This is not how the 2021 season was supposed to begin for Navy. Everyone knew that the 2020 Midshipmen were thrown off course by the pandemic. Coach Ken Niumatalolo – like a lot of Americans – wasn’t sure exactly how to handle the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
In July and early August of 2020, it wasn’t a certainty that practicing outdoors and playing live football games were safe from COVID-19. It seemed safe, but there were no guarantees at the time. A live football game had not been played since the pandemic began. Everyone was unsure to some degree of how safe various activities were. Niumatalolo, in an abundance of caution, refrained from full-contact practices in the summer of 2020. Navy got hammered 55-3 by BYU in its season opener. The Midshipmen struggled to physically handle their opponents in the trenches for the vast majority of the 2020 season. It just didn’t work out.
It was not fun, but it was understandable. The fact that Navy had to rebuild after losing the key players from its terrific 2019 team made the pandemic derailment even easier to explain. The Midshipmen were going to dust themselves off, have a much more normal offseason, return to a familiar and traditional methodology in practices, and get back to playing the kind of football they expected. The 2021 offseason was a million times smoother than 2020. Navy figured to be a lot more competitive.
Instead, it felt like 2020 all over again in the season opener at home.
Just like last year, Navy wasn’t merely beaten in its first game; it was crushed. Navy’s 52-point loss in 2020 was followed by a 42-point loss to Marshall to start the 2021 campaign. It was a brutal performance no one inside the Navy program was expecting. Navy now has to immediately get off the deck and prepare for a Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy game against an Air Force team which handled Lafayette last week. Navy’s keys to victory are obvious, but the fact that they are obvious might not make them any more attainable. Can Navy actually play well enough to make these keys realistic?
1 – Line play
There is simply no mystery here. Navy’s line play simply wasn’t strong enough at any point last season to inspire confidence against quality opposition. While the offense did generate 337 rushing yards against Marshall, Navy was just 8 of 21 on third downs and could not control the ball long enough to piece together successful drives. Navy got a lot of possessions, but yards were spread across those possessions instead of being concentrated into several scoring drives. Navy would run the ball, get a few first downs, and then run into a bad series of downs which would often include an incomplete pass, and fail to score.
Navy’s defensive line was the bigger problem than the offensive line against Marshall. The Thundering Herd possessed the ball for fewer than 19 minutes, and yet they rolled up 49 points while committing three turnovers. In other words, when Marshall didn’t commit a turnover, it scored. That’s a very limp performance from a Navy defense which competed well last season and improved as the year went on. This team has to do more at the line of scrimmage in order to compete.
2 – Big-play passing
Navy played several quarterbacks in this game. None of them were efficient or explosive in the passing game. Completing just 5 of 16 passes for 61 yards won’t cut it. Navy doesn’t have to be relentlessly efficient in the passing game if it hits big plays. The inability to hit the big downfield pass when the defense is expecting a run is a big blow for Navy. The Mids depend on that pass play to score and also reduce the burden on the offense. Obviously, falling behind 14-0 fairly quickly hurt Navy against Marshall, but this offense has to find a way to hit the quick strike against Air Force. It probably won’t win without at least one – probably two – huge pass plays.
3 – Third down
Navy was destroyed on third down: 8 of 21 on offense, while Marshall converted 5 of 8 against Navy’s defense. That was a central reason for this blowout. Navy’s passing offense and third-down defense, if they can both improve by several orders of magnitude, could give the Mids a chance against Air Force. Again, though, the performance against Marshall was so deficient that it will be hard to expect enough improvement to achieve victory in this game. The leap needs to be dramatic, not slight if the Midshipmen expect to win on Saturday.