New alignment used to counter spread attacks
ORLANDO – Navy made a significant change on defense, coming out in a nickel package with Juan Hailey as the extra defensive back.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said the Navy staff has been studying what teams around the country have been doing to counteract the proliferation of spread offenses and the consensus was that a 3-3-5 alignment was the most effective weapon.
Niumatalolo said the idea of playing five defensive backs is to combat the run-pass option plays.
“We’re trying anything,” Niumatalolo said with a wry chuckle. “A lot of people are playing a 3-3 stack against spread offenses. It takes away some of the RPO windows.”
Nizaire Cromartie, who has been playing the outside linebacker position known as “raider” this entire season, started at left defensive end in place of Anthony Villalobos on Saturday.
“We wanted to get somebody in the middle to take away some of their RPO stuff,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “We felt we could get three of our better players on the field at once. That was the main reason.”
Inside linebacker Tyler Heflin liked the new alignment because it relieved him and running mate Hudson Sullivan from any type of pass coverage responsibility.
“I think it was a really good changeup for us. It allowed the inside backers to just run around and be fast,” said Heflin, who led Navy with a career-high 14 tackles. “I think last week against Cincinnati we put a lot of stuff in and were kind of thinking too much on every play.”
Unfortunately for Navy, the defensive gameplan took a big hit late in the first quarter when standout safety Sean Williams got hurt. Williams sustained some sort of upper body injury while tackling tailback Adrian Killins and did not return.
“You put in a defense thinking this will be a great defense for Sean and he gets hurt. It’s kind of been the nature of this year,” Niumatalolo lamented. “It’s a new defense and that guy was huge in that scheme — like the most important guy. He was going to be a guy that was involved with the run and the pass.”
Senior Brady Peterson and freshman Mitchell West teamed up to replace Williams at safety. Pehrson agreed the loss of Williams really hurt.
“He was a big part of it. He’s the reason why we went to it,” Pehrson said of Williams. “I haven’t seen the tape, so I don’t know how the other guys did in there. I think West tried to fly around. I’m sure the game was fast for him. Lehigh was the last time he’s played. I’ll just have to look at it and see kind of where we’re at now.”
Navy’s 3-3-5 look played to mixed results. One positive is that the downfield coverage was decent enough at times that Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton could not find an open receiver. On the down side, Milton was able to scramble for big gains because the Midshipmen were only rushing three defenders most of the time.
“When you’re only rushing three and have a lot of guys dropping back it gives him space to run,” admitted Heflin, who revealed that as the game wore on Navy had a defender “spying” Milton.
Navy recruited Milton very hard and he took an official visit to Annapolis before ultimately choosing Central Florida. Niumatalolo said his fellow Hawaiian would have made a superb triple-option quarterback because he is such a dynamic runner.
“We had a couple guys chasing him, but he outran them. In the second half, we at least had a little bit of an angle and ran him out of bounds,” Pehrson said of Milton’s speed and athleticism. “In the second half, we just put our linebacker on him. We just mirrored him, and when he took off we tried to chase him out of bounds.”
Central Florida finished with almost 500 yards so it’s hard to say the 3-3-5 was effective. Niumatalolo said the coaching staff will break down the film before deciding whether to employ that scheme again.
“We’ll take a look at it and see how this goes. There was some good and some bad,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy once again could not get a stop when it really needed one. Central Florida went 9-for-13 on third or fourth down conversions, continuing a negative trend for the Navy defense. Pehrson believes the 3-3-5 look holds promise and may merely need to be tweaked a bit.
“We’ve got to take some mental thought off of it,” he said. “I think we can help them out by not hurting them with a bunch of calls. Try to keep it simple and let them go play. That was our intent this week.”
Hailey performed well in the expanded role and finished with 10 tackles, seven of which were solo. Sullivan and safety Jacob Springer also recorded 10 tackles.
“To play that defense you have to tackle really well in the secondary and those guys were hard to tackle,” Niumatalolo said of the UCF skill players.
In addition to Williams, starting outside linebacker Evan Fochtman and starting right end Jarvis Polu also left the game with injuries.
Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper gave starting quarterback Zach Abey mixed reviews for his performance on Saturday.
Abey struggled in the first half and put the ball on the ground twice, but played much better in the second half and wound up leading Navy in rushing with 85 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think Zach did a good job of operating the offense,” Jasper said. “We were able to string together some nice gains and converted when we needed on third down.”
Niumatalolo did not answer directly when asked if Abey had solidified the starting job with what he did on Saturday. Niumatalolo noted that Garret Lewis, who started against Temple, Houston and Cincinnati, suffered a dislocated finger during pre-game warm-ups.
Tailback Greg McCrae led UCF in rushing with 101 yards and a touchdown. The Miami native initially committed to Navy and spent one year at the prep school… The Midshipmen have now lost 11 consecutive contests away from Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium… Navy did not officially complete a pass on Saturday. Abey did connect with Ryan Mitchell for a nice gain, but the Mids wound up accepting a defensive holding penalty and the completion was negated. Abey finished 0-for-2 passing, the first time this season the team did not have a single completion.
ABEY OUTING: MID BITS:
Central Florida running back Greg McCrae (30) rushes for yardage in front of Navy linebacker Elan Nash (8), safety Jacob Springer (1), safety Juan Hailey (13) and linebacker Nizaire Cromartie (56) during the first half.