Navy defense stepped up in season opener at Florida Atlantic
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. (Tribune News Service) | Published: September 3, 2017
Throughout preseason, most of the focus was on Zach Abey and the new-look Navy offense.
Could Abey develop into a legitimate triple-threat quarterback and did he have enough supporting weapons surrounding him?
Abey and the offense answered those questions in resounding fashion during the season-opening 42-19 win against Florida Atlantic, which began on Friday night and finished in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
Abey directed an attack that rolled up 526 total yards, accounting for 345 of them himself. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound junior ran hard inside in gaining 235 yards on the ground and broke option keepers for touchdowns of 23 and 40 yards.
Navy unveiled a solid one-two tandem at fullback with seniors Chris High and Josh Walker providing a different look. The 224-pound High pounded up the middle for the tough yards, picking up 61 on 16 carries. Walker, a converted slotback, showed speed in taking a quick pitch around the edge for a 4-yard scoring scamper and outracing several chasing defenders on a 48-yard touchdown gallop.
It was an inside game as Florida Atlantic was flowing its linebackers and safeties hard outside to stop the perimeter element of the option. There wasn’t much production from the slotbacks as a result, although Malcolm Perry might have scored a touchdown off a misdirection play had Abey not tossed an errant pitch.
Abey only completed three passes, but two of them produced big plays – a 56-yard bomb to wide receiver Tyler Carmona that set up a score and a 39-yard sideline toss that slotback Darryl Bonner turned into a 39-yard touchdown. There were two other deep throws that Abey put on target and did not complete due to good coverage.
As an offense, we started clicking and wearing them down,” Abey said. “It started with the offensive line doing a fantastic job. Chris High was hitting the hole hard and getting four and five yards every play. Things started going our way in the second quarter and second half.”
Abey was speaking outside the visiting locker room at FAU Stadium around 2 a.m. following a game that lasted five hours and 44 minutes due to three lightning delays. Navy’s offense looked shaky and mistake-prone for a good portion of the first half before figuring out the Florida Atlantic defense and gashing it inside.
“They came out in a completely different defense than we practiced for the last three weeks," Abey admitted. “It was no problem. Coach Jasper recognized it super quickly and started making adjustments from the very first play. They were kind of vulnerable in the middle so we just gashed them with the fullback dive and the quarterback power.”
Coming off a campaign in which it ranked at the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in every important category, Navy’s defense had as much or more to prove than the offense. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson decided during the off-season the Midshipmen needed to be more aggressive this season.
Navy showed that new mentality on Friday night by playing a ton of man-to-man coverage and blitzing the quarterback. Pehrson showed multiple fronts and brought pressure from different angles in order to make the Mids more disruptive.
Pehrson, in his third season as defensive coordinator, was relatively pleased with the results as Florida Atlantic was limited to 19 points on 326 total yards. The Owls mustered no running game whatsoever, managing only 40 yards on 24 attempts. Quarterback Daniel Parr completed 19 of 30 passes for 281 yards and two touchdowns, but much of that came on two plays.
“I thought they flew around and played hard,” Pehrson said. “Our goal going into this year was to be more aggressive and we did some things in this game that we haven’t in the past.”
Navy has traditionally employed various types of zone pass defense, a philosophy that was exposed last season by the spread passing attacks of the American Athletic Conference. The Midshipmen put their cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers on islands a lot more on Friday night in order to commit more defenders to rushing the passer.
“It was our first time playing a lot of man coverage since 1996 and I was a little nervous about how we would hold up,” Pehrson said. “We made a few mistakes, but for the most part I thought we did pretty well.”
Pehrson said safety Jarid Ryan bit on a double move, which allowed speedy wide receiver Willie Wright to get behind the Navy defense for a 95-yard touchdown catch. Ryan, a Severn School product, jumped a slant route and got burned when it became a slant-and-go.
Meanwhile, a 62-yard touchdown completion from Parr to wideout DeAndre McNeal was simply the result of a missed tackle by cornerback Tyris Wooten.
“Wooten had him covered pretty well, but kind of got turned around. We should have stopped that for a 20-yard gain, but the kid shed the tackle and turned it into a long touchdown,” Pehrson said.
Big plays can result from man-to-man coverage, especially when the safeties must pick up slot receivers and thus cannot help over-the-top. One benefit from that strategy is the ability to rush four and five defenders on pass plays.
“We didn’t rush three all night, which is a big change for Navy,” Pehrson said. “I thought we did a good job of sending people and causing some disruption. We got into the backfield and forced the quarterback to step up in the pocket or just threw him off rhythm.”
Navy recorded two sacks – by linebackers Jerry Thompson and Hudson Sullivan – and eight tackles for loss. Thompson, a converted safety who plays the hybrid outside linebacker position known as Striker, was credited with two tackles for loss.
“Jerry is a real active player and did some good things in this game,” said Pehrson, noting that Thompson will continue to share playing time with fellow senior Justin Norton.
Safety Sean Williams led Navy with eight tackles, one of which went for loss in spectacular fashion. Williams read the play perfectly, broke on the ball and drilled Wright for a 9-yard loss. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder was sure-handed in makng five solo tackles, most of which were out in space.
“I thought Sean Williams played a tremendous game. He really showed up big-time,” Pehrson said. “Sean did a great job of controlling the secondary as a verbal leader. His improvement based off experience really showed in this game. He has a much better understanding of the defense and has gotten way more disciplined with his eyes.”
Standout inside linebacker Micah Thomas had a strong game with four tackles, an interception and a pass breakup. Thomas returned his pickoff 25 yards to put Navy in scoring position, but kicker Bennett Moehring wound up missing a 29-yard field goal.
Sophomore cornerback Noruwa Obanor, who saw the most extensive action of his young career, made a nifty interception while in man coverage on a deep slant route.
“I thought Noruwa made a great pick. He was in man coverage, turned around, attacked the ball and made a good catch,” Pehrson said.
Pehrson also praised the play of Sullivan, the other inside linebacker who made five tackles. Ryan, a Glen Burnie resident, was victimized by the long pass, but also finished second on the squad with six tackles.
A key element of Navy’s more aggressive defensive approach involves playing a lot of bodies and that was evident on Friday night, when game-time temperature was 87 degrees and the humidity was stifling.
Pehrson said the Mids used five defensive ends, two nose guards, five outside linebackers, four inside linebackers, four cornerbacks and three safeties.
“We’re going to roll a lot of people at every position,” Pehrson said. “I haven’t seen the report that tells how many plays everyone got, but we were two-deep at every spot and even three-deep at some.”
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