome such input; he carefully considers it.
"Guys will come with different ideas," Niumatalolo expounds. "You can't do everything, but you should listen. Being coordinator means managing egos of coaches and players and getting everyone to rise up to a common goal.
"We've been able to implement other people's ideas without losing the core of who we are."
The result -- true testimony of good coaching -- is that Navy's players are consistently in position to succeed. What's more, Jasper has coached the Mids' quarterbacks since 2002, annually tutoring individuals of varying skill sets and grooming them through a seamless succession.
Starting in 2003, Navy reached six straight bowl games with six different primary quarterbacks. No one was a clone of another. Frequently injuries caused in-season changes under center.
Yet remarkably, the Mids haven't skipped a beat. Or a postseason since.
"(Ivin) has done a great job of adapting to different quarterbacks," Niumatalolo says. "He's done an unbelievable job of getting all those guys ready."
The Midshipmen's annual encounter with Notre Dame is still a month and a half away, so we haven't heard or read too much this season about cut blocks, chop blocks or, as one media type dubbed them last year, dive blocks.
If -- okay, when -- the grousing begins over Navy's well-within-the-rules blocking techniques -- wherever the complaints originate -- consider the plight of linebacker Mason Graham.
Last week at Western Kentucky, he suffered a sprained MCL in his right knee while rushing the passer. The Hilltoppers' Kawaun Jakes took a short, three-step drop from center, when Graham closed on him.
Before he knew it, Graham was totally surprised by a running back diving at the inside of his right knee. You see, blockers cut in conventional offenses too. Quite often, actually.
Did you see right tackle Kareem McKenzie of the New York Giants try to cut-block Redskins defensive end Ryan Kerrigan last Sunday? Unfortunately, I did. McKenzie totally whiffed, and Kerrigan picked off an Eli Manning pass for an easy touchdown.
In that case, it was a down lineman. Frequently, as with Graham's injury, the block on an unsuspecting defender is delivered from a back protecting against a blitz.
Why point this out?
"I've been playing against the option (in practice) since my freshman year, and I never had a problem," Graham said. "I expected it (against the option), and I knew how to play cut blocks."
Two very important multi-layered factors, related to Graham's experience, are often overlooked by those less familiar with Navy's option-based offense:
- Their cut blocks are executed with near technical precision by players who practice them repeatedly. The aiming point isn't the knee, and even when Mids wipe out opposing defenders -- as Bo Snelson did on John Howell's 57-yard run at WKU -- injuries are absolutely an extreme exception.
- Defending against the option comes with the expectation of shedding cut blocks. At WKU, Graham was totally unsuspecting of such a block in very tight space, at the very last instant. When practicing against teammates, he anticipates those blocks and uses his hands to shed them.
Two weeks from opening the Commander-In-Chief's round robin, when Air Force visits Annapolis on Oct. 1, here are some story lines worth watching this weekend:
ARMY (0-2) VS. NORTHWESTERN (2-0)
The Black Knights have rushed for more than 300 yards in each game to date. Yet, they're winless; no thanks to six turnovers.
Last week, opposite San Diego State, Army missed a golden opportunity for a quality win over a road-weary foe. Eight fumbles overall, coupled with untimely penalties (aren't they all?), short-circuited the Cadets.
Consider the final drive of a 23-20 loss: Army went from 1st-and-10 at the Aztec's 25-yard line to 4th-and-25 at the 40. The main culprits? A fumble recovered for a loss and a false start, setting up a sack on 4th down in an obvious passing situation.
After winning at Boston College and rolling over Eastern Illinois at home, Northwestern is 14-1 in its last 15 regular-season non-conference games. The Wildcats' won those contests without talented quarterback Dan Persa, who's rehabbing from an injured achilles tendon.
Midweek, Persa was still hoping to return to action at West Point. But even if Persa's unavailable, NU's Kain Colter has spelled more than relief, rushing for 180 yards and 4 TD and completing 73 percent of his passes.
AIR FORCE (1-1)
The Falcons are idle this week, before hosting Tennessee State next Saturday.
Join Bob, Omar Nelson and Pete Medhurst for live radio coverage of Navy vs. South Carolina this Saturday at 5:05 p.m. If you're accustomed to listening to Navy Football on flagship WBAL-AM (1090), please note that this week's broadcast is scheduled to air on 98 Rock (97.9 FM).