Dec. 19, 2012
By Bob Socci
Within minutes of stepping off a team bus and walking into his Ricketts Hall office the morning after the Army-Navy game, Buddy Green immersed himself in the Arizona State offense.
Green, the 11th-year defensive coordinator of the Midshipmen, wasn't about to abide by the 24-hour rule that typically accompanies a significant win in sports. Others could continue celebrating Navy's 17-13 victory less than a full day earlier. He was already winding -- and rewinding -- his way through every Sun Devils' pass play of 2012.
So goes the life Green leads when the last game is followed by the next. Especially when the next features an opponent who, in his words, "does everything offensively to give a defensive coach nightmares." From that morning forward, Green has focused on recognizing the many formations and detecting any tendencies of the Mids' foe in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29.
Meanwhile, some of us are still afforded the luxury of looking back, at least one last time, at some of the most important -- yet in some cases, unheralded -- players who affected the outcome of Army-Navy. The days ahead will allow ample opportunity for looking ahead to Arizona State, and well beyond.
`HOLDING THE POINT'
At the outset of summer, much less the fall, no position group of Midshipmen seemed more unsettled than the defensive line. The four primary starters last season in the three spots up front were no longer available.
End Jabaree Tuani, a four-year regular ranked among the Academy's all-time leaders in career sacks and tackles for loss, and nose guard Jared Marks had graduated. In addition, attrition claimed two of Tuani's book-end understudies. Jamel Dobbs left the Academy due to a medical condition, while Joshua Jones stopped playing to concentrate on studies.
Through the first 11 games of 2012, Green and assistants Dale Pehrson and Shaun Nua developed a rotation cycling 11 different Mids into the lineup. Eventually, senior Wes Henderson and Evan Palelei became the primary ends, while Barry Dabney and Travis Bridges plugged the middle most of the time. Others, like sophomore Danny Ring and freshman Bernard Sarra, saw spot duty.
But in the month before the regular season finale, Ring, who started an Oct. 20 win over Indiana, ascended the depth chart by lowering his literal level of play. Against Texas State on Nov. 17, he earned notice by splitting double teams and, according to Green, making two critical stops.
"He was getting off blocks," Green said of Ring. "He made plays in the running game."
With Army, and its strong inside rushing attack up next, the veteran Pehrson offered a recommendation.
"Dale was the first guy to say (Danny) is the guy we need," Green says. "He started with great (low) pad level, and the more we practiced, it was (evidently) a good call."
Concurrently, Sarra was making a similar impression. Like Ring, he was truly gaining leverage.
When game day arrived, each was outstanding.
"I cannot talk enough about the job Danny Ring and Bernie Sarra did at nose," Green said after the two underclassmen combined to make eight tackles and contribute to many more simply by holding their ground. "It was beyond expectations."
Ring started, and immediately impacted the Black Knights' intentions for fullback Larry Dixon. In 2011, Dixon averaged 6.5 yards a carry against the Mids. Before facing them again, he'd produced four 100-yard performances this year, including three scores vs. Northern Illinois.
But on the sixth and seventh snaps of Army's opening drive, Dixon was held to two yards total by Ring. The series ended with the eighth play, a fourth-down stop of quarterback Trent Steelman. On the next possession for the Cadets, Ring halted Dixon a yard short of converting on third down. Army then punted.
"For a nose guard going against (Army's option) offense for the first time, Danny did an outstanding job in the middle," Green summarized.
But Ring injured his ankle early in the third quarter. The Cadets had just recovered a fumble and, given a short field, were closing in on the end zone in a 10-10 tie. That's when Sarra stepped in.
On 2nd-and-2 from the Navy 3-yard line, Steelman sneaked and was stopped at the 2. The following down, Raymond Maples ran wide and was thrown for a loss of two yards. Army resorted to a field goal for a narrow lead that didn't hold up. Sarra got no credit for either tackle in the box score, but Green had plenty of praise for "holding the point."
Later, in the final two minutes, Dabney checked in for the first time, as the Black Knights drove toward another potential go-ahead score. Two months earlier at Air Force, he made six tackles. Opposite Army, he helped clinch the win.
"We just thought Barry was fresh," Green explained of the substitution of Dabney before the 11th play of Army's final series, resulting in a fumble at the Mids' 13. "He got good push on the call we made and was exactly where we needed him to be."
With his arms around the football, clutching victory.
`THE OTHER GUY'
Entering the season opener against Notre Dame, Navy's offensive coordinator, Ivin Jasper confronted a problem similar to the one facing his defensive colleague, Green. There were sizable gaps to fill along the Mids' front line. Starters Ryan Basford, Brady DeMell and John Dowd all were gone to graduation.
The situation was equally fluid elsewhere. In the backfield, quarterback Trey Miller and fullback Noah Copeland were transitioning in place of 2011 full-timers Kriss Proctor and Alexander Teich, respectively. On the edges, receivers Brandon Turner (suspension) and Matt Aiken (injury) were also inactive at the time.
The only offensive exception, where starting experience held a firm grip on a position group, was at slotback. Seniors Gee Gee Greene and John Howell were both back as reliable playmakers. As juniors, they totaled a dozen touchdowns.
But in the season's fourth game, Howell suffered an injury requiring reconstructive surgery on his right knee. Greene's usual counterweight, as a dual threat from the Navy wing, was no longer available.
"When John Howell went down, the experience part is what we missed most," Jasper said. "That experience and trust we didn't have anymore."
A third senior, offensive captain Bo Snelson, continued occupying an admirable role, primarily as a blocker and occasionally as a ballcarrier (42 rushing attempts and 5 receptions in 12 games). Younger slot -- or "A" -- backs flashed their potential, particularly in a 56-28 rout of East Carolina on Oct. 27.
Junior Marcus Thomas, thanks to 17-yard carry, and sophomores Geoffrey Whiteside, off a 20-yard pass, and Ryan Williams-Jenkins, on a 33-yard run, each scored against the Pirates. A fourth, junior Darius Staten, also made marks, by running 17 yards for a TD vs. Indiana and rushing seven times for 68 yards vs. Texas State.
But in Army-Navy, only Whiteside -- other than Greene or Snelson -- handled the ball as a slot back. Though Staten was the intended receiver on an early incompletion, Whiteside was the recipient of the contest's most important completion.
The Mids were trailing, 13-10, and in a 3rd-and-8 hole from their own 22-yard line. The series started with less than seven minutes left, and with quarterback Keenan Reynolds apart from center in the so-called `pistol' formation for the first time.
Jasper went into the game anticipating a Navy need for Reyonolds to exploit the Black Knights' blitz-heavy defense with his arm, the same way Ricky Dobbs did in 2009 and 2010. In the latter, Dobbs passed for two TD's, including a 32-yard frozen rope to Turner.
But as time went by in this latest affair, Turner had yet to play a prominent part -- at least as a pass catcher. He would soon get that opportunity. But only because of the play that prolonged this game-winning drive.
Off the direct snap, Reynolds first retreated, then moved up in the pocket; one step, and another. He then delivered the ball across the middle to Whiteside, 10 yards downfield.
It was the lone third down of a 7-play, 80-yard series. The Mids converted, with six feet to spare. Like Howell and Greene, Whiteside proved himself as someone to turn to.
"Geoffrey Whiteside stepped up and became the other guy," Jasper says.
Three plays later, with Army still employing `press' coverage, Jasper called Turner's number and Reynolds dialed up a 49-yard completion to the Army 8. Reynolds ran the rest of the way for the decisive score.
When Navy encounters Arizona State later this month, the likes of Greene and Turner will suit up with their teammates for the final time. For someone like Whiteside, the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl should be one of many games to come in his collegiate career.
"The best thing about it," Jasper says, "he'll be back next year."
The same holds true for others, from Reynolds to Ring and Sarra. That's something we can all look forward to.