The Virginia and Navy football programs share similarities off the field, from the George Welsh connection to the close ties between the two coaching staffs. Examining the 2017 Military Bowl game itself, its easy to see similarities between the two programs on the field as well.
Virginia won five of its first six games, including four in a row after dropping regular season matchup number two versus Indiana, before losing five of its last six to close out the 2017 campaign. Navy captured five straight wins but lost six of its final seven.
A quote from Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo following the Midshipmen’s 24-14 loss at Houston caught my attention.
“Houston played well defensively,” Niumatalolo said in an ESPN article. “We just can’t sustain ourselves. It’s kind of the story of our season. We can’t put stuff together consistently. Obviously, Houston knew that. They kept their safeties back to see if we could grind it out and we couldn’t. We couldn’t execute the whole way downfield.”
“Can’t put stuff together consistently” could be Virginia’s motto on the offensive side of the ball. There certainly have been flashes, from Boise State to the first half and change versus Miami to the second half against Georgia Tech, but we haven’t seen consistency. Too many highs and lows, not enough solid play from start to finish.
Navy and Virginia are searching for the same thing: consistent, quality play. Will either team find it at the 2017 Military Bowl?
Tale of the Quarterbacks
This December 26 headline on the Capital Gazette says it all: “Malcolm takes the helm: Perry era at Navy begins with Thursday’s Military Bowl”
What we do know about Malcolm Perry is that he is a big-time playmaker. The 5’9” sophomore has two rushes of over 90 yards and four receptions of 40 yards or more, including a 75-yarder against Central Florida. As Navy’s starting quarterback against SMU, Perry rushed for 282 yards and four scores in a 43-40 win. He played quarterback in the season finale against Army as well, tallying 250 yards rushing and a score in a 14-13 loss.
We don’t know is if Perry can pass. Navy leads the nation in yards per completion (23.93 yards); however, junior Zach Abey has completed the majority of those. Perry has completed just 1-of-2 passes for five yards with one touchdown and one interception. Safe to say, jury is out on Perry’s passing abilities.
Establishing its base triple-option offense is most important to this Navy program. Having Perry start this bowl game tells me that the Midshipmen are going all in on its run game against the Cavaliers.
“Things just weren’t going right with the offense. I wasn’t coaching great and the group wasn’t playing great,” offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper told the Capital Gazette, which covers Navy football. “I’m the first to admit that I didn’t do the best job I could this season.”
“[Making Perry the starter] is nothing against Zach, who has done all we’ve asked,” Jasper said. “It just comes down to looking at what helps us win football games and we feel [Perry] definitely does that.”
On the Cavaliers’ side, senior quarterback Kurt Benkert can be nearly perfect at times (see Boise State and Miami) but very off at others. Again, finding the consistency has been a challenge, not just for Benkert for the entire Cavalier offense the past two seasons.
Against an average Navy defense that is averaging only 1.25 sacks per game and hasn’t forced many turnovers, Benkert should have plenty of time to get comfortable in the pocket. We’ve seen him uncomfortable against better, more aggressive defenses, and he can get shaky. A comfortable Benkert usually means a confident Benkert, and if the Military Bowl plays out like that the Virginia offense should be able to put up some points.
I expect Navy to play conservative make Virginia sustain drives, something the Hoos have struggled with the past two seasons. If UVA can get things going early, meaning Benkert and the receivers are playing well and the run game is effective, big play opportunities should arise. Navy has surrendered some big plays in the passing game this year, including seven touchdown passes of 34 yards or more (34, 40, 46, 51, 59, 62, 95).
Both offenses have yet to find the production and consistency they are looking for. These two quarterbacks will play a huge role in the success (or struggles) of their respective teams the afternoon of December 28.
Virginia Offense Versus The Navy Defense
Navy, which has faced four of the top 15 offenses in the nation in terms of yards averaged per game, has a defense that is surrendering 386.6 yards per game and 6.39 yards per play. The Midshipmen haven’t created many turnovers (only 13 all season) and haven’t made many plays behind the line of scrimmage, averaging only 1.25 sacks (no. 116 in the nation) and 4.6 tackles for loss (no. 109 in the nation) per game.
As mentioned above, the numbers indicate that Benkert should have time to get comfortable and find his receivers. Navy allows 14.15 yards per catch, so some big pass plays could be had. It would help to get the run game going. Navy surrenders 164.9 yards rushing per game, but Virginia has not rushed for 100 yards or more in any of its past four games.
Virginia’s Defense Versus Navy’s Triple-Option Rush Attack
Virginia’s defense ranks no. 36 in the nation in total defense, allowing 357.8 yards per game. The Cavaliers have fared much better against the pass than the run, allowing 178.3 yards per game (no. 82 in the nation) on the ground. However, Virginia fared well earlier this season against the triple option attack of former Navy coach Paul Johnson, holding Georgia Tech to 220 yards total on the ground and 4.2 yards per carry. Seventy-eight of those yards came on a Taquon Marshall touchdown run.
Some things that do concern me heading into the Military Bowl. Virginia has a solid starting defensive line but no proven depth with the suspensions of Juwan Moye and Steven Wright, so if Navy’s offense can execute and stay on the field, the Cavalier D-line could tire quickly. Also, how healthy is Micah Kiser’s hand/thumb? Let’s hope that doesn’t impact his tackling ability.
A good triple option team typically has a lot of success on third down. Navy’s isn’t bad by any stretch, converting 44.4% of its third downs, but it’s not up to par with other triple option teams such as Army (55.2%), Air Force (48.8%) and Georgia Tech (45.6%). Opponents have converted on third down against UVA’s defense 34.9% of the time.
Navy isn’t shy about going for it on fourth down, trying 32 times and succeeding 20 (62.5%). Virginia’s D has faced 23 fourth down conversions and stopped 11 (48%).