Navy is coming off of a tough loss to Air Force, but there’s no time to dwell on that with Houston coming to town on Saturday. The Cougars are the highest-ranked team to visit Annapolis in 30 years, and are legitimate playoff contenders. An upset would put the Mids in the drivers’ seat of the American’s West division and get the bad taste of the previous week’s poor performance out of their mouths. What has to happen to make that possible? Let’s look at three keys to the game:
Can Navy control the tempo?
Houston has a high-scoring, mile-a-minute offense. When facing a team like that, Navy usually likes to slow things down when they have the ball. If you can reduce the number of possessions in the game, then you can keep it from getting away from you and give yourself a chance to win it in the fourth quarter. The problem is that Houston’s defense likely won’t allow for that. Last year, defensive coordinator Todd Orlando had both of his safeties committed to playing the pitch, completely selling out to stop the option. It left them vulnerable to the pass, and the Mids did throw for 312 yards. However, nobody is going to pick Navy to win a passing shootout. Can Navy find a way to run the ball against Houston's defense so they can control the clock?
Don’t let Greg Ward beat you with his legs
Last year, the Mids were able to generate a fairly decent pass rush against Houston, only to have quarterback Greg Ward Jr. escape the pressure and create big plays. Navy’s defense is going to have to get off the field once in a while in order to have a chance in this game. Containing Houston’s offense is hard enough without giving up easy first downs after you did everything else right.
There are difficult choices to be made when it comes to defending Ward. What helps the secondary more? Dropping 7-8 into coverage, or bringing pressure to try to force errant throws? My guess is that we’ll see the former, especially since Houston’s offense tends to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands fairly quickly anyway.
Stopping the run
The stat sheet doesn’t really show it, but Navy’s front seven has done a respectable job against the run this season. The Mids are 74th nationally in that category, giving up 166 yards per game, but that doesn’t really reflect how well they've played. UConn, Tulane, and Air Force are all run-first teams. To hold that group to a 3.91 yards per carry average is pretty good. The Mids will need to keep that up if they want have any chance of beating Houston.
A lot has been made of how well the Cougars throw the ball, since they average over 300 passing yards per game. However, they also average 201 yards per game on the ground. If Navy can keep Houston from getting those easy yards, then making the Cougars throw more than they’re used to might force them into a couple of mistakes.