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Navy 66, ECU 31: The Triple

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Navy got off to a rocky start, but scored 38 unanswered points to put away East Carolina, 66-31. The win clinched the American Athletic Conference West Division for the Midshipmen, who will advance to the conference championship game in only their second year in the league. Navy is now 25-5 over their last 30 games, and 13-2 in American Athletic Conference play since joining the league.

ECU’s Zay Jones broke the all-time FBS record for career receptions in this game, and finished with 12 catches for 212 yards and two touchdowns. It would take a lot to overshadow that kind of an offensive performance, but somehow Navy managed to do so. The Mids rolled up 593 yards of total offense, with 480 of that coming on the ground. Will Worth led the way with 159 rushing yards, while Shawn White added 150 more on only 11 carries. In all, five different Mids had carries of over ten yards.

Here are a few thoughts on the game:

Defense wins (division) championships

While this was an evening full of offensive fireworks, it was an adjustment by defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson that made the difference in the contest. Navy trailed 17-7 early in the second quarter after ECU opened the game with three straight scoring drives. The Pirates were able to pick Navy apart with easy short- and medium-range passes to open receivers that found soft spots in the Mids’ zone scheme. When the safeties tried to jump those underneath routes, ECU quarterback Gardner Minshew connected with a 40-yard strike to Jones.

Coach Pehrson clearly had to make a change, but what would it be?

The answer was the latter. Pehrson chose to rush three and drop eight into coverage, putting six defenders underneath in a cover 2 zone. The switch immediately gave ECU trouble. Minshew wasn’t the most accurate passer coming into the game, completing only 57.3% of his passes. He had difficulty threading the needle between the extra defenders. It was reminiscent of last year’s Memphis game when Pehrson used a similar scheme against Paxton Lynch.

The effect was immediate. ECU went three and out on their next three drives. After taking a 17-7 lead, the Pirates were outscored 59-14 the rest of the way. ECU had 108 passing yards in the first quarter. They had only 125 more in the next three.

More of the same

It’s strange to see trends in how teams choose to defend Navy each season. A few years ago, everyone tried to line up like Western Kentucky after the Mids had a bad showing in their 2013 meeting. This year, teams are lining up like Houston. Tulsa did last week, and ECU did the same; five defensive linemen and three safeties, with two following tail motion to play the pitch. By now, the Mids have become pretty good at handling that scheme.

There is a reason for this. You often hear teams talk about how they’ve been “working on Navy since fall camp” or how they “spend a period on Navy every day in practice.” They do this to counteract the old problem of the Navy offense being difficult to prepare for in only a week. The other side of that, though, is that if you’ve been working on Navy since the beginning of the season, then you’ve had your Navy game plan in place for just as long. In other words, these teams have been preparing for last year’s Navy team. They saw Navy have a tough time running against Houston last year and decided that they’d use that as a blueprint for their own plans, not realizing that Navy has been shredding that scheme all season. Or maybe they did realize it, but too late to be able to change anything; it’s difficult to scrap a plan that you’ve had installed for months.

Either way, it isn’t working.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Next man up

Some Navy fans were rankled when Houston head coach Tom Herman went on the Dan Patrick Show after his team’s big win over fifth-ranked Louisville on Thursday. After such a dominating performance, Patrick asked about the rest of the season, and why Houston lost to Navy and SMU. Herman responded by talking about the injuries his team had suffered.

“When we’re fresh, and we’re healthy, I think we can play with anybody in the country,” he said. “This was the first time that every single player that played in the Oklahoma game was cleared medically to play. We had gone ten straight weeks without, basically, all of our starters and our key backups cleared to play.”

He would go on to say that injuries weren’t an excuse, but that’s an odd thing to say after spending 30 seconds talking about injuries.

In fairness to Herman, Houston certainly has been banged up. Then again, every team has to deal with injuries over the course of the season. Before the season even began, Navy lost their only offensive lineman with significant starting experience. They lost their starting quarterback for the year in the first half of the season opener. By game four, Navy lost their best linebacker and team captain.

Against ECU, Navy’s injury list was long as it’s been all season. Saturday’s game was originally scheduled to be played the Thursday night after Navy’s win over Houston but was postponed due to flooding after Hurricane Matthew. With the injuries that Navy sustained against the Cougars, they had no problem taking that week to heal. Ironically, Navy might have been more injured this week than if they had played back in October.

The Mids were without starting fullback Chris High, but Shawn White and Myles Swain combined for 224 rushing yards. Navy’s defense was devastated, with defensive back Elijah Merchant and linebackers Hudson Sullivan, D.J. Palmore, and Josiah Powell all missing the game. Two defenders, Jarid Ryan and Justin Norton, made their first career starts. Nevertheless, Navy’s defense came up big when they needed to and helped Navy to put the game away.

Starters are starters for a reason, but it’s a great confidence booster when a team has the kind of depth needed to win games.

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