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Summer Vacation: The Navy Midshipmen and the Art of Keepin' On Keepin On

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom.

The service academies do it right.  No pretense, no pretending they are something they aren't.  They (and thanks to Army's recent restoration, it is a full "they" with Army, Navy and Air Force) assume they are getting by with a lot of players who didn't get scholarship offers elsewhere, and they figure out how to beat you with those players anyway.  "You're bigger, stronger and faster than us?  Fine.  We're going to cut block you, we're going to hit you from unexpected angles, we're going to take away your instincts, we're going to make you think far more than you want to be thinking on the field, and we're going to run circles around you."  It's more-or-less how Wake Forest won the ACC in 2006 and beat Florida State three straight times, it's how Navy has won at least eight games each year since 2002, and it's why I really, really wanted Vanderbilt to go after Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo this past offseason.  Alas.

It doesn't always work, of course -- in 2009, Navy pantsed Missouri but lost to 6-7 Hawaii, and it appears that Wake Forest's run of strong play may have run out -- but the service academies, especially two of the three, have won tons of games in recent years by accepting the need for underdog strategies and working them to perfection.

Navy's underdog strategy of choice, of course, is the good ol' flexbone (mixed with a nice-and-sneaky 3-4 defense, a "misdirection" defense if ever one existed).  Paul Johnson figured out how to run it to perfection, and Niumatalolo continued the string of solid play from the Middies when Johnson left to win an ACC title at Georgia Tech.  The flexbone is proof that there are a lot of ways to win a college football game, and there is a hefty amount of flexbone goodness on the YouTubes.

Because of the flexbone, Navy has a clear, distinguishable identity, an enjoyable, successful brand of football.  Now they just have to figure out how to succeed without the face of their program's recent history, future president Ricky Dobbs.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 7-6 | Final F/+ Rk**: 43
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
6-Sep vs Maryland 14-17 L 40.4 - 32.3 W
11-Sep Georgia Southern
13-7 W 6.0 - 15.1 L
18-Sep at Louisiana Tech 37-23 W 33.1 - 28.7 W
2-Oct at Air Force 6-14 L 16.3 - 16.9 L
9-Oct at Wake Forest 28-27 W 25.1 - 35.8 L
16-Oct SMU 28-21 W 34.0 - 30.6 W
23-Oct vs Notre Dame 35-17 W 49.3 - 30.3 W
30-Oct Duke 31-34 L 24.3 - 35.6 L
6-Nov at East Carolina 76-35 W 45.5 - 33.2 W
13-Nov Central Michigan 38-37 W 51.5 - 33.6 W
20-Nov Arkansas State 35-19 W 37.6 - 29.7 W
11-Dec vs Army 31-17 W 19.2 - 27.7 L
23-Dec vs San Diego State 14-35 L 35.5 - 36.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.7 45 23.3 46
Adj. Points Per Game 32.1 28 29.7 78

Navy's 2010 season followed the "successful Navy season" script rather closely.  Play more talented teams, keep things close, maintain possession for quarters at a time, pull out close wins.  Sure enough, Navy overachieved according to their general level of performance, going 9-4 while playing like a 7-6 team.  They were close to doing even better, but they actually lost three one-possession games.  A bit better on the goal line, and the Middies beat Maryland.  A bit better on D, and they beat Duke.  But perhaps the Middies were due a smidge of bad luck after going 10-4 while playing like a 6-8 team (according to Adj. Record) in 2009.

Navy's flexbone operated on extremes in 2010, which is not uncommon for this type of offense.  When it worked, it worked for 60 minutes (over 40.0 Adj. Points four times, over 33.0 eight times) ... and when it didn't, it really didn't (under 20.0 Adj. Points three times).


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 40 39 45
RUSHING 40 52 40 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 26 58 16 31
Standard Downs 52 53 48 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 22 31 24 96
Redzone 19 13 30
Q1 Rk 52 1st Down Rk 57
Q2 Rk 40 2nd Down Rk 39
Q3 Rk 20 3rd Down Rk 19
Q4 Rk 69

So how much of a system's success is due to individual difference-makers, and how much is due to system?  Navy fans are hoping it's a good portion of the latter, as their chief ball-handler from the past two years (and 19 wins) is gone.  Ricky Dobbs departs after 27 games in which he ran for 2,170 yards and 41 touchdowns and passed for 2,558 yards and 19 touchdowns to boot.  After an offseason of "He's a darkhorse Heisman candidate!" hype, Dobbs struggled a bit on the ground in 2010.   His per-carry average fell from 3.8 to 3.6, but he generated those yards against lesser competition; his Adj. POE fell from +6.7 to -18.4.

However, while Dobbs' rushing numbers were sinking, Navy's offensive effectiveness was increasing (Georgia Southern and Navy games aside).  First of all, coaches trusted Dobbs to pass a bit more; he averaged five more passes per game, dropping Navy all the way to fourth overall in Adj. Run-Pass ratio (the horror!), tossing mostly to Greg Jones, whose 37.0% Target rate was one of the highest in the country.  Jones rewarded the trust (and took advantage of unsuspecting defenses) to the tune of 20.1 yards per catch (13.0 per target) and five touchdowns.  His 33 catches were more than triple those of Navy's leading 2009 receiver (Marcus Curry and his 10 catches), and it opened up a new dimension for Navy, even if they were still a run-first, run-second team.  Even with the element of surprise in their favor, Navy's passing game was particularly effective in 2010, ranking 16th in Passing PPP+ after ranking 32nd in 2009.

Of course, Dobbs and Jones are both gone, so we'll see how multi-dimensional Navy is this fall.  The two projected starting receivers -- Doug Furman and Brandon Turner, both big targets at 6'3 and 6'4 -- caught a combined seven passes a year ago.  Good thing there's experience in the backfield.

(Actually, that's a misleading statement. Being that this is Navy, and players know to wait their turn, every projected starter on both sides of the ball is either a junior or senior; this despite the fact that they lost quite a few important starters on offense and defense.)

The other reasons for Navy's increased effectiveness in 2010 were the members of the backfield not named Dobbs.  For two years, fullback Alexander Teich has been brutally effective up the middle; he ran for 376 yards, 5.4 per carry, in 2009, then upped his game to 863 yards, 5.9 per carry, in 2010.  With defenses focusing on Dobbs, Teich was a major weapon.  He's back, as is slotback Gee Gee Greene, who also upped his game from 253 yards (6.2/carry) in 2009 to 492 yards (6.8/carry) in 2010.

Other tidbits:

  • Who will replace Dobbs in the starting lineup?  Probably Kriss Proctor, who rushed for 223 yards (+10.0 Adj. POE) in spot duty.  He is semi-experienced and was very effective in his limited opportunities.  (He's also thrown just nine career passes, so ... we'll see.)
  • Four of the five linemen who started for Navy in last year's Poinsettia Bowl return.  In pure Navy fashion, the line averaged just 6'4, 270 pounds a year ago but still ranked 31st in Adj. Line Yards.  The cut blocks, while often borderline illegal, is consistently effective.  It doesn't matter how big and fast your defensive players are if they are going to continuously get chopped down by blockers they don't see.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 68 95 54
RUSHING 57 58 53 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 89 118 65 103
Standard Downs 90 112 70 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 50 70 39 83
Redzone 36 42 36
Q1 Rk 103 1st Down Rk 58
Q2 Rk 88 2nd Down Rk 73
Q3 Rk 61 3rd Down Rk 105
Q4 Rk 41

Running their patented 3-4 defense, Navy attempts to bait offenses into feeling a little too comfortable with the cushions they receive and the openings they find near the line of scrimmage.  Despite a line that ranked just 103rd in Adj. Line Yards, Navy's run defense wasn't terrible last year.  They were reasonably efficient and prevented big plays, but Navy ran into problems in 2010 in the passing game.  Unlike previous years, they allowed a little too big a cushion at times, posting the third least-efficient pass defense in the country and intercepting only seven passes.  They still ended up with a positive turnover margin because they were able to force 18 fumbles (opponents committed 26 fumbles in all), but they came a little too close to breaking to be an overly effective bend-don't-break defense.

For better or worse, the Middies have to replace a lot of experience in 2011, especially in the linebacking corps.  Tyler Simmons was the resident "I'll make all the tackles five yards downfield so others can go for the big plays" linebacker, posting 101.5 tackles overall and just 2.0 TFL/sacks (albeit with three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries).  That type of backer is typically replaceable, and there are a number of candidates for extra playing time, including Max Blue (43.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks), Matt Warrick, Caleb King and Matt Brewer.

Also gone: outside linebackers Aaron McCauley and Jerry Hauburger, who combined for 121.5 tackles and 16.5 TFL/sacks).  McCauley was particularly effective from the attacking OLB role and had a year of eligibility remaining, but he left the team this spring.

One more key departure: twelve-year starting safety Wyatt Middleton (72.0 tackles, 5 FR, 5 PBU).  He was a rock in the secondary, but as he has now reached retirement age, one can understand him wanting to move on with the golden years of his life.

Other tidbits:

  • Be on the lookout for safety Tra'ves Bush, who is almost by default the 'new' Middleton-esque rock in the secondary.  If he isn't able to raise his game, Navy's pass defense could get even worse; they must replace not only Middleton, but also free safety De'Von Richardson (41.0 tackles, 4 PBU, dismissed due to academics) and cornerback Kevin Edwards.  Corner Kwesi Mitchell (40.5 tackles, 1 INT, 3 PBU) returns.
  • Navy might be lacking in on-field experience, but they do have a backup safety named Wave Ryder, so they've got that going for them.


Navy's 2010 Season Set to Music

Look! Another opportunity for a Curtis Mayfield interjection!  We're going with "Keep On Keeping On," being that Navy has now won between eight and ten games for eight consecutive seasons.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

I've long had a theory that Navy's offense is so unique that it is almost impossible to play well against it the first time you see it.  The second time, reacting to the flexbone might begin to become distinctive.  (At least, that's what I was telling myself as a Missouri fan after watching Dobbs and company embarrass the Mizzou defense in the 2009 Texas Bowl.)  Does this theory have any real legitimacy?  Quite possibly.

In the last two years, Navy has played 27 games -- 13 against teams they had also played the previous season, 14 against teams they did not.  Against the 13 teams whose players had gone up against Navy the previous year, the Midshipmen averaged 24.7 Adj. Points per game, going under 21.0 Adj. Points seven times.  Against the 14 teams who hadn't seen them the previous year, however, they averaged 38.5 Adj. Points, going over 40.0 four times.  I call that evidence that backs up my postulate, don't you?

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 53
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 118
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +7 / +5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (8, 3)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -3.1

Good sign: sustained success.

Bad sign: foreboding YPP margin.

Good sign: experience in the offensive backfield.

Bad sign: lots of new cogs on defense.

Good sign: consistently strong execution of underdog strategies.

Bad sign: the 'underdog' magic sometimes wears out when the right players walk out the door (just ask Wake Forest).

There is plenty of reason to wonder if Navy might fall back to the pack a bit and struggle for bowl eligibility in 2011.  Navy must make trips to South Carolina, Rutgers, Notre Dame and SMU in 2011.  But I'm not the type to bet against a streak. Kriss Proctor looks like he could be yet another effective option quarterback for the Midshipmen, and when a team wins for this many years in a row, I'm just going to continue picking them to win until they don't.

(Sorry, Army -- that means I'm also picking Navy to beat you for the tenth straight year.  Never.  Bet.  Against.  A streak.)




* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.