Game Week: ECU
Navy's 2019 season contained a few surprises, but to me, the biggest surprise might have been the ECU game.
The Mids cruised to a season-opening win over Holy Cross, but nobody expected otherwise. The real test would come when the team faced their first conference opponent, and that opponent was ECU. Navy had dominated the Pirates since 2010, going 4-1 and averaging 552 yards of offense per game in those wins. Last year's encounter was no different. The Mids won, 42-10, with 315 rushing yards and another 153 through the air.
The surprise was that things were supposed to be different. Even if ECU didn't win, the days of struggling against the option were thought to be over after Mike Houston became their head coach. Houston was considered a steal of a hire after leading JMU to the 2016 FCS national championship and an appearance in the 2017 championship game. Indeed, ECU started flashing their potential toward the end of the season, coming up just short in high-scoring nail-biters against ranked Cincinnati and SMU teams. Of particular relevance to the Navy game, though, was that Houston had successful stints as the head coach of The Citadel and Lenoir-Rhyne. At both schools, he ran the triple option. A defensive coach by trade, the expectation was that he'd be able to apply that experience to defending Navy. It wasn’t enough.
This year, we’re looking at the second verse of the same song. Bob Trott, ECU’s veteran defensive coordinator, was not retained after last season. His replacement is Blake Harrell, who had been an assistant under Houston in the past. Prior to arriving in Greenville, Harrell was Brian Newberry’s successor at Kennesaw State. Before that, he was the defensive coordinator at The Citadel. Both of those schools run option offenses. The story heading into Saturday, then, is familiar. Can a new coach with option experience change ECU’s fortunes against the Navy offense?
I don’t think it’s a given that defensive coordinators from option teams are better at stopping them. The service academies are, but they also face at least two other option teams every year. Defending the option is a priority. That’s not the case at other option schools. However, there are a few data points that suggest that Harrell is better than most at the task. While he didn’t face an offense like Navy’s at either of his last two stops, his defenses did well against the closest things to it. In Harrell’s last season at The Citadel, the Bulldogs opened the season against #10 Wofford and nearly pulled off the upset before a late touchdown clinched a 28-21 win for the Terriers. Furman, coached by former Air Force assistant Clay Hendrix, was limited to 165 rushing yards against The Citadel. Last year, Wofford had the #3 rushing offense in FCS with a 305.8 ypg average. They were #2 before facing Harrell’s Kennesaw State defense, which held the Terriers to 111 yards in their playoff matchup.
Watching that last game may offer some clues as to how ECU will line up against Navy. Wofford doesn’t run Navy’s offense, but they use a few formations that are roughly analogous to things we see from the Mids.
On the first few drives of the game, the Owls used an even front with one of the safeties playing at linebacker depth. Against Navy, that would probably translate to a 4-4 with the deep safety following the pitch man.
Later in the game, Harrell had his defense do pre-snap shifts from an even front to an odd front.
As the game progressed, Kennesaw State mixed in both fronts, both with and without pre-snap shifts.
There is no guarantee that we’ll see the same thing from ECU. It wouldn’t be the worst idea, though. Navy quarterback Dalen Morris has earned praise from his coaches this season for reading defenses and getting the offense in the right play. However, each of his starts— BYU, Tulane, and Temple— came against teams that lined up exclusively in odd fronts. Neither he nor the offensive line has seen an even front yet. Navy practices against all kinds of alignments every week, so it shouldn’t make a difference, at least in theory. Still, it would make sense to force Navy to prove they can execute against a look they haven’t seen yet.
The problem for ECU is that their own ability to carry out any plan that Harrell cooks up is a very big question mark. There’s plenty of talent in the ECU defense (particularly in the secondary) but not much experience. Most teams start working on their Navy plan during spring practice, but ECU didn’t have one. The Pirates also lost 12 days of practice at the end of August when positive coronavirus tests forced the football team to suspend activities. The loss of practice time would be a problem for any team, but it’s particularly troublesome for an ECU defense that is expected to start six sophomores and a freshman on Saturday. The youth is especially pronounced on the defensive line, with a two-deep that includes three freshmen and three sophomores. If they are unable to get into the backfield to disrupt plays, it’ll be tough to stop Navy through scheme alone.
Of course, Navy has a similar problem. Temple rolled up 166 rushing yards against the Mids last week, averaging five yards per carry. The Navy defense was also depleted, with four starters missing the game due to injury and a fifth missing the first half because of a targeting penalty. It’s unclear if any of those starters will be back this week. That’s unfortunate, because ECU is coming off of their best performance of the season, driven primarily by their running game.
ECU’s offense ended 2019 on a roll, averaging almost 500 yards per game over the second half of the season. The primary catalyst for the increase in production was the emergence of Holton Ahlers at quarterback. After early-season struggles, Ahlers rallied to finish with 3,387 passing yards and 21 touchdowns. He also was second on the team with 359 rushing yards. Entering his junior season, it made sense to make him the focal point of the offense.
The Pirates opened the 2020 season with a 51-28 loss to UCF, which isn’t much of a surprise. Losing to Georgia State, however, was a wake-up call. Ahlers threw 52 passes in that game, but amassed only 236 yards to go along with three interceptions. Behind a patchwork offensive line, he was sacked four times. ECU needed to rethink their approach, and they did it by running the ball. Against USF, the Pirates ran for 210 yards, with 115 coming from freshman Rahjai Harris. The running game took pressure off of Ahlers, who threw for almost as many yards as the Georgia State game but with half the number of passes. ECU took a 24-7 lead and cruised the rest of the way.
I would expect to see the same approach this week, especially if Navy’s defense is still short-handed. If ECU is indeed dedicated to running the ball, that could make this a short game. ECU likes to control the clock as much as Navy does; against USF, they had the ball for more than 11 minutes longer than the Bulls. That will put pressure on both teams to make the most of each possession. It will also amplify every mistake. It might make sense for Navy to pick up the tempo a little bit to squeeze in another drive or two.
Of course, this being 2020, where nothing is normal, there may be other factors in the game. ECU had positive COVID tests early in the week, and it is uncertain how or if this will affect the team. The tests administered on Wednesday all came back negative, but it was unclear if those tests included the players who had already tested positive. There have been rumors that Ahlers was among the initial group of players affected either by a positive test or contact tracing, but Houston cautioned against buying into those rumors, saying, “you know how rumors go, so you better be careful.” Still, we likely won’t know the status of ECU’s roster until kickoff.
Just add it to the list of weirdness.