Air Force at Navy Preview: The Midshipmen Rushing Attack

The Air Force Academy meets the Naval Academy on the football field, each bringing an option-based rushing attack. Mark Schofield’s four-part preview of these running games continues with a look at the Midshipmen rushing attack.

There are few college football rivalries like those among the service academies. These schools fight on the football field knowing full well that in the future they could be fighting side-by-side, for real. Always an interesting match-up on the field, especially this weekend because Navy and Air Force run very similar option running styles. With both teams topping their conference standings, quite a bit is on the line in Annapolis.

Air Force currently ranks #2 in FBS rushing offense, averaging 367 yards over their first three games, with Navy averaging 363 yards per game right behind them. Each team utilizes the flexbone as their base set to create running lanes and advantageous blocking angles for their linemen.

In Part 1 of this preview illustrates the core elements of the Falcons’ running game. Part 2 delves into the Falcons option wrinkles. Part 4 looks at what happens when Navy takes to the air. 

The Base Option Look

Like Air Force, Navy’s base offensive formation is the flexbone, with two wide receivers and three running backs aligned as such:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play1Still1

Building off this look, the Midshipmen run a lot of triple option, on occasion incorporating pre-snap motion. On this 2nd and 2 play against Notre Dame from 2014, they bring running back Demond Brown (#25) in motion before running the triple option:

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Running the offense for the Midshipmen is Keenan Reynolds (#19), a senior this season and one of the more prolific quarterbacks in Naval Academy history. Reynolds currently has 73 career rushing touchdowns, only four shy of the FBS record set by Wisconsin’s Montee Ball.

On this play, the QB decides to give the football to his fullback, given the alignment of the ND defensive front. But Reynolds is also a very talented ball-carrier.

On this next play, Navy again runs the option to the right:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play2Still1

The two defensive tackles collapse on the interior, taking away the fullback dive. But as Reynolds works down the line of scrimmage, he spies the back of defensive end Justin Utupo (#53). The DE tries to turn back to the quarterback, but it is too late:

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Reynolds cuts inside of Utupo and picks up a first down. Also on this play, notice how Ryan Williams-Jenkins (#24), the pitchman on this play, maintains his relative position with the quarterback as the run develops. Even after Reynolds turns upfield and into the secondary, the wingback is five to seven yards away and in position for a pitch even down the field.

Wrinkles

Now we can look at some of the wrinkles that Navy brings to their flexbone offense. On this next play, again from their 2014 meeting with Notre Dame, they line up in their basic flexbone formation:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play3Still1

This play is triple option to the left, again using motion. But the motion is slightly different:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play3Still2

The wingback to the play side comes in motion towards the fullback, but then veers back to his starting point as the ball is snapped. This slight twist in the motion is enough to draw the attention of play-side linebacker Joe Schmidt (#38), who gets steamrolled by the the left tackle, then the left guard, and then, well, seemingly everybody:

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Reynolds gives the ball to his fullback here, who follows his LT and LG and runs right over Schmidt for an 8-yard gain on first down.

Slot Formation

Navy also likes to use slot formation, even with their basic 30 flexbone personnel. Here are a few examples. On this first play, the Midshipmen face 2nd and 7, and put 20 offensive personnel in the game, with slot formation on the left and a single receiver to the right. In the backfield, they have a wingback and a fullback, with the wingback staggered to the slot side of the field:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play4Still1

Notice how this softens the defensive front a bit. On the previous examples, Notre Dame was playing with eight defenders in the box in a 4-4 alignment. Now, with three receivers on the field, they are forced to expand their defense and have only seven defenders in the tackle box, with the eighth defender trying to split the difference between the slot receiver and the left tackle:

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Reynolds gives the ball to his fullback, who picks up eight yards and a new set of downs for the Midshipmen. On the replay angle, we get a good look at how Navy uses their splits up front:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play4Still2

Notice how the linemen are all equally split from one another, in contrast to how Air Force tends to widen their splits at the point of attack. Also, watch how these blocks come together. The center is tasked with turning the nose tackle at the point of attack, and he does a very good job of sealing the NT from the playside A Gap. The right guard is free to attack the backside inside linebacker, while the right tackle is asked to chip the defensive end before letting him come free and then to work to the next level:

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On the previous play, Navy runs the option away from the slot formation. On this snap, they run the option toward the slot formation:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play5Still1

Again, notice the difference up front: The Fighting Irish have only seven defenders in the box, making life a bit easier for the offense:

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After meeting the fullback at the mesh point, Reynolds keeps the football and works down the line of scrimmage. The defensive end tries to split the difference between QB and running back, but stays to the inside shoulder of Reynolds, which gives the QB enough room to execute a clean pitch. Also, you have to appreciate the effort from left tackle Bradyn Heap (#62), who loops to the outside and gets into the secondary seal off the free safety.

Here is another example of Navy using slot formation, this time with 30 offensive personnel on the field:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play6Still1

The offense has their flexbone backfield in the game, but put both wide receivers on the left side of the formation. Without a field cornerback on the right, Navy looks to attack that side of the field with the triple option:

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Again, the Midshipmen use the familiar half-motion at the start, with the wingback on the right starting in motion towards the fullback, then pivoting at the snap and using his momentum to get out in front. He executes a great cut block on the edge defender, which opens up the pitch read for the quarterback. Also, make sure you replay this video to notice how the fullback carries out the fake by leaping into the pile at the point of attack.

The Toss Game

Like Air Force, Navy also uses the wingback toss as a means of attacking the edges. On this first example, they execute the wingback toss play to the left, out of the base flexbone alignment:

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This is very similar to what we saw from Air Force, but the Midshipmen do use another alignment for this play – a tight flexbone:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play8Still1

Here, Navy has their 30 offensive personnel in the game in a flexbone, but the wide receivers are tight to the formation; this has the opposite effect of the slot formations previously discussed. Now, the defense is forced to clog the middle of the field before the snap.

Only, the Midshipmen are not running to the inside for this play:CFBPreview5NavyPart1Play8Still2

They run the motion-toss play to the left here, bringing the wingback in motion from the right to take the toss. But with this tight formation, the receiver on the left has a great angle pre-snap to seal off the playside inside linebacker. This allows the lead wingback a good angle on the cornerback, setting the edge:

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The wingback takes the pitch and angles towards the left side, picking up five yards before he is brought down.

There are a lot of similarities between these two teams – and their offenses. They work from the flexbone using the triple option as the core element of their offensive game plan. But in the final part of this preview, we’ll take a deeper look at what Reynolds can do in the passing game.

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.

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