Nov. 11, 2011
By Bob Socci
Much has been written this week concerning the decision of Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green to vacate his usual spot on the sideline last Saturday for a seat in the coaches` booth.
He made the same move about this stage of the 2007 season, when a similarly inexperienced unit was searching for stability. In this case, Green's repositioning gave him a better vantage point to counteract the no-huddle, spread attack of the Troy Trojans.
Meanwhile, head coach Ken Niumatalolo remained at field level. What differed wasn't his point of view, but instead what he saw from where he stood.
"The things we struggled at -- (defending) 3rd-down conversions, contesting routes, getting pressure on the quarterback -- were much improved," Niumatalolo said Wednesday, several days after the Midshipmen pitched a first-half shutout en route to a 42-14 rout.
Troy entered the contest ranked 23rd nationally in passing offense, accumulating an average of 286.7 yards per game. A year earlier, quarterback Corey Robinson tied an NCAA freshman record with 321 completions accumulating 3,726 yards. Through six games of 2011 he had thrown to 20 different receivers and passed for 300-plus yards four times.
Similar in style to those of Southern Miss and East Carolina, who combined for 101 points vs. Navy, the Trojans' offense set out to exploit the nation's 111th-ranked pass defense. The Mids were also 119th (next to last) in 3rd down defense and 113th in sacks.
Less than two minutes into its first series, Troy was seemingly poised to take the first lead. It inherited possession, after stopping Navy on 4th down, at its own 32-yard line
The Trojans drove 44 yards in six plays. But off a 2nd-and-4 shotgun snap from the Mids' 17, Robinson fumbled and nose guard Jared Marks dived on the loose ball.
Navy capitalized by scoring the first of five touchdowns in a span of 21 minutes for a 35-0 halftime lead. Troy's next five series led to four punts and another lost fumble.
Overall, Robinson passed for only 152 yards, giving way at one point to backup Jamie Hampton. Though sacked just once, he was pressured into overthrows and under-throws. Occasionally resorting to a side-arm delivery, Robinson was out of rhythm and his offense was out of sync. For example, the Trojans converted only 5-of-14 attempts on 3rd down.
All of which give the Midshipmen reason to feel much better about themselves entering this weekend's visit to SMU. Of course, that confidence will be tested by the run-and-shoot Mustangs, who improved to 6-3 with last week's 45-24 thrashing of Tulane.
It's year four for the Mustangs under head coach June Jones, the ex-longtime NFL coach whose offensive machinations, carried out by quarterback Colt Brennan, helped Hawaii to a 12-0 regular season in 2007. In plotting SMU's resurgence, Jones will lead the Mustangs to a third straight bowl appearance by year's end, despite employing three different quarterbacks.
An injury to Bo Levi Mitchell midway through 2009 opened the door of opportunity for Kyle Padron, before his shaky start to 2011 allowed J.J. McDermott to assert himself in the Mustangs' offense.
Never mind his changing quarterbacks; Jones, who coached Niumatalolo at the University of Hawaii, is still a master of a scheme devised by his own college coach, Mouse Davis.
And with junior Zach Line reaching the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second straight season, the Mustangs will be doubly dangerous, making the Mids defend both the run and the shoot.
On the flip side, SMU returns most of its own defense, which kept Navy off the scoreboard until the third quarter last season in Annapolis. Down 14-0 at the break, the Mids rallied for a 28-21 win. In fact, they also overcame a 14-point deficit two years ago in Dallas, before winning, 38-35, in overtime.
Should they fall behind on this return trip, the odds of a three-peat will be stacked against them.
"They're the same," Niumatalolo said in the wake of what he considered very energetic practices on Monday and Tuesday. "They're so good on offense, and so much better on defense.
"We have to play at an optimal level and keep them off the field."
That said, here are some random thoughts and notes regarding the 16th all-time encounter of Mids and Mustangs:
At 6-3, SMU is off to its best start since 1986, the year before Mustangs became the first -- and, to this point, last -- team sentenced to the so-called NCAA "death penalty."
The Mustangs are 13-3 in their last 16 home games, though Navy won on its last two visits to Ford Stadium. In 2002, Paul Johnson's debut as head coach resulted in a 38-7 victory. As mentioned above, the Mids prevailed in Dallas in 2010, when Joe Buckley ended overtime with a 24-yard field goal.
Navy ranks 13th nationally in turnover margin (plus-7), guilty of just 10 giveaways in nine games. SMU is 117th (minus-11), including 22 turnovers thus far. Two weeks ago, five turnovers figured in a 38-7 loss at Tulsa.