Next up on ITBUUS: The United States Naval Academy. Navy and Penn State will clash on the football field for the first time in 38 years, which means most fans don't have much recollection of the last meeting, nor do they know what exactly to expect (aside from TRIPLE OPTION, BABY). Thankfully, Mike James, editor of the Navy blog The Bird Dog was kind enough to provide some insight for us. Was last season's 5-7 record merely an aberration? What's in store for Ed DeChellis and the future of Navy hoops? What does Mike think of Village People jokes? These answers and more, if you read on...
First, kudos to you for running a blog about Navy athletics. Let's just say I had to do a little Googling in order to find someone passionate enough to write about it. Give our readers a little background about yourself: Did you actually attend the Naval Academy or do you know friends or close relatives who did?
Yes, I attended the Naval Academy, graduating in 1999. It's not surprising that it took some effort to find me. Navy is a little different in that nobody really grows up a Navy fan. The school only has 4,000 students, and it's not like state schools where people identify with it in a geographic sense. Even the local fanbase is small, since midshipmen are shotgunned all over the country as soon as they graduate. Most people grow up cheering for someone else. The worst people on earth (other than Air Force fans) are the ones that still cheer for those schools over Navy after coming to the Academy. It's a little less common now that the bandwagon has grown a bit over the last decade, but it happens.
I'm one of those oddballs that came from a Navy family and grew up going to games in Annapolis, so I guess I'm as good a choice as anyone for writing a Navy blog.
Last season marked the first losing season in nearly a decade for Navy football. What was the main culprit? Do you expect the Midshipmen to return to their winning ways in 2012?
Last season started out so promising, with a couple of blowout wins and a near-upset at South Carolina. Then all hell broke lose. The main culprit was a defense that sucked eggs through cocktail straws. Navy's defense isn't exactly the Steel Curtain even in its best seasons, preferring the bend-but-don't-break approach. Opposing quarterbacks will usually complete 90% of their passes, but it's mostly dink & dunk stuff that doesn't do too much damage as long as the run defense is decent and the DBs tackle well. Last year, neither happened. Navy gave up 187 yards per game on the ground in 2011, 20 ypg more than in 2010 and sixty-five more than the 10-win 2009 season. Your guess is as good as mine as to why that is. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green missed spring ball last year while recovering from surgery, but I can't believe it's that simple. I just hope it can be fixed.
As bad as the defense was last year, Navy fans have seen worse. The 2007 defense might have been the worst in history. Navy was last in passing efficiency defense that season by a pretty wide margin, with a rating of 163.44. In other words, Navy's defense turned every QB they faced that year into Matt Barkley. The Mids were still able to win 8 games, though, because the offense ran for 348 yards and scored nearly 40 points per game. Last year's offense was ok, but not nearly as good as they had to be to make up for the defensive gong show.
Navy should get a little bit of help from its schedule this year. Opening with Notre Dame and Penn State is tough, but the rest of the slate isn't nearly as daunting. It does include San Jose State, Air Force, and ECU though, all of whom beat Navy in 2011. I'd like to think that Navy will be headed back to a bowl game this year but I never take it for granted.
Bill O'Brien said during one of his stops on the PSU Coaches Caravan Tour that you had better be prepared when you face any of the service academies. While we have no doubt the PSU coaching staff is doing their homework, please help point out some key players that PSU fans should get to know/be weary of come September 15th.
Ah yes, the service academy cliches. They get after you for 60 minutes, they're so disciplined, etc. If there are any schools you don't need to be prepared to play, I hope Coach O'Brien will let Ken Niumatalolo know so he can get them on Navy's schedule. We clearly didn't play enough of those teams last year.
There will be a lot of new faces in the huddle for Navy in 2012. Trey Miller will start at quarterback after making a couple of appearaces last season with mixed results. His strength is his arm, which he put on display in the second half against East Carolina and almost completed a remarkable comeback. He doesn't pass as well as Ricky Dobbs, but he's miles ahead of Kriss Proctor in that part of the game. The biggest question mark with Trey is how well he can run the option. He started the game against Notre Dame last year and played horribly, to the point where the coaches stopped calling triple option plays because Trey couldn't make his reads. In his defense, most sophomore quarterbacks in this offense wouldn't have done any better. It takes a lot of repetition to develop the split-second decision-making it takes to run the option, and quarterbacks that didn't run the offense in high school usually don't have the hang of it until their junior or senior years. He played well this spring, so hopefully an offseason of reps as the #1 guy has helped to prepare him.
Other notable players on offense include Gee Gee Greene at slotback (which in this offense is sort of a hybrid RB/WR position) and fullback Noah Copeland. Copeland was the star of the prep school team two years ago and has leapfrogged his way to the top of the depth chart over more experienced players.
It's harder to pick any standouts defensively. ILB Matt Warrick and safety Tra'ves Bush have the most experience. Brye French, the other ILB in Navy's 3-4, was on his way to a fine season last year before he was hurt. I think Collin Sturdivant has a chance to be pretty good. He spent his first three years not quite fitting in at either defensive end or outside linebacker, but added a little weight and appears to have finally found his niche at DE.
With conference realignment being one of the hot topics in college sports these days, are you glad that Navy continues to remain an Independent? If Navy were somehow forced to join a conference in the future, which conference would you prefer? [Tim's Note: At the time I wrote this question, I was unaware of the news that Navy was joining the Big East a few years from now but for authenticity's sake, I am leaving this part unedited]
Navy is joining the Big East in 2015. To understand the decision, you have to consider why the service academies play Division I football in the first place.
USNA's mission is to provide the bulk of the Navy and Marine Corps' career officers. There are only so many qualified 17-18 year olds that would consider spending 4 years at a military school plus at least five years of service after graduation, so it's important for the Naval Academy to get as much exposure as possible in order to reach as many of those candidates as they can. That's where football comes in, and this game at Penn State is a great example. It's a 3:30 game on ABC/ESPN2, which means that more eyes will be watching a Naval Academy product in this one game than there would be in an entire season if Navy played in I-AA, or a whole decade if they played in Division III (like some people want). Right or wrong, athletics (and football in particular) are how Americans identify with their colleges and universities. Playing football at the highest level keeps the Naval Academy in the mainstream. The school attracts the attention of more qualified candidates for admission around the country by lining up against Notre Dame and Stanford than they would against Towson and Dartmouth. For a federal service academy that is obligated to position itself as a national institution, there is no other choice.
For years, Navy has been able to do all of this as an independent. It never made much sense to join a conference before, since there are no similar institutions in Division I-A other than the other two service academies. By remaining independent, Navy was able to schedule a few high-profile games here and there while filling the rest of the schedule with teams that gave the Mids a chance to win a few and get to a bowl game. As the gap between "haves" and "have nots" in college football gets wider, this model becomes less sustainable. The consolidation of the "power" conferences means that television revenue and exposure, bowl games, and scheduling opportunities are consolidating along with them. Some conferences are playing 9-game league schedules,for example, while the Pac 12 and Big Ten have a reached a scheduling agreement with each other. With the talk of schedule strength being a large factor in determining who gets picked for the new playoff, the message is clear: if broadcasters are going to pay huge amounts of money for conference television rights, they want to maximize ratings. That means more games with "power" conference teams playing each other and less games against Louisiana-Monroe. In essence, the top conferences are creating a de facto higher sub-tier within Division I-A; even more so than what exists today with the BCS.
This creates a problem for the Naval Academy, which can't afford to be on the outside looking in when it comes to playing top-level football. If conferences are playing more games against each other, that means fewer games for Navy to get the kind of exposure it needs to gain the attention of high school students around the country. Navy has a pretty nice television deal now (with its home games being shown on CBS Sports Network or CBS), but the more money that gets poured into these large conference deals, the less money there will be for everyone else. With 30 varsity sports, Navy has a lot of mouths to feed; most of those sports depend on income either directly or indirectly related to football (contrary to popular belief, the Naval Academy Athletic Association is not funded by the government). Television brings in money, as do corporate sponsorships, football ticket sales, and donations. Playing at a lower tier of college football leads to less excitement about the Navy brand and puts all four of those financial pillars in serious jeopardy. Having such a large varsity program is part of what makes the school attractive to those who might be on the fence about considering military service. The bottom line is that the evolving college football landscape affects the school's ability to fulfill its mission.
Navy's solution, then, is to join the Big East for football. While the Big East might not be part of the new top tier either, it offers far more long-term security for Navy than remaining independent. The conference still has the potential to get a lucrative television contract as NBC and Fox try to gain a bigger foothold in the college football and basketball markets while ESPN fights to keep them out. This will keep the Academy on national television and bring in more reliable revenue streams for the athletic department. Even if the five "power" conferences no longer consider the Big East a peer, the conference is still head and shoulders above everyone else. There were a lot of factors that led to this decision, but they all lead to the same conclusion: that independence just won't be viable for anyone other than Notre Dame in the long run.
The Navy AD pulled off quite the coup last year by nabbing Ed DeChellis from PSU to coach their basketball team (*snicker*). How much improvement do you see the Navy hoopsters making after a forgettable debut for Ed and Co. last season? Will they snap their 22-game losing streak before year's end?
You laugh, but we're talking about the Patriot League here. For a Patriot League school to get any coach from a conference like the Big Ten is a pretty big deal, even if it's one as under fire as Ed DeChellis. There is a track record of success in this conference with coaches who have taken a similar career path. Jeff Jones has done very well at American after coaching at Virginia, and Navy's run of success during the '90s happened under the guidance of former Tennessee coach Don DeVoe. DeChellis' path is very similar to that of Ralph Willard, who became one of the most successful coaches in Patriot League history at Holy Cross. The biggest difference might be that DeChellis was far more successful at PSU than Willard was at Pitt.
DeChellis inherited a program that had some issues. Reviews of Billy Lange's tenure at Navy are mixed at best, but one thing that everyone would agree on is that retention was horrible. This led to a team full of freshmen and sophomores last year, and it showed. To give you a taste of what Coach DeChellis had to work with, the only junior on the team last year was someone who came back after leaving the program for two years, and the team's best player was suspended in the middle of the season before eventually transferring to Richmond. It's going to be a difficult rebuilding process. The team is full of pretty good athletes that need to learn to become pretty good basketball players. DeChellis and Ernie Nestor, the assistant recently hired from Missouri, are guys who can help them do that. I know some Penn State fans might point and laugh at how DeChellis did in year one at Navy, but there is a whole backstory there that he had nothing to do with.
Army - Navy. As in Army-Navy, a rivalry that has to be lived to be understood. Our fight song isn't the only one about beating Army; we yell it at the end of our alma mater. It goes way beyond football.
David Robinson - A service academy was one win away from the Final Four. Think about that for a second.
The Village People - Disco is dead, but cliched Navy jokes apparently live forever.
Battleship - Either a lovely shade of gray or a flaming bag of dog poo of a motion picture. I was hoping that maybe Battleship would be Surface Warfare's Top Gun. Unfortunately it was more like our Iron Eagle IV.
Annapolis - Either a top-tier college town (lol @ College Park) or another flaming bag of dog poo of a motion picture. When I want to watch a movie about the Naval Academy, I prefer Love's Deadly Triangle: The Texas Cadet Murder. It's probably rated higher on Rotten Tomatoes, too.
Patriot - Games. A Naval Academy movie that might be a little better than The Texas Cadet Murder now that I think about it.
And Finally...Give us your take on how you see this game playing out.
I really have no idea what to expect from Penn State. That, plus all the new starters for Navy, makes it impossible for me to predict how the game will go. Obviously Navy is a big underdog, but if they have one thing going for them it's that they've seen just about everything that Ted Roof has thrown at this offense from his time at Duke. Whatever he does to stop the option, Navy will be ready. On the other hand, I'm sure he's a lot more confident in his schemes using Penn State's players than he was with Duke's players.