Game Week: SMU
Dalen Morris’ arm is his biggest strength. The senior quarterback threw for 206 yards against Houston last week while the Navy offense only ran for 166. The Mids have 12 runs of 20 yards or more in 298 attempts this year. They have almost as many 20-yard pass plays (10) in only 63 attempts. Given all of this, one might wonder if it makes sense for Navy to feature the passing game more prominently going forward.
Ken Niumatalolo was asked that very question in the postgame press conference following the Houston game, and he didn’t seem very receptive to the idea.
“We’ve got to get better,” he said. “We’ll go back and look at the film. We’ve definitely got to get better at running the option. That’s who we are.”
It was a reasonable question to ask, and I’ll admit that I’ve considered it myself once or twice this season. However— and this is shocking, I know— the winningest head coach in Navy football history is almost certainly correct. There are a couple of reasons why Navy shouldn’t get too dependent on throwing the ball.
Navy’s passing game is effective in large part because they run the option. Defensive backs struggle with eye discipline because they’ve focused on stopping the run. Many of the routes that Navy receivers use mimic the blocking patterns they use in the option; a DB will brace himself for a block only to be caught flat-footed when the receiver runs past him. One of the biggest problems that the Mids faced in 2018 was that defensive backs no longer respected the threat of the option. When the quarterback dropped back to pass, everyone was covered. If Navy doesn’t improve in the option game soon, the same thing will happen this year.
The other reason why Navy needs to concentrate on running the option better is because of teams like SMU.
Under Sonny Dykes, the Mustangs have carved out an identity as one of the country's most prolific offenses. They were seventh nationally in both total offense (489.8 ypg) and scoring offense (41.8 ppg) last year while being equally adept at both the run and the pass. Both of those numbers were school records. They won ten games for the first time since 1984 and spent eight weeks in the AP Top 25 poll, climbing as high as 15.
Against Navy, though, Dykes’ squad hit a snag. The Mustangs fell to the Mids, 35-28, in a pivotal, late-season AAC contest. Relatively speaking, SMU’s offense was held in check, gaining only 251 passing yards along with a little more than half of their season average on the ground (93 yards). The 344 total yards and 28 points were both season lows.
So how did Navy do it? They made plays on defense, of course, but that wasn’t all. The biggest factor in slowing down SMU was Navy’s offense playing keep-away. Navy ran 88 plays to SMU’s 56 and held the ball for nearly 20 more minutes. The Mids had four drives of ten plays or more. SMU had four drives that lasted less than a minute.
That’s the secret to SMU’s success. Their offensive numbers are impressive, but they’re also somewhat misleading. The Mustangs are all about volume; for them, quantity is the quality. When you look at stats that measure efficiency— things like yards per play and third-down conversions— SMU is good, but not great. But efficiency isn’t their goal; Dykes is all about generating as many opportunities as possible. His team plays at an extremely aggressive pace; they were second in the country last year at almost 80 plays per game.
Even the defense is designed to support this concept. Under defensive coordinator Kevin Kane, the Mustangs have one of the most high-pressure units in the country. They are the very definition of high-risk, high-reward. They set school records last year for sacks and tackles for loss. Their 3.92 sacks per game were first in FBS, while their 8.5 TFLs were third. The aggression has a price, though; SMU was dead last in giving up plays of 20 yards or more (83). But to them, that’s just the cost of doing business. SMU’s defense is less about stopping the other team than it is about getting the ball back into their offense’s hands as quickly as possible. They don’t see anything wrong with a shootout because they wind up on the winning side more often than not. Eventually, when given enough chances, SMU will get their yards and points. The defense’s job is to give their offense as many of those chances as possible.
Last year, the way that defensive approach translated to the Navy game was by being extremely aggressive on the backside of the play:
This year, it’s more of the same. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee left to take the same job at Miami, but under his replacement, Garrett Riley, SMU hasn’t missed a beat. The Mustangs have put up 500+ yards of offense in four of their six games this season, including a ridiculous 710 yards against North Texas. Once again, they’re averaging almost 80 plays per game. Shane Buechele is as good a quarterback as Navy will see this season. Four starters on the offensive line from 2019 have returned. While the losses of wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. and running back TJ McDaniel have hurt, others have taken up the slack. Rashee Rice and Danny Gray have four 100-yard receiving games between them while running back Ulysses Bentley IV is a freshman All-American candidate with 546 rushing yards and eight TDs. SMU’s defense already has 15 sacks and 43 TFLs so far, and their 12 turnovers forced are seventh in the country.
This is why Navy needs to run the ball, and the option, rather than relying on big plays in the passing game this week.
For the Mids, the key to beating SMU is to ensure that their offense doesn’t get the number of chances that they usually expect. As an option team, Navy is far better suited to this task than anyone else, at least in a normal year. If the Mids can limit the number of possessions in this game, efficiency becomes more critical to success than volume. Unfortunately, the Mids have not run the option with their usual effectiveness so far this season. They’ll need to show substantial improvement if they want to win tomorrow, controlling the clock while turning drives into points.
This is a turning point game for both teams, acting more or less as an elimination game in the conference. At 4-1, Navy would still be very much in the running for a spot in the conference championship game. However, suffering a second loss while being on the wrong end of a tiebreaker to both Houston and SMU would likely be too much to overcome. The same can be said for SMU, who is looking to rebound after suffering their first conference setback to Cincinnati last week.
Even as the Mids have struggled offensively, they’re still in the thick of the conference race. However, they no longer have any margin for error. If they want to achieve their goals for the season, they must play their best game yet.