Navy hits the road this week for the first of two straight games in the Sunshine State, taking on the USF Bulls in Tampa on Friday night. The Mids, as the last team undefeated in American Athletic Conference play, sit atop the West division after last week’s win over Memphis. USF was the preseason favorite in the East division, but they need some help to reach the conference championship game after falling to Temple last week.
This matchup might have lost a little bit of its luster after the Bulls’ loss, but don’t let that result fool you. This is still a prime-time game on national television against a very good team that scores on everyone.
Here are my three keys to the game:
In last year’s game, Navy gave up a touchdown on the opening kickoff. Last week, Memphis scored on a long pass play on their opening possession, then scored on another kickoff return. Houston also jumped out to an early lead against Navy. It’s never easy to make a long road trip on a short week, but the Mids can’t allow fatigue to result in these kinds of early breakdowns. USF’s offense is simply too good for Navy to be playing catch-up all night.
In each of those games, the Mids had a key advantage: they knew what was coming. Navy’s coaches knew how these teams would line up on defense. The Memphis coaching staff used the same defense that they employed against Navy in 2012 when they were at Arizona State. Houston recycled the same gameplan that held the Mids to 147 rushing yards last year. USF’s defensive coordinator was on the Ole Miss staff when they defeated Georgia Tech in the 2013 Music City Bowl, and used the same defense against Navy.
Knowing what’s coming makes it easier to respond to early setbacks, since you already have a plan in place. This year, though, nobody knows what USF’s plan is. Coach Niumatalolo mentioned on Tuesday that he’s been watching some Duke film since he recognized some of what the Blue Devils do in the USF defense, but that’s just a guess. Chances are that Navy is going to have to adjust on the fly. If it takes a drive or two to figure out how to attack the USF defense, the Mids could find themselves playing from behind for most of the game.
Make tackles in space
The USF offense is all about forcing a defense to defend the entire field. The zone read forces the front seven to maintain gap discipline, which keeps them from pursuing outside on bubble screens and other short passes. With the defense stretched thin, it forces a lot of one-on-one tackling situations, and the stats from last year’s game reflects that. 17 Mids were credited with a tackle against USF. Nobody had more than 4, and almost all of them were solo tackles. It was simply a case of each guy doing his job and making the stop when the ball came his way.
A missed tackle against USF can turn into six points in a hurry.
Hold onto the ball (again)
Statistically, USF’s defense doesn’t look too intimidating. They are last in the conference in rushing defense, total defense, and red zone defense. One would think that the league’s top rushing offense would have a field day against this group. There is one area, however, where the Bulls do fairly well: takeaways. USF is 44th nationally in that category after having forced 13 turnovers through eight games. On paper, the Navy offense should be able to move the ball well enough, but all those yards won’t mean anything if drives end in turnovers.