Nov. 18, 2011
By Bob Socci
Greetings from the Silicon Valley, where as I write the temperature reads 58.7 degrees early on Friday afternoon, the sky is congested with dark clouds and the forecast calls for a chance of rain.
The Golden State? Well, for too many of the visits the Navy Midshipmen have made here since 2004, this member of the team’s traveling party has found neither Gold in Them Hills nor, as consolation, enough golden rays of sunshine to suit to his expectations.
We logged nearly 22,000 miles in round trips to the left coast for four bowl games in the last seven years; the first in San Francisco, the last three in San Diego. Twice, in December of ’04 and the same time last year, the Mids were deluged with so much rain that they were forced to practice indoors -- in hotel ballrooms!
Admittedly, we’ve enjoyed plenty of blue skies and soaked up a lot of rays in our time out here as well, including a game at Stanford in Sept. 2006.
That said, when the young men from the Naval Academy go West, at least one of us along for the ride expects California, as Sinatra sang of her, to be “a land paradise could be well jealous of.” Every day, without exception.
Unrealistic, I know. California Dreaming on my part? No question.
Anyway, as I type away to the sound of Glenn Campbell in my mind’s ear, wondering which layers to break out when raindrops start falling on my head, the current state I’m in leaves me longing for a late-December weekend in Washington, D.C.
Of course, the Mids can deliver just that, by qualifying for The Military Bowl -- lest I forget -- sponsored by Northrop Grumman. But only if they win this weekend at San Jose State, and on Dec. 10 in the Army-Navy Game, presented by USAA.
A few years ago, in the spring of 2008, when the Midshipmen and Spartans agreed to play one another, victory seemed a foregone conclusion. San Jose State had just one winning record since 2000, and was about to go 3-22 the next two seasons, undergoing a coaching change in between.
In 2011, however, the Spartans figure to be anything but pushovers, even as Navy has gone from a six-game losing streak to back-to-back wins since November’s arrival.
Yes, San Jose State is 3-7 and lost its last three, after beating Hawaii. Then, three of its losses overall were decided by a total of seven points. Against Idaho and Utah State the last two weeks, the combined margin was four points.
And in both contests, the Spartans blew sizable leads. They were up, 20-0, over the Vandals before entering the 4th quarter with a 12-point advantage. Opposite the Aggies on the road, they were on top by 12 again, with 8 1/2 minutes to go.
Second-year head coach Mike MacIntyre, whose father George oversaw a stunning turnaround at Vanderbilt in the early eighties, has made the Spartans competitive against those they should be able to compete with. When they’ve taken their largest lumps on his brief watch, it’s been against the likes of Alabama, Utah, Boise State and Stanford. They’ve also performed respectably vs. Wisconsin and UCLA.
A second-generation head coach, MacIntyre also has a defensive background in football. In the college game, he’s been an assistant at Ole Miss and under David Cutcliffe at Duke. MacIntyre’s also worked for Bill Parcells with the Dallas Cowboys and coached on Eric Mangini’s staff with the New York Jets.
As a player, he was a safety for two seasons at Vanderbilt, where his dad was national coach of the year at in 1982; leading the Commodores to an 8-4 finish, three years after they were 1-10. When George resigned in 1985, Mike transferred to Georgia Tech to play for Bobby Ross.
His experience at Duke introduced MacIntyre to the Midshipmen. On Sept. 13, 2008, he coordinated the Blue Devils’ defense in their 41-31 win over Navy. Among the numbers from that day:
- The Mids scored three offensive touchdowns, two of which resulted from big plays. Shun White ripped off an early 73-yard run, and Tyree Barnes caught a late 68-yard pass from Jarod Bryant.
- Navy gained 207 yards on 46 carries, including 112 yards by White. But excluding his longest run, the Mids averaged 2.9 yards per rush. Their fullbacks, Kevin Campbell and Alexander Teich, totaled 9 attempts for 35 yards rushing.
What does that mean here, now? Not much, if anything other than a conviction, one presumes, in how MacIntyre plans for San Jose State to defend Navy.
How the Spartans carry out their strategy is entirely another matter. They are talented on every level.
Defensive end Travis Johnson has 11 tackles for loss, albeit mostly for sacks (in the Mids, he’ll be facing a team that attempted only two passes a week ago). Linebacker Keith Smith was the Western Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year in 2010 and has played the last 635 snaps -- without taking a down off -- this fall. And safety Duke Ihenacho is a two-time, first-team All-WAC honoree.
The Spartans are also opportunistic. They lead Division I in fumble recoveries (17) and have forced more total turnovers (29) than everyone except Oklahoma State (34) and South Carolina (also 29).
But the Midshipmen, per usual this time of year, are in a groove. After scoring on just 9-of-16 drives in the “Red Zone” the previous four games, they reached the end zone on all eight opportunities vs. Troy and SMU.
And though the production within the offense last Saturday was one-sided, bent totally toward the run rather than pass, there was still a balance of sorts. Quarterback Kriss Proctor amassed 107 yards, fullback Alexander Teich totaled 90 and slot back Gee Gee Greene picked up 67. There were three touchdowns, by three different slot backs.
Keep, handoff or pitch; the Mids performed well. What’s more, they did it against a very experienced unit, extremely familiar with what Navy does. For some Mustangs, it was their fourth straight year trying to stop the Midshipmen.
Conversely, Navy’s defense was vastly improved the last two weeks. Increasing pressure, playing faster and forcing turnovers, the Mids yielded a mere three points in the opening halves of those games.
They’ll be going up against an offense that’s been one-dimensional in the last third of the season. Since beating Hawaii, the Spartans have rushed for a total of 134 yards in consecutive losses to Louisiana Tech, Idaho and Utah State. Their average per rush in those defeats: 1.9 yards. Particularly in the last two outings, the failure to establish a running game afforded the Vandals and Aggies time to rally.
While ranked 108th nationally in rushing offense (104.1), San Jose State is 35th in passing (261.4). Quarterback Matt Faulkner passed for more than 1,800 yards and eight TD’s his last six games. But he’s also thrown 11 interceptions, compared to 10 touchdowns, in nine total appearances.
At 6-foot-4, Ryan Otten has 42 receptions and averages 14.9 yards per catch, most among Division I tight ends. Wide receiver Noel Grigsby’s 74 catches include a dozen vs. Hawaii. In that same contest, receiver Chandler Jones scored via a run, reception and fumble return on special teams.
There you have it from cloudy Northern California. Before long, after engaging the Spartans for the first time in their history, the Midshipmen will begin the journey back to Annapolis.
Along the way, they’ll lose a few hours, but gain a few degrees. The forecast for Sunday includes a high of about 60 for Annapolis, as opposed to mid-50s for the Silicon Valley.
Let’s hope they pick up something else. Because I’d gladly trade the a rainy season in California for the Holiday Season in our nation’s capital.