Navy vs. Arizona State, 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl preview: Dual-threats and cut blocks

Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE

Arizona State is always interesting, always active, and sometimes effective. The Sun Devils will have to keep their collective head on a swivel, however, against an always tricky Navy squad.

5 Players To Watch

Gee Gee Greene (SB, Navy, Sr.). Navy's Flexbone attack is pretty simple, really. Cut block like hell, pound away with the fullback and plenty of quarterback keepers, then gouge a flat-footed defense with the slotback out side. Greene has done wonderful things from the slotback role in his time as a Midshipman, and the senior from Columbia, South Carolina, is finishing his career with his best all-around season. Greene has rushed for 765 yards on just nine carries per game (7.1 per carry) and has caught 17 passes for 303 yards and two touchdowns. In only around 12 overall touches (including incomplete passes targeting him) per game, Greene has produced over 1,000 yards of offense. He is Navy's best big-play threat, and if he ends up with a "10 carries for 85 yards, two catches for 45 yards" stat line, Navy might win.

Taylor Kelly (QB, Arizona State, So.). Todd Graham's first season in Tempe was up-and-down overall; Arizona State started 5-1, lost four in a row, then finished with two wins. The Sun Devils suffered two gut-wrenching, coulda-woulda-shoulda losses to Missouri and UCLA (the latter cost them the Pac-12 South title) but showed infinite potential along the way, and an eighth win would be a lovely way to generate some attention for next season.

Taylor Kelly was Arizona State's season personified. He alternated between creative genius and silly mistakes, and in the end his stat line was quite strong: 2,772 passing yards, 66 percent completion rate, 25 touchdowns, nine interceptions, 31 sacks, and 608 pre-sack rushing yards (despite Wildcat-formation quarterback Michael Eubank coming in frequently in obvious run situations). The dual-threat quarterback leads quite the dual-threat attack, which features players like junior freshman D.J. Foster (101 carries, 49 targets) , Marion Grice (89 carries, 51 pass targets) and senior Jamal Miles (49 targets, 15 carries). The Sun Devils were often more interesting than effective this year, but they were effective frequently enough to reach seven wins.

Brandon Magee (WILL, Arizona State, Sr.) and Will Sutton (DT, Arizona State, Jr.). As has been written many times, the Flexbone leverages your strengths against you. For Arizona State, that strength is the disruptive ability of Will Sutton, one of the most active tackles in the country, and the pursuit of Brandon Magee. Both will have to fend off all sorts of chips and cut blocks, but they are good enough to still make all sorts of plays. The 267-pound Sutton led all FBS tackles with 20.0 tackles for loss and is quick enough to find his way into the Navy backfield quite often, and Magee led ASU with 90.5 tackles, 11.5 of which came behind the line of scrimmage. In all, ASU racked up an impressive 106 tackles for loss (second in the country behind conference mate Stanford), 49 sacks (also second behind Stanford) and 73 passes defensed. They are active and fun, but ... heads on a swivel, boys. Heads on a swivel.

Keenan Reynolds (QB, Navy, Fr.). In my Army-Navy preview from a few weeks ago, I wrote the following about Reynolds:

Navy has lost just once since Reynolds took over as the starter. He has rushed for 585 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, and perhaps more importantly, he can hit open receivers downfield. He obviously isn't asked to pass much (11 times per start, basically), but he is averaging 16.4 yards per completion and completing 58 percent of his passes for the season. That is basically all you can ask of a Flexbone quarterback. Actually, it might be more.

  • Keenan Reynolds, first six starts (2012): 108 carries, 545 yards, eight TDs; 36-for-67 passing, 622 yards, eight TDs, one INT
  • Ricky Dobbs, first six starts (2008-09): 136 carries, 552 yards, 11 TDs (224 yards and four touchdowns came in his very first start); 22-for-36 passing, 432 yards, three TDs, two INTs

Dobbs' per-pass numbers are better, but Reynolds is being asked to pass quite a bit more out of the gates than Dobbs was, and Dobbs' starts did not come until late in his sophomore season.

Reynolds was outplayed by Army's Trent Steelman, but he also engineered a perfect go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter and won his first Army-Navy game, less than a year after his high school senior prom. He plays like a junior, and if ASU lacks discipline or intuition against the Flexbone attack, Reynolds will make the Sun Devils pay dearly.

4 Reasons To Watch

1. Flexbone = fun. It just is. And it is even more fun when it is taking apart a big, strong FBS defense. Not saying it will take apart Arizona State, but it might, and you'll want to watch just in case.

2. Taylor Kelly = fun. He's got some Brett Favre in him. And not the late-career, prima-donna, cartoon character Favre, but the early, decent-in-the-pocket-but-kills-you-with-improvisation, just-having-fun-like-a-kid-out-there Favre.

3. Arizona State could be a team to watch in 2013. Todd Graham caught a lot of justifiable flack for ditching Pittsburgh after just one year and heading to Arizona State. But it isn't difficult to see what he saw in this ASU squad. The Sun Devils certainly got some solid contributions from seniors this year -- running back Cameron Marshall is big and tough, wideouts Jamal Miles and Rashad Ross caught 68 passes, the aforementioned Brandon Magee is outstanding, and senior defensive backs Keelan Johnson and Deveron Carr picked off six passes and broke up 16 more; but they will return Kelly, Grice (who has rejoined the team after a family tragedy), Foster (ASU's most explosive receiving threat), H-back Chris Coyle, three offensive line starters (and seven of 10 on the two-deep), and the entire starting defensive front seven aside from Magee. They were 1-2 in one-possession games in 2012, meaning they were closer to 9-3 than 6-6, and they should expect to improve this offseason. This is an exciting program right now, whether you like the head coach or not.

4. Bonus football. Bonus football!

3 Key Factors

1. ASU vs. the Flexbone. Heads. On. A. Swivel. You never know how a team is going to defend the 'Bone until you see them do it. A Todd Graham team has not faced this type of option attack since Graham was at Rice in 2006 (it might be worth noting that Rice beat Army, 48-14), and Arizona State hasn't faced one since before any of its current players were born (ASU 33, Air Force 28 in the 1987 Freedom Bowl). Maybe the Sun Devils dominate ... and maybe Navy keeps them one step behind all game long.

2. Navy vs. Field Position. While Arizona State's offense lacked consistency, it was typically good enough to generate at least a first down or two on each drive before handing the ball to Josh Hubner, one of the nation's best punters. Hubner averaged 47.1 yards per punt, and ASU ranked sixth in the country in Net Punting and 19th in Field Position Advantage. That did a Top 30 defense quite a few favors. Aside from the occasional big play from Gee Gee Greene or receiver Brandon Turner, Navy was, as is customary, based more on grind-it-out, efficient drives instead of big plays, and it's a lot easier to grind out 40-yard scoring drives instead of 80. If ASU dictates the field position battle, the Sun Devils should eventually overtake the Midshipmen.

3. Turnovers. It always feels like a cop out to say turnovers are a key -- turnovers are always a key -- but considering Navy fumbles twice per game, and considering ASU averaged two turnovers and more than two takeaways per game, it could quite obviously make a 10-15 point difference in this one.

2 Predictions

F/+ Pick: Arizona State by 19.0.
Bill's Pick: Arizona State by 10. Navy should find some success as ASU adapts, but the Sun Devils should make just enough big plays on both sides of the ball to get the job done. Be wary, however.

1 Shutdown Fullback

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