The Air Force Academy meets the Naval Academy on Saturday, each bringing an intriguing running game based on the option. Mark Schofield has a four-part preview of the matchup, continuing with when Navy takes to the air.
The service academies feature the most unique college football rivalries: these schools clash on the football field knowing they’ll be teammates off the field for life. Annual games make for interesting matchups on the field, where these teams run very similar offenses. Both teams are riding high in their conference standings, so both will want a win in Annapolis.
Air Force ranks #2 in FBS rushing offense, averaging 367 yards over their first three games, with Navy right behind, averaging 363. Each team uses the flexbone as their basic formation, creating rushing lanes and blocking angles with skill.
In Part 1 of this preview we illustrated the core elements of the Falcons’ running game. Part 2 looked at the Falcons wrinkles. Part 3 focused on the Navy option attack. Now we look at what happens when Navy takes to the air.
Passing Game Overview
The Navy Midshipmen and Air Force Falcons are evenly matched offensively ‒ at least in the running game. Both teams use the flexbone as their main offensive formation, basing the bulk of their offense off the triple option. The Falcons are a bit unsettled at quarterback though: Starting quarterback Nate Romine missed the Michigan State game with a knee injury, forcing the Falcons to turn to backup Karson Roberts.
However, Navy’s senior QB Keenan Reynolds has been a fixture in the Midshipmen offense since his first days on campus as a freshman, starting 32 games for Navy and sporting a 21-11 record as a starter; the coaches trust him to make smart decisions with the football in both the running and the passing game. While the Midshipmen do not throw much, they can be very effective when the do take to the air.
Play Action Comeback
The comeback route off of play action is a core element of Navy’s passing game. Here, in the 2014 game against Notre Dame, Reynolds and the offense are in their basic flexbone alignment with 30 offensive personnel on the field and a wide receiver to each side of the formation. To oppose them, the Fighting Irish have eight defenders in the box, in a 3-5-3 alignment:
Navy uses play action here, showing the defense the triple option. After Reynolds fakes the dive to his fullback, he retreats into the pocket. On the right side, Brendan Dudeck (#81) runs a deep comeback:
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Reynolds delivers a well-placed throw to the sideline and Dudeck does a very good job of working back to the football to secure the reception. This play is effective because the alignment and personnel of the other defenders puts the receivers in 1-on-1 matchups. The cornerback has no expectation of help, so he must respect the vertical threat. This allows Dudeck to cut back toward Reynolds and the ball, gaining separation.
Another element that Navy uses is the vertical route from the wingback off of play action. On this play, the Midshipmen have their 30 package in the game in flexbone alignment. Notre Dame again crowds the box, showing man coverage in the secondary:
In fact, though, they are throwing the ball. The backside WR runs a deep in route, while the playside WR runs a deep curl. But the primary read is the playside wingback, who runs a straight vertical route:
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Navy just misses connecting for a huge play. You can see how defenders step towards the fake toss, including the free safety, Elijah Shumate (#22). He recognizes the fake far too late and scrambles to recover. A better throw here and the Midshipmen are celebrating.
Play Action With Backside Crosser
Another staple of Navy’s passing game is a backside crossing route off of option action. Here is an example.
The Z receiver on the left runs a post, while the X receiver on the right runs a deep crossing route, working across the field with the flow of the play:
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Reynolds comes out of the fake and throws a strike to Jamir Tillman (#4) on the crossing route. The junior hauls in the pass and gives the offense a first down inside the red zone.
The reason why Navy likes this design ‒ as with the wingback vertical design ‒ is that it uses the natural flow of the option against the defense. In the case of the wingback vertical, it is a standard play action fake designed to bring the defense forward while the receiver gets behind the defenders. But here, the option look stretches the defense horizontally and brings a receiver into the vacated space.
What Reynolds Can Do For You
Finally, two specific examples of what Navy’s senior quarterback brings to the table as a passing threat. On this first play, the Midshipmen have their 30 personnel in the game with a tight flexbone formation. Notre Dame has eight defenders in the box with the three defensive backs showing off man coverage in the secondary:
Navy shows the defense the option look pre-snap before Reynolds retreats into the pocket to pass. Both wide receivers release vertically. But before the QB can set his feet, he is forced to break the pocket because of pressure. Watch as he buys time with his feet, while working the scramble drill with his downfield target, Thomas Wilson (#89):
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Reynolds does a terrific job extending the play before delivering a very impressive throw on the move. Wilson is able to free himself in the secondary, work towards his quarterback, and secure the throw for the score.
Finally, a look at what Navy likes to do in the red zone and on short yardage situations: Get Reynolds on the edge in a run/pass situation:
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On this first and 10 play in the red zone, Navy lines up in a tight flexbone formation. They show Notre Dame the toss play to the left, but Reynolds keeps the football on boot action back towards the right.
He has receivers on three levels.
The playside WR runs a corner route while the backside WR runs a crossing route and the fullback releases to the flat.
Reynolds can run the football here if there is a free lane but, with the fullback wide open, he takes the easy play in the flat. After a juggling catch, Chris Swain (#37) secures the football and barrels into the end zone for the score.
In an evenly-matched game between these two service academies with strong running games, Keenan Reynolds and the Navy passing game might be the difference-maker. The heady veteran has appeared in six previous games with the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy on the line, and has won five of those. His only loss? Last year to Air Force in Colorado Springs. Look for Reynolds to get his revenge this Saturday in Annapolis.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy CBS Sports.