The battle for the Commander-in-Chief trophy begins this Saturday in Annapolis, Maryland when the Air Force Falcons travel east to take on the Navy Midshipmen. Air Force has the edge with 19 trophies captured as compared to the 14 by Navy. Army, with only six trophies won, is a distant third in the competition. What is the feel of the enemy to the east? We hit the information superhighway to meet up with Justin Mears of Underdog Dynasty to get some important intel on the Midshipmen.
MW Connection - Navy is now a member of the American Athletic Conference. How do you see being a member of a conference benefiting or hurting Navy?
Underdog Dynasty (JM): I think that being a member of the AAC will do nothing but help Navy in the long run. While some who were critical of the move will point out the lack of scheduling flexibility or the crazy idea that somehow everyone in the conference will figure out how to stop the triple option, I don't buy it. I think that being in a conference provides security. With all of the conference realignment that has taken place recently, attaching itself to a conference gives Navy some security amidst the uncertainty. It also provides recruiting benefits. Playing games every year in Texas and having conference members in Tennessee, Ohio, Florida, and Oklahoma should help out with recruiting in those already important states. Finally, I think that being in a conference has already paid huge dividends with extra exposure and promotion of Navy Football within the conference.
MW Connection - Keenan Reynolds is back for what seems like his tenth year leading the Midshipmen? What makes him such a special player for Navy?
Underdog Dynasty (JM): Every time Coach Niumatalolo gets asked this question, he mentions Reynold's mind and decision making. While there a number of adjectives that could be used to describe him as a play maker, it is his mastery of the offense that separates him from others. The bottom line is he is a four year starter with the third most wins among active quarterbacks in the country and he has seen it all. There isn't a defensive wrinkle you can really throw at him that he hasn't already seen and when you combine his speed and play-making ability with his experience and complete mastery of the offense, he is tough to stop. His ability to get Navy into the right plays, make the right adjustments, and consistently make the right reads is something that is difficult to simulate with a scout team quarterback and is evidenced by the fact that aside from Navy's first drive of the season against Colgate, every other drive in the first half of the first three games has resulted in Navy putting points on the scoreboard. That just shows that Reynolds effectiveness and efficiency are giving opposing defenses fits this year and this is a result of talent, smarts, and experience.
MW Connection - Watching Navy versus Connecticut this weekend was like watching Air Force games. These two teams are extremely similar. What would you say are the strengths of the Navy offense? What are their weaknesses?
Underdog Dynasty (JM): Having a four year record-breaking starter orchestrating the offense certainly helps. I think that this offense has the potential to be one of if not the best in the triple-option era at Navy. They have been almost unstoppable in the first halves of the games so far this season. They are methodical, deliberate, and efficient. The offensive line has come together well even with a few injuries early on. The fullbacks are big, strong, bruising backs across the three deep and they have been a great weapon in the offense so far. The slotbacks all seem to bring a little bit different element and style to the offense and can be used situationally because of that. Jamir Tillman is a playmaker at wide receiver when he gets the opportunity, and having that as an option is key to Navy's offense this season.
As far as weaknesses, they are a very senior laden group of first stringers, but I worry a little bit about the depth on offense. The offensive line has already faced a few injuries and responded well, but any further injuries could be problematic. Also, when adversity comes during the game, how will the team respond? We haven't seen a whole lot of this yet with this group, so this is definitely an area I will be watching out for and it could very well come into play this weekend.
MW Connection - Who are the key players on the defense and what is the defensive philosophy of the Midshipmen?
Underdog Dynasty (JM): There are several key players on defense that will play a major role in the game on Saturday. The defensive line has been outstanding so far this year. Bernie Sarra clogs up the middle, often drawing double teams, and allowing defensive ends Will Anthony and Amos Mason to get pressure on the quarterback and make tackles in the backfield. The linebacker corps has had its share of successes and mistakes, but they will be critical to stopping the Air Force offense this weekend. Micah Thomas has led the team in tackles each game and is coming off a conference honorable mention performance in which he recorded ten tackles including two tackles for a loss and a sack in the game against UConn. Thomas and Daniel Gonzales must be key contributors on defense if Navy hopes to slow Air Force down. I would also look out for Kevin McCoy who has great speed at the linebacker position, and that has translated into leading or being tied for the team lead in sacks, tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries.
The defense continues to apply elements of the "bend but don't break" strategy even though I know a lot of people don't like that term. What this really means is that Navy tries to avoid the "explosive" plays and has actually been very good at accomplishing this so far this season. According to Bill Connelly's measure of explosiveness, the Navy defense ranks 5th in the country in avoiding explosive plays. One semi-change in philosophy this year was the emphasis on dialing up more blitzes and getting more pressure on the quarterback. Navy was one of the worst teams in FBS last year in sacks and third down conversion rate. So far this year, this has been effective as they had five sacks against UConn last week compared to eight all of last season. This has led to a standard down sack rate that is eleventh in the country.
MW Connection - Give it to me straight.....who wins and why?
Underdog Dynasty (JM): I am taking Navy in this game for two reasons. I believe that the defenses have performed on similar levels so far this season. I know that Air Force played Michigan State which is certainly a much better team than ECU and UConn, so the argument will be that the level of competition has influenced the statistics so far this year, but I believe that defensive performance will be a tight battle on Saturday. I am taking Navy because of the experience they have at quarterback with Keenan Reynolds. I know that Karson Roberts appeared to settle into the game a couple weeks ago, but like I mentioned above, Keenan has seen it all and his level of experience will be an advantage in this game. Second, the game is in Annapolis. In the triple-option era, Navy is 5-1 at home against Air Force with the lone loss coming in overtime in 2011. Road games always seem to be tough in recent memory in this rivalry. I do think that this is a close game and with the weather predicted for Saturday, it may simply come down to the turnover margin.
Navy 28-Air Force 24
Thanks again to Justin for some good information on the Navy Midshipmen. Head over to Underdog Dynasty for all your information on the Group of Five conferences and other need to now information on the non-power five conference football teams.