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The Big USF vs. Navy Preview

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No pressure, only the Bulls’ season on the line against a team that excels at the exact thing USF has proven themselves to be unable to stop.

NCAA Football: Memphis at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Naval Academy’s football team was a down-and-out, hopeless outfit for many, many years. From 1982 through 2002, Navy went to just one bowl game and only had four winning seasons. Twice they avoided winless seasons by beating archrival Army. They were undersized, underskilled, and undercoached.

Enter Paul Johnson in 2003, who immediately turned the Midshipmen football team around. They went to a bowl in year one, and won 10 games in year two. After five straight winning seasons, Johnson left for Georgia Tech and his offensive coordinator, Ken Niumatalolo, took over. He sustained Johnson’s success, going to six bowls in his first seven years.

In 2015, Navy had its finest season since Roger Staubach’s Heisman campaign in 1963. They won a school-record 11 games, hosted and beat Pittsburgh in the Military Bowl, and were probably the second-best team in The American in their first year in the conference. Only a loss to Houston on Black Friday kept them out of the inaugural championship game.

This year, the road to that title game has been plowed from curb to curb. They already have head-to-head wins over Houston and Memphis, and the only other team in the West Division with less than two conference losses is Tulsa. Not only could they reach the title game, but there’s a good chance they end up hosting it as long as they beat USF tonight.

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. Navy D) S&P+ (Navy O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 29 12 89 20
Navy 68 48 82 77

The computers really don’t like Navy at all. Maybe their should-have-been loss to UConn, their close win at Tulane, and their ugly loss at Air Force (where they actually gave up on the option) are weighing their season numbers down. But this is a team that beat Houston and Memphis in their last two games and is playing much better now than they were in September.

When Navy Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
Navy Offense 3 5 90
USF Defense 111 94 35

Perhaps I can sum up my feelings on these numbers with a GIF.

Sure, Navy’s raw numbers are very inflated because they run the ball something like 84% of the time. But they’re efficient, they stay on schedule mercilessly, and their scoring drives take forever. Last year Navy held the ball for over 39 minutes and steadily wore down USF’s defense on their way to a 29-17 win. This Bulls defense is significantly worse than that. You can figure out what could happen.

Will Worth, a converted linebacker, took over under center when starter Tago Smith tore up his knee in the season opener. He is a lot more physical than your typical option quarterback and he’s not afraid to lower his shoulder to pick up extra yardage. For a defense that’s not shown very much physicality this season and gets caught arm tackling a lot, that’s a recipe for trouble.

If Worth doesn’t keep the ball, he’ll be pitching it to Dishan Romine or Toneo Gulley to run outside, or handing it to Chris High or Shawn White to slam it up the middle.

When Navy Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
Navy Offense 43 108 2
USF Defense 48 56 35

You’re very unlikely to see much passing from Navy unless USF miraculously shuts the triple option down. But when Worth does drop back, look out. The Middies’ occasional passes are deep and often very explosive. On Worth’s 62 passes this year, he’s averaging 11.1 yards per attempt, and that number is massively skewed because Navy had to throw 30 passes against Air Force. A more typical output is what happened in the Middies’ wins over Houston and Memphis. Worth threw a total of nine passes, completing six of them for 161 yards and four touchdowns. The Bulls’ defense is pretty well-equipped to deal with opponents’ passing games, but Navy waits so long to do it that you have to be very disciplined not to get pulled out of position and give up a big gain. If for some reason Navy does have to turn to the passing game, they have two matchup problems in 6’4” Jamar Tillman and 6’4” Brandon Colon at receiver.

When USF Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 8 24 17
Navy Defense 81 81 8

USF’s best hope to win this game may be to play against type on offense. The Bulls are renowned for their prolific and explosive offense, but if they score as quickly as they’re used to, it will just put their weak defense out there for more and more poundings. It’s a tricky thing to manage, because USF’s offense has such a high tempo and it’s unclear if they could sustain the same levels of production if they went slower. Navy is also very good at stopping teams from breaking big running plays, so if the Bulls want to play a more deliberate pace, that will help. This is a game where USF could have really used Darius Tice, someone who can move piles and help you maintain possession. Also, the penalties from the last few games need to be cut down significantly.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 62 71 5
Navy Defense 116 119 84

This looks like an amazing matchup for USF, but is it really? The Bulls don’t run enough of the short and intermediate passes that Navy really struggles against. They’re mostly throwing behind the line of scrimmage or deep down the field. Their big athletic advantage should help, but USF cannot afford incompletions that stop the clock and potentially get their defense out on the field quicker. Quinton Flowers must have an accurate passing game.

Summary and Prediction

I simply can’t comprehend why USF is favored in this game. The Bulls giving 6.5 points does not pass the eye test at all. Only a context-free evaluation of the numbers would allow you to draw that kind of conclusion. USF’s defense gave up 428 yards rushing to this Navy team last year, and that was when their defense was at least adequate. This year, you and me and nine of our friends could probably get a decent rushing attack going on USF’s defense. They’re that bad, and I don’t really think a single week of practice is going to fix all their problems up front.

The Bulls’ best and maybe only hope is that their superior athletes carry them through, and that Navy’s serious road woes this season follow them to Tampa. (The Middies have been drastically worse away from Annapolis.) Still, Navy’s biggest advantage lines up perfectly with USF’s biggest flaw, and until this defense proves it’s not a complete sieve against any opponent’s running game, I’m going to have a hard time picking them to win. Including tonight.

Navy 38, USF 28

(Now please prove me wrong and keep this season alive, OK?)