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Military Bowl Preview: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Navy Midshipmen

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Virginia found success against the triple option earlier this year already. Can they replicate it?

Virginia Tech v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

For the first time in six years, the Virginia Cavaliers are bowling! The 2011 Peach Chick-Fil-A Bowl did not turn out so well for the Hoos, but this time out the opponent isn’t quite as accomplished. Yes, Auburn was just 8-5 that year, but they were also the defending national champions. This year’s Virginia team is also probably better than the 2011 team was, despite a worse record.

Of course, unlike that bowl game in Atlanta, this game is a true road game, playing on Navy’s home field in Annapolis for the Military Bowl. Vonsidering the proximity to the Wahoo fan base, Virginia should draw well, and may wash out the home field advantage.

Let’s check out the matchups.

Hoos on Defense

As you may know, the Navy Midshipmen run the triple option. Prior to current head coach Ken Niumatalolo, they were coached by current GT head coach Paul Johnson. (Niumatololo also played under Paul Johnson at Hawaii.) The schemes are very similar.

It is comforting that the Hoos were so successful at keeping GT’s triple option under wraps. Yes, they scored 36 points, but they threw a season high 24 passes, largely because the option wasn’t working. If the Hoos can force Navy to go to the air as much, they’ll be successful again.

Navy’s QB, Malcolm Perry, a 5’9” 185 lb sophomore, is very fast. Like sprinter fast. If he gets out in front of the defense, he’s gone. Watch him run past the Army defense in the snow (below). That’s speed. Perry, though, threw just two passes all season. In fact, Perry began the season as one of the slot backs in the options. When Navy needs to pass, they bring in a different QB. Usually, that is Zach Abey. Abey started the first seven games of the season at QB. He missed one game with an injury and Perry moved to QB, where he’s stayed since.

It is strange for a starting to QB to have just two pass attempts, even if he wasn’t the QB for long. But as a team, Navy has thrown just 101 passes. And they’ve completed just 42 of them. Abey has 805 yards passing, or about two good games from Kurt Benkert. He also has 7 TDs and 7 INTs. The leading receiver is 6’4” 227 pound Tyler Carmona. He averages over 27 yards per catch. As a team, they average about 24 yards per reception. If you know Paul Johnson’s triple option, this won’t surprise you. The goal of the passing game is to hit big plays. This isn’t like a west-coast or a spread offense. They run, run, run until the DBs forget about their man and then they’ll run some play action and throw deep to a wide open man. Here’s a pass play against Notre Dame that highlights this perfectly. The slot-back gets past his man, who wasn’t ready for a pass route.

It is important for the DBs to stay focused on their task. You can’t let a receiver get behind you. That happened against Georgia Tech and very nearly cost the Hoos the game (below). Ricky Jeune was able to get behind his man (Brenton Nelson) and caught a TD with just over three minutes remaining giving the Jackets the lead. This is why the triple option is so dangerous. Nelson (a good cover safety) was in man coverage on the outside against GT’s best WR. It’s a matchup meant to help against a run, but Nelson is simply overmatched by Jeune on the pass route.

As far as stopping the option goes, the Hoos did a pretty good job against GT. They gave up a 78 yard TD run to QB TaQuan Marshall. Other than that, GT totaled 142 yards on 51 carries (2.8 yards per carry). If they manage to do that against Navy, they’ll win.

The B-back for the Midshipmen is Chris Hugh, 6’0” 234 pound senior. Hugh has averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 125 carries this year and has 2 TDs. Not nearly the same kind of numbers that GT gets from their big-backs. The outside guys are Darryl Bonner and Josh Brown, though a number of guys have seen time in those positions (including Perry). Bonner and Brown have combined for 319 yards on 47 carries (6.8 ypc).

Because the Big-Backs for Georgia Tech have been so dangerous over the years, the focus for the option has generally been on slowing them down. But with Navy, it’s really the QB who is the biggest threat. Hugh isn’t a game-breaker, so you can live with him getting the ball. In fact, the Hoos would prefer he has the ball inside, rather than allowing it to go outside. The Hoos will focus on shutting down the edge rushes off the option.

You might think that the loss of two DEs with starting experience would harm the option defense. It might, but not as much as you think. Both Moye and Wright were better as pass rushers than run stoppers. Freshman Mandy Alonso actually started opposite Andrew Brown and played well. Except the same look in this one with Brown, Eli Hanback, and Alonso on the DL.

The rest of the game is the traditional option. This is more straight forward, though not trivial, to stop. You generally want 3 defenders out there. There’s going to be a blocker (the WR to that side of the field), plus there’s 2 potential ball-carriers. The CB/DB on the edge is one defender, the OLB is another defender and then you need another defender (DB, ILB or DE) coming over. The WR is going to block the CB, because that’s his man. The OLBs job is to stay on the RB and the 3rd defender gets the QB. Then, all you have to do is make the tackle. Even this is easier said than done. Perry is fast, but he’s not as quick and dynamic as Marshall, and the Hoos did a good job against Marshall.

With so many defenders all playing their final collegiate game, the defense should be hyped. They will also be as healthy as they’ve been in a while. These guys have waited a long time to play in a bowl game, and now that they’ve gotten their chance. I expect them to play lights out. Think about Malcolm Cook, who has been through so much and missed so much time because of various injuries. He’s healthy now and certainly would love to go out with a bowl win.

Virginia on Offense

There are a few guys on offense also playing their final collegiate game. Most importantly, QB Kurt Benkert. Kurt has been getting some love from NFL scouts recently and a big performance in the bowl game could really boost his stock. Similarly, a poor performance could turn scouts off.

Navy’s defense is solid, especially for a non Power-5 team. They rank 64th in rushing defense and 61st in passing defense. But, a deeper look shows that they are better against the run than the pass. Navy ranks 124th in pass efficiency defense, and had just 6 INTs on the season. They also rank just 116th in sacks and 108th in tackles for loss. The rush defense isn’t great, they allowed 4.6 yards per carry, but it’s better than the 9 yards per attempt they allowed via the pass.

All of that means that the Hoos should be able to move the ball against Navy. We’ve seen the Hoos offense fall apart before, but given a month off, they should be ready this time out. We saw quite a bit of jumbling of the OL during the 2nd half of the season, in part due to injuries. Hopefully, the month off has given the guys a chance to get healthy. A strong performance from the OL will do wonders in this game. During the Hoos 4 winning streak earlier this year, Jordan Ellis was regularly getting 20+ rushes per game and running for around 100 yards per game. Another performance like that would almost guarantee a win. It means the ground game is working, which keeps Navy’s offense off the field. It also means the Hoos aren’t playing catch-up and having to throw to get back into the game. This was a common occurrence during the 2nd half of the season.

Navy plays a 3-4 defense that is pretty similar to the Cavalier defense. It’s so similar, in fact, that both team’s leading tacklers are named Micah. In Navy’s case, it’s ILB Micah Thomas. The 2nd leading tackler is FS Sean Williams. Though he plays the same position as Virginia’s Quin Blanding, his name isn’t even remotely similar, so my comparison falls apart. One of the biggest differences between the two defenses is that although Kiser and Blanding are almost inarguably the best players on the Virginia defense, you could make a very good case that OLB D.J. Palmore is the best player on Navy’s defense. He’s 3rd in tackles, and tops in TFLs with 12.5, while also chipping in a forced fumble and 3 fumble recoveries.

The team leader in sacks is actually backup DE Josh Webb. At 6’5” 250, he’s smaller than you’ll usually see in a 3-4 DE. He’s got very good speed off the edge, but struggles against the run. When he’s in the game, look for the Hoos to give some help to his side of the field. Kurt Benkert struggles when under pressure, so the Hoos want to keep Webb away from him. Giving Benkert time to throw is probably the most important thing for the Wahoo offense.

When Benkert does throw the ball, the Hoos have some pretty good matchups on the outside. I wouldn’t called Navy’s DBs small, though I also wouldn’t call them big. They average 6’ 192 lb. That is smaller than most of the Wahoo WRs. After facing the Miami and Virginia Tech secondaries, Navy’s may seem a bit like a walk in the park.

On paper, this is a good matchup for the Wahoo offense. They looked very dangerous at times, especially early in the season. They torched a very good Miami defense. But then they completely failed to show up the following week for the Virginia Tech game. That inconsistency has been the biggest problem throughout the season. When the offense shows up, the Hoos are very tough to beat.

One factor is Robert Anae getting out of his own way. When Anae is on point with his play-calls, this is a very good offense. But when he gets too one-dimensional, the short passing game is predictable and easy to stop. DBs start getting in the WRs faces and pass rushers set their sights on Benkert. This has a tendency to end in a pick-6.

Conclusion

The Hoos really caught a break getting to face Navy in this game because they are already familiar with the triple-option scheme. It goes without saying that Navy will have some wrinkles that the Hoos haven’t seen from Georgia Tech. But the basics of the scheme are the same between Navy and GT. And because they see it every year, the Hoos are better prepared than most schools would be.

On the other hand, the Hoos are playing a “neutral site” game in their opponent’s home stadium. Navy may not have the same home-field advantage that, say, Virginia Tech does. But they’re still going to be more comfortable at home than on the road.

Both teams are well-coached and will be prepared. Both teams started the season strong before falling off late. Both teams are healthy after suffering through injury problems during the regular season. Both teams have offenses that struggle with consistency, but are capable of providing explosive plays from time to time.

The Hoos have more significantly talent on defense, which is the biggest difference in this game. And that is why I think they’ll come out on top.

Prediction: Wahoos 24, Midshipmen 17