Navy has taken a step backward the last couple years, and in an odd reflection of its decades of struggles against Notre Dame, a steady schedule may be a piece of the problem.
The Midshipmen won 20 games their first two years in the American Athletic Conference, going 14-3 in conference competition and reaching the conference title game. Those 11- and 9-win totals then fell to 7 and 3 the last two seasons, including a 6-10 mark in the conference.
The Irish learned to incorporate triple-option planning into their offseason calendar decades ago. While Navy remained independent, few other schools did such, at least not as effectively. Recent results seem to indicate the AAC may have taken a page out of Notre Dame’s book.
Then again, it is just as possible the Midshipmen simply had less talent on their roster, made some coaching mistakes and outright struggled.
For the first few weeks of last September, it seemed Navy’s 2017 may have been an anomaly, and a bowl-reaching anomaly, at that. The Midshipmen lost as double-digit favorites at Hawai’i, but stranger things have happened then losing a shootout in the middle of the Pacific. They then won as touchdown-underdogs against Memphis and cruised past FCS-level Lehigh.
A seven-game losing streak followed, only twice coming within a possession of victory. The 1-9 finish mirrored the 1-6 toe-stubbing to conclude 2017’s regular season.
WHAT NAVY LOST
There is always high turnover on a service academy’s list of contributors; it is only natural to the long process of development required to produce FBS-quality players. Included on the lengthy list this year are three 13-game starters along the offensive line, most notably third-team All-AAC right tackle Andrew Wood.
Navy is now also without defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson for the first time since 1996, one of five defensive assistants replaced. Pehrson retired after the Midshipmen gave up 33.5 points per game, their most since 2007. (Something not often discussed about that triple-overtime victory against Notre Dame: That was not a particularly good Naval team, at least when compared to many that followed.)
WHAT NAVY GAINED
That long process of development stems from signing recruits with their eyes on a career in the military more than in professional football. The Midshipmen signing classes will never wow the football analyst More apt than those names was a conversation that could affect them in the future.
A possibility of a change — actually, a reversal — to the waiver rules regarding NFL careers is back under consideration. If it passes, players with professional potential could possibly pursue those avenues before, or maybe concurrent with, fulfilling their service obligations. The removal of this waiver is at least part of what led Irish senior safety Alohi Gilman to transfer from Navy following his freshman season in 2016.
The Midshipmen also reached down to Kennesaw State for a new defensive coordinator, Brian Newberry. His defensive scheme is most often described as a 4-2-5, but the reality is he likes to have a scheme that fits somewhere between a usual 3-4 and 4-3 to change up the look frequently.
Ken Niumatalolo reaches his 12th season in Annapolis with a new challenge in front of him. After vaguely considering job openings at BYU and Arizona the last few years, he now must rebound from his worst season.
Niumatalolo had earned the goodwill to ponder those possibilities, and it carries over to the 3-10 showing. There is no pressure on him aside from what he undoubtedly puts on himself. What may skew that sooner than another losing season would be a fourth-straight loss to top-25 hopeful Army. (The Knights finished No. 27 in the preseason AP top 25, if counting Others Receiving Votes.) Losing five of the last six against the other two academies is bad enough, but Army is the season-ending showcase with the entire country’s attention on it.
Navy hit a few recent lows last year, scoring only 25.0 points per game (fewest since 2012) and rushing for only 4.92 yards per carry (fewest since 2009). Some, if not most, of that traced to rotating through three quarterbacks.
Only one will line up behind center this season, as much because of his potential as because of the lack of depth behind him. (The other two, Garret Lewis and Zach Abey, graduated.) Senior Malcolm Perry (pictured at top) started the first five games last year, but inconsistent offensive success forced him back to the slot role, where he added to his career rushing total, nonetheless, now at 2,342 yards.
Lewis and Abey allowed the Midshipmen to tinker with multiple offensive looks, getting away from their triple-option mentality and reputation. The triple-option is best utilized when truly a specialty, and that was arguably no longer the case.
Niumatalolo has made it clear that will not be the problem with Perry behind center, especially because the triple-option best features Perry’s best skill, speed. If he can get outside with any numbers advantage, defenses will be in trouble.
Proving that may be difficult, with eight new starters, including four offensive linemen — one full-time starter returns up front, as do two who combined for six starts at left tackle — but the theory is sound.
Newberry’s success will depend largely on improving the same area of the defense that every defensive coordinator worries about, the defensive line. In Navy’s case, there is plenty of room for improvement, as the 2018 defense finished last in the country in both sacks (10) and tackles for loss (37). That cannot be explained away by the demands of a service academy, not when the Midshipmen had 22 and 20 sacks in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Fixing that will start with senior nose tackle Jackson Pittman (35 tackles with three for loss) and senior defensive end/outside linebacker Nizaire Cromartie (58 tackles with 5.5 for loss including 3.5 sacks). In Newberry’s mixed scheme, Cromartie could become a hybrid centerpiece.
Expecting a return to 2015-2016 levels would be foolish. Current sheets give Navy a 50/50 chance at making a bowl game, but doing so would be a sizable step forward for Niumatalolo’s concerns. The conference draw gives the Midshipmen a decent chance, facing the three bottom-finishers in the AAC East, South Florida, East Carolina and at Connecticut, rather than the top-three encountered last season. Getting Air Force in Annapolis is another piece of favorable scheduling.
Making a bowl game could come down to the Dec. 14 matchup with Army, at which point a currently-unproven Navy roster will at least have had a season to adjust to Perry’s rushing and Newberry’s defense.
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