Here we are, another Army-Navy Game which will have to serve as Navy’s unofficial bowl game for the year.
Navy has fallen on hard times the past three seasons, stumbling out of the gate in September and failing to find the elite-level offense it captured under previous quarterbacks Keenan Reynolds and Malcolm Perry. When Ken Niumatalolo finds a brilliant and crafty signal-caller and marries that leader with a strong offensive line, the triple-option offense is next to impossible to contain, but Navy has lacked that formula for each of the last three seasons. Bowl games used to be a regular way of life for Navy, but now they aren’t.
Beating Army, though, always makes an Annapolis football season memorable and significant, so that’s what the Midshipmen must do. It’s time to sing second in Philadelphia and win back-to-back games versus the Black Knights. Here’s what Navy must focus on:
1 – Defense carrying the day
When Navy had the flying, high-end offensive machine with a next-level quarterback, it was easier to trust that in a big moment, the Midshipmen could turn to their leaders on offense and get the clutch drive and the big fourth-down play to make the difference against Army. In 2022, the defense has to lead the way. Navy’s defense has played well over the past month. It beat UCF on the road in Orlando in a tremendous performance. It limited Cincinnati to just 20 points. It wobbled in the first half against Notre Dame but then became a brick wall in the second half versus the Irish. Navy’s defense is playing well enough to win games. Notably, the Midshipmen are allowing an average of under 90 rushing yards per game. That’s a winning statistic. If Navy allows under 150 rushing yards to Army, it will be very hard for the Midshipmen to lose this game.
2 – Wrinkles
Navy enters this game having had three weeks to prepare. Its last game was on November 19. Niumatalolo and his staff know that the top key to this game, as noted above, is for the defense to play up to its capabilities. More generally, Navy needs to be tougher in the trenches and win at the line of scrimmage. Everyone can easily grasp that point. If there’s a non-trench game key which exceeds all others, it’s the larger idea that Navy needs to find the right line of attack against Army’s defense, which has been solid this year, allowing under 25 points per game. Similar to Navy, that’s good enough to win. Army’s offense simply hasn’t been where it could or should be, which is another point of commonality with Navy.
Anyone who has watched Navy football in 2022 knows that fourth downs and short-yardage situations have not been the automatic conversions they used to be under better offenses with superior offensive lines. This year, 4th and 1 or 4th and 2 have not been especially friendly to the Midshipmen. Usually, the Mids have tried to power the ball between the tackles against a stacked box and have gotten stuffed. The offensive line hasn’t been good enough. Niumatalolo certainly needs to expect better from his line, but he also has to know his line just isn’t what he hoped it would be, so he can’t simply insist on powering the ball up the gut. He needs to have plays with better chances of working, whether it’s a handoff to a wide receiver coming in motion across the formation, or a quarterback bootleg with a rollout pass to a fullback. The rocket toss is a well-known outside play, but defenses have come to expect that. Standard plays and familiar alternatives might not be good enough. We need to see fresh thinking for those third- and fourth-down short-yardage situations which aren’t automatic the way they used to be for Navy football.
3 – The tipping-point play
Usually, Army-Navy Games are decided by high-leverage plays. Sometimes they are mistakes, sometimes they are great plays. They often come in the red zone, but not always. Sometimes, it’s a failure to pounce on a potential turnover or turn that turnover into seven points. Sometimes, it’s a penalty in field goal range. Saying that turnovers are the key to this game is a little too easy and obvious. The better and fuller point of focus here is on those high-leverage moments when a play is waiting to be made on offense or defense or special teams. Navy, having been off for a few weeks, needs to be sure to not be rusty or caught off guard by a trick play or a misdirection concept from the Army side. Instincts need to be sharp after the multi-week layoff. Maintaining focus to the extent that Navy avoids the key lapse – and can swoop in if Army blinks – is a central point of priority for this American sports classic.