The first leg of the path to retaining the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy takes place on Saturday, October 21 at noon ET in Annapolis, MD. The Falcons will arrive on a high after dispatching the Wyoming Cowboys in a hard fought battle that left them in command of the top spot in the Mountain West and undefeated at 6-0. Those accomplishments have earned them a rating of No. 22 in both the AP and the Coach’s poll.
The Navy Midshipmen come into the game with a 3-3 record after their shutout victory over Charlotte last week. New head coach Brian Newberry (previously Navy’s defensive coordinator) has installed Grant Chesnut as the new offensive coordinator. Chesnut has brought elements of his spread option offense from Kennesaw State. Navy is certainly not a passing team, but they do pass a little more often than they have the past few years. They currently are averaging 13.5 pass attempts per game as compared to about 10 passes the last couple years. The formations look a little different, but the QB is still lined up under center for the most part.
The rushing numbers aren’t anywhere near as impressive as the Falcons. They currently are averaging 236 yards per game, but average 4.9 yards per rush, good enough to be 27th in FBS. The combination of a high rushing average per rush and a total yardage per game of about 100 yards less than the Falcons is indicative of an offense that doesn’t sustain drives that well. That assessment is confirmed by the fact that Navy only converts 31% of third down attempts versus Air Force’s FBS best of 59.4%.
What Navy does well is create explosive plays. Sophomore FB Alex Tecza is the player to watch in this regard. He currently leads FBS in yards per carry with an 8.11 average (JLE3 does not have enough carries to qualify at 10.1). He has touchdown runs of 75, 62, 39, and 21 yards. At slotback, sophomore Eli Heidenreich is another explosive player. He has touchdown receptions of 69 and 68 yards, and a TD run of 46 yards. Interestingly, Tecza and Heidenreich were high school teammates in Pittsburgh.
Defensively, in terms of yardage and points allowed, Navy is about an average FBS team, but they are fairly disruptive. Their pass rush generates numbers similar to what the Falcon’s defense does, perhaps even a little more. The defense has recovered 8 fumbles and intercepted 4 passes. Air Force has 3 recovered fumbles and 3 interceptions. Safety Xavier McDonald is very disruptive with 3 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Safety Rayuan Lane is another one, with 3 interceptions, a forced fumble, and 7 pass breakups.
With the news this week that QB Zac Larrier will be out of action for a while, the big question will be how efficient and consistent the Falcon offense will be. It wasn’t until Larrier’s third start that he looked comfortable running the offense, which is pretty quick for an option offense. We know Jensen Jones has been around the program as long as Larrier, and that he was in close contention for the starting job up until 2 weeks before the season. We’ve seen him run the ball with power, but we also saw the two fumbles late in the Wyoming game. Nervousness would be expected with so much on the line for the Falcons. I would expect OC Mike Thiessen to rely heavily on his offensive line early to create lanes for Jones and the running backs. Once some momentum and confidence is built, he can open up the playbook, as he did with Larrier. The defense can help by limiting the Navy offense, as they have done the last two years. A slow start similar to the San Jose State, San Diego State, and Wyoming games won’t help the offense.
For Navy’s part, they’ll be turning up the pressure on Jones to cough up the ball. They’ll also be trying to get defenders in the backfield to create negative plays to add more pressure on Jones.
Navy is also a little banged up on offense. Starting QB Tai Lavatai left Navy’s last game early with an injury, but is expected to suit up for this week’s game. #2 QB Blake Horvath is out of action indefinitely, and #3 QB Braxton Woodson is a freshman with only 2 games under his belt.
DraftKings currently has the Falcons as a 10.5 point favorite with an over/under of 34.5. The spread has actually grown since Coach Calhoun announced that Larrier would be out. Calhoun likes to say he has a developmental program, and coaches spend a great deal of time working with each player to hone their skills. As with Zac Larrier, Jensen Jones has put in a lot of work to get to this point, and bettors are giving the benefit of the doubt to Calhoun’s staff because of their ability to reload the roster and have players ready when necessary. I agree with that assessment, but I don’t see the victory being that easy. I’ll pick the Falcons by the score of 20-14.