The Navy Midshipmen arrive at the biggest AAC game of their season. It is not the biggest game of the whole year – the two Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy games meet that designation – but it is the big AAC test the Mids have to find a way to pass.
By Matt Zemek
It won’t be easy, but the pathway is known to everyone: If Navy wins this game and the Houston game, and Cincinnati beats Memphis on Nov. 29, Navy will play Cincinnati for the AAC championship on December 7. Navy will put heat on Memphis if it can beat SMU. Now comes the hard part: actually doing it. Let’s see what the Mids have to do on Saturday in Annapolis:
1 – Not just ball control, but more
It won’t be enough to merely control the ball and keep it away from Shane Buechele and the rest of the potent SMU offense. Navy has been in enough games over the years against teams such as Houston (under Tom Herman) and Memphis to know that it has to hang sevens, not threes, on the board. It has to score in the 40s. The Tulane game earlier this year was like this. Navy will certainly encounter some fourth downs it must convert in this game. The two fourth-down conversions Navy made from its own half of the field enabled the Mids to win that Tulane game. Navy’s offense will have to walk through the fire in this game. Letter-perfect execution on fourth and one or fourth and two, multiple times, will guide Navy to touchdowns, not just ball control. Three-point ball-control drives won’t be enough unless Navy trails by one or two points in the final minutes of regulation.
2 – Tackling in space
SMU’s receivers are fast, skilled and physical. Containing the SMU offense requires an ability to make the first tackle after a catch. The 10-yard curl or the eight-yard slant have to remain 10- or eight-yard gains. They can’t become 20-yard or 35-yard gains. Navy has to make the task harder for the SMU offense. It doesn’t mean Navy will shut down the Mustangs or prevent them from moving the ball. The process simply can’t be painfully easy. It needs to be painful. Navy needs to send those messages throughout the game, and sure tackling in open space is at the top of the Mids’ priority list if they want to achieve that goal.
3 – Get the jump on offense
If you recall the home-field win over Houston in 2016, the home-field win over Memphis in 2016, or the win over Tulane earlier this year, those were all shootouts (70 total points or more) in which the winner scored at least 41 points… and the winning team was Navy. In all three of those games, which were the high-scoring free-for-alls this game is also likely to become, Navy scored at least 10 points in the first quarter. Navy averaged 15 points in the first quarters of those three games. Getting the jump on offense is regularly a part of a winning Navy performance against an elite offensive opponent. I doubt Navy will win this game if it manages only three points (or gets shut out) in the first quarter on Saturday against the Ponies.