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A View From The Booth: Navy vs. Air Force

Yards are usually tough to come by when Navy meets Air Force.

Sept. 30, 2011

By Bob Socci

A couple of weeks ago, prior to visiting South Carolina, they pumped up the volume.  Last Saturday, preparing for this weekend's arrival of Air Force, they broke bread early.

In each case, the Navy Midshipmen were trying simulate game-day conditions.  

Loud music blasted during practices preceding their encounter with the Gamecocks, because head coach Ken Niumatalolo wanted his team to deal with the ultra-high range of decibels they were bound to hear at Williams-Brice Stadium.  

There's no sure way of knowing what, if any, difference it made for the better.  But the amplified air along the Severn certainly didn't hurt.  Navy played well opposite the Gamecocks, committing just three penalties and avoiding a turnover until its last offensive play.  

In no way did the Mids appear intimidated by the circumstances -- competing at an SEC venue against the 10th-ranked team in the nation and playing before 78,807 raucous fans who had the actual audacity of  booing Navy.  The result was a 24-21 final in a near upset, in doubt until the final minute.

That game kicked off at 6:05 p.m. EDT.  A week earlier, the Midshipmen got underway at Western Kentucky at 7:07 p.m. EDT  And the week before that, on opening day vs. Delaware, the game was on at 3:33 p.m. EDT

As you've probably noticed -- as someone who values any opportunity to sleep in, I certainly have -- tomorrow's encounter with the Falcons is set for noon.  Actually, at last check, game time is 12:10 p.m.  

That's why, when mapping out plans for the last 13 days, Niumatalolo wanted the Mids up and at `em last Saturday.  They ate breakfast as a team at 8 a.m., just as they're scheduled for tomorrow's pre-game meal at the same time.  And they practiced at, you got it, 12 o'clock high.

Niumatalolo's hopes of acclimating his team to an earlier-than-usual start to the first Saturday of October fits into what he's tried to accomplish throughout Navy's prep for the Falcons.

Following are some of his keys to tomorrow's outcome for the Midshipmen:

  • "We're trying to make sure everybody's not too charged up.  It's been like that all service academy games, because there's so much hype...We're trying to keep it a football game.  These are two games (Air Force and Army) that are different.  There's a different air, a different attitude on The Yard."

  • "As a player, you have to make sure you do what your job description is.  There has to be great clarity with what you're doing.  Our job is to keep the main thing the main thing."

  • "(Regarding protecting the ball) we do the same things every day.  Ball security doesn't change this week because of Air Force."

  • "We have to stay on our feet defensively and tackle.  We have to block and get yards after contact on offense."  


It's said and/or written often -- I know I've coined the phrase more than I care to remember -- that academy athletes are mirror reflections of one another.  That's true to a large extent, especially when on offense.

All three operate option offenses.  Yes, there are differences, more subtle than pronounced for most of us.  Indeed, as Niumatalolo noted this past week, Air Force runs more power and zone plays.  And certainly the Falcons incorporate varying formations, personnel groupings and motion in their attack.  They utilize a tight end and have been known to drop the quarterback into the shotgun.

But, in essence, option football is option football.  Lately, that's spelled an advantage for the defenses.  

Last year's 14-6 final in favor of Air Force was the lowest scoring game in the series since 1997.  There were two touchdowns, both scored by Falcon quarterback Tim Jefferson.  The first came on a 50-yard run to complete a three-play `series.`  The other was set up by a blocked punt and culminated a 15-yard `drive'. 

Two years ago, Air Force failed to produce a touchdown, as the Mids mostly out-kicked their rival in a 16-13, overtime win.  In fact, Navy scored just two TD on offense the last three years combined.  In those three meetings, the Mids' average yards per rushing attempt opposite the Falcons is 3.7.

"There's nothing like repetition," Niumatalolo says.  "Repetition is the best teacher." 

Defenders on both sides face their offense much of the year in practice, therefore, reading and reacting to opposing option teams is, practically, second nature.

"It's the familiarity of it that's just natural," Navy's senior right guard John Dowd says.  "They see it in spring ball, they see it during summer camp, which is the same thing our defense does.  They don't have to try to simulate it full speed, because they've seen it full speed."

Dowd elaborates on the strengths of Air Force's defense, based on his experience the last two years.

"They know all the adjustments that we can come back to," he said.  "They know what schemes on their defense are going to hold strong and are going to execute well against all the adjustments (we make), and what schemes they can only roll the dice on a couple of times.  They play the cut-back very well, they play the trap very well.  They've basically seen everything and they read it so much faster than teams who aren't as experienced playing against it.  That's why we've had (low-scoring games)."

Offensive linemate Brady DeMell, the Mids' center, sees it in the Falcons' eyes.

"They know exactly where to look," DeMell says.  "They know exactly where (the ball) is going, it gives them a chance to get there."

For the Mids, after trying to contain Marcus Lattimore of South Carolina, they should experience a sort of comfort level defending Air Force's brand of option.  That doesn't mean it will be easy, particularly because of Jefferson, the winningest quarterback in Falcon history.

"We have to change gears," says defensive coordinator Buddy Green.  "It's a different kind of game.  Air Force has its best team back that we've faced.  They're stacked at every spot.

"Tim Jefferson makes such great decisions in the option game.  He also makes plays in the passing game.  He throws extremely well and knows where to go with it.  He sells play action very well.  He has all the tools."

Of Jefferson, Niumatalolo thinks the thrill of 23 victories sums him up.

"That record, that says it all," Niumatalolo says.


Head Coach Troy Calhoun:

  • "This team as a whole has as much - and I've been around fine squads - this group has as much pure grit and guts and fortitude as any group I've ever been around.  They have a ton of guts, we're going to have to reach down and grab every bit of them."

Safety Jon Davis:

  • "I think emotions in these types of games are great to long as our players just have those emotions and not bust coverages, and not try to get carried away with their assignments and do too much because they're so emotionally drawn into the game."

Quarterback Tim Jefferson:

  • "The coaches can put you through drills and what not, but when it comes to the game it's all about concentration. (Do) whatever it is that you have to do in order to remind yourself that this ball is precious, this is what we value right now.  I believe it is mental.  You just have to be able to focus in on the fact of if you lose the ball then you can't get your job done."

  • There's two different types of emotional stages for a game like this.  The first stage is on the side of Navy, who's trying to win the Trophy.  In that case you're doing everything that you can do to do whatever it takes to get that Trophy back.  And then you have the stage from our point of view, where we're doing whatever it takes to hold onto that Trophy."

  • "During a service academy game, especially against Navy, those juices stay flowing the entire game.  I remember the feeling last year where I was just as hyped up going into the fourth quarter as I was going into the opening kickoff...your adrenaline never leaves you."

Please join Omar Nelson, Pete Medhurst and me tomorrow at 11:05 a.m. on the Navy Radio Network for coverage of the Midshipmen and Falcons.  You can hear us on WBAL 1090 AM (Baltimore), WNAV 1430 AM/99.9 FM (Annapolis), WFED 1500 AM/1050 AM (Washington, DC/Northern Virginia), WTRI 1520 AM (Frederick) and WXTG 102.1 FM (Virginia Beach), as well as on Sirius Satellite Radio (check listings).



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