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Navy’s 2018 could depend on ... the passing game? You read that correctly.

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Ken Niumatalolo’s squad is loaded at QB, but the supporting cast wasn’t quite up to snuff last year.

Tulane v Navy Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Navy’s doing just fine in the AAC. We’ll start with that. All the concerns about how teams would get up to speed at defending Ken Niumatalolo’s triple option: poppycock, as predicted here.

In 2017, the Midshipmen’s third year in the league, they had two quarterbacks rush for 1,000 yards. They took down an upstart Tulane, outlasted SMU in a track meet, wiped the floor with Virginia in a bowl, and beat Lane Kiffin’s FAU by 23. With the option as their id, they ranked 10th in rushing success rate and sixth in standard-downs success rate.

They also learned, however, of how your odds can turn with a particularly tricky schedule.

Navy faced four opponents that finished in the S&P+ top 20 and eight that finished in the top 80. Their defense improved from 100th to 83rd in Def. S&P+, and their offense still played at a top-40 level, but their their opponents went from averaging a 72.9 ranking in S&P+ to 60.2. And when you’ve got more tossups, sometimes the coin lands on tails.

For the first time since 2011, Navy finished with a losing record in one-possession games. Managing a game with a ball-control offense is, on average, your best ticket to close-game success, and from 2012-16, the Midshipmen went 17-6 in those tight finishes. But despite run success and defensive improvement, a few more games than normal got away from them.

Honestly? We can maybe blame their passing game for that, as strange as that might sound.

  • Navy passing (2015): 64-for-122 (53%), 1,280 yards, 9 TD, 2 INT, 14 sacks, 161.7 passer rating, 8.6 yards per attempt (inc. sacks), 35% passing success rate
  • Navy passing (2016): 93-for-158 (59%), 1,794 yards, 9 TD, 7 INT, 18 sacks, 164.2 passer rating, 9.6 yards per attempt (inc. sacks), 42% passing success rate
  • Navy passing (2017): 42-for-102 (41%), 1,005 yards, 10 TD, 10 INT, 11 sacks, 136.7 passer rating, 8.2 yards per attempt (inc. sacks), 30% passing success rate

When the program lost all-time great QB Keenan Reynolds after 2015, then lost primary backup Tago Smith to injury as well, they actually improved offensively because of the spark new QB Will Worth gave to the passing game. He completed 62 percent of his passes at 10 yards per attempt. But backup Zach Abey was only at 57 percent and 7.7 per attempt that year, and after losing stud receiver Jamir Tillman as well, the passing game just wasn’t as reliable.

Abey completed only 43 percent of his passes, and Malcolm Perry, by far the best rusher in the QB corps, was trusted to attempt only three passes all year. One resulted in an interception, one in a sack. He averaged 8.7 yards per rush and minus-2 yards per pass. Even for Navy, that doesn’t cut it.

So now Niumatalolo heads into another season in Annapolis — his 12th as head coach — needing a few more passing options. It’s a funny world sometimes. Abey and Perry are both back, as is a third QB (Garret Lewis) whose arm Niu and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper trust a bit more (he attempted 25 passes to 24 carries) but who can’t run the option as well (3.8 yards per carry). Oh, and the only returning guy who caught more than one pass last year is Perry ... the QB.

It’s an interesting puzzle, and they’ll have to solve it while replacing those responsible for 63 percent of last year’s havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles) on defense.

At Navy, with no redshirts and a constant reliance on upperclassmen, you’re used to replacing more contributors than the rest of the country. But we’ll see if Niu and company can again find the balance they established in 2015-16. They almost lost as many games last year (six) as in those previous two years combined (seven). I doubt that sat too well.

Offense

Compared to its 2016 radar, the Navy offense looked basically the same, only with deflated success on passing downs. In six losses, Midshipmen QBs completed just 11 of 30 passes with four picks and four sacks on passing downs. The national average for passing downs success rate was 31 percent in 2017, and Navy was at 20 percent or lower in four of six losses and only once higher than 27 percent.

You still have to catch up to the chains sometimes. Navy isn’t designed for big plays, and the Midshipmen are more comfortable than most at grinding out 12-play scoring drives, but in a 12-play drive, you’re probably going to face at least one third-and-7. So Navy’s ability to win its share of close games again will depend on improvement in the passing game. No pressure, Perry.

Military Bowl - Virginia v Navy
Malcolm Perry
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Perry is maybe the most explosive rusher Niumatalolo has had behind center. Despite spending a good portion of the season at slotback (he was Navy’s second-leading receiver), he rushed for 100-plus yards six times and rushed for 250-plus twice in the last five games.

But a lot of the spring was focused on building confidence in his arm. You don’t have to be a great passer, but you’ve got to be better than “1-for-2 for five yards, an interception, and a sack.”

Having Abey as a backup plan is nice. Abey averaged a mere 5.2 yards per non-sack rush and rushed for 100-plus yards in each of Navy’s first seven contests. But his effectiveness evaporated when he suffered a shoulder injury against Temple, opening the door for Perry.

NCAA Football: Navy at Notre Dame
Zach Abey
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Navy had to replace a particularly large amount of slotbacks a year ago, and that group’s production dipped.

  • Navy slotbacks (2016): 183 carries for 1,500 yards (8.2) and 11 TDs; 34 receptions for 774 yards and 4 TDs
  • Navy slotbacks (2017): 103 carries for 691 yards (6.7) and 4 TDs; 21 receptions for 493 yards and 3 TDs

Hitting the slot man on the option pitch has generated a large percentage of Navy’s big plays — even on passing downs — and it didn’t happen nearly as much. That meant Navy had to lean more on that untrustworthy pass. As Niumatalolo said in the link above, “If we’re doing what we should be doing on offense as far as running the football, the passing game will be there for us.”

With Perry at full-time QB and Darryl Bonner gone, Navy will be leaning on sophomore Keoni-Kordell Makekau and senior Tre Walker to produce on the corners. Walker was averaging 7.6 yards per carry through three games when he went down with injury, and Makekau had seven carries for 49 yards against Notre Dame.

The Middies should be fine at fullback. The stalwart Chris High is gone, but senior Anthony Gargiulo had 76 carries for 423 yards and three scores and had High beaten from both an efficiency and explosiveness standpoint. And after replacing three all-conference linemen from 2016, this year’s line has a bit more continuity, welcoming back not only two starters (tackles Andrew Wood and Jake Hawk) but also three others who earned some starting experience last fall. Wood was a rare mid-three-star recruit three years ago.

Defense

With the offense operating slightly less reliably, more was asked of the defense, and it occasionally responded. The Midshipmen did improve from 100th to 83rd in Def. S&P+, though that’s a bit of a ratings anchor overall.

The run defense improved from decent to good, while the pass defense improved from awful to bad. And while there is production to replace, most of the units on this defense return at least one known entity.

Military Bowl - Navy v Pittsburgh
Jarvis Polu
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
  • DE: Tyler Sayles (7 TFLs) is gone, but senior Jarvis Polu (7 TFLs over two years) is back.
  • NG: Jackson Pittman (3.5 TFLs), the only nose guard to make more than four tackles, is back. He’s big, too (6’3, 304).
  • ILB: Micah Thomas and Brandon Jones (combined: 7.5 TFLs) are gone, but Hudson Sullivan and Taylor Heflin (3 TFLs, with Sullivan playing only six games) return.
  • OLB: The top three (D.J. Palmore, Jerry Thompson, and Justin Norton) are gone, and Palmore (12.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) was particularly disruptive, but look out for junior Nizaire Cromartie — he made only 8 tackles last year, but five were behind the line.
  • CB: Elijah Merchant and Tyris Wooten (combined: 16 pass breakups) depart, but Jarid Ryan, a two-year contributor returns, as does Micah Farrar, who managed 12.5 tackles, an INT, a PBU, and a forced fumble as a rare freshman contributor.
  • S: Everyone’s back, primarily seniors Sean Williams and Juan Hailey. Williams has been a leader in the back for a couple of years now.

There are questions at OLB, if Cromartie isn’t the real deal, but otherwise there’s decent balance between the holes to fill and the candidates to fill them.

Navy’s defense is what it is: a bend-don’t-break unit that leverages the field and tries to prevent you from finishing drives as well as its offense does. The Midshipmen started making run stops at or behind the line (they were 108th in stuff rate in 2016 and 21st last year), and that made a big difference. We’ll find out if that had more to do with the line (which returns quite a bit) or the linebacking corps (which doesn’t).

Military Bowl - Virginia v Navy
Sean Williams
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Special Teams

After ranking in the top 50 in Special Teams S&P+ in both 2015 and 2016, Navy saw a bit of a letdown. That was primarily because of place-kicking. Bennett Moehring went from decent in 2016 (8-for-10 on FGs) to shaky in 2017 (8-for-15) and briefly lost his job. He made two field goals against Army but just barely missed a 48-yarder at the buzzer against Army, a kick that would have redeemed his season.

Moehring gets another chance in 2018, and just about everyone else is back as well, at least sort of. Perry was an excellent return man but lost that job when he became starting QB. The job is probably Tre Walker’s if he’s healthy.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Hawaii 122 8.4 69%
8-Sep Memphis 42 -5.9 37%
15-Sep Lehigh NR 29.0 95%
22-Sep at SMU 74 -4.9 39%
6-Oct at Air Force 112 4.4 60%
13-Oct Temple 81 1.1 52%
20-Oct Houston 59 -2.9 43%
27-Oct vs. Notre Dame 7 -24.6 8%
3-Nov at Cincinnati 88 -1.8 46%
10-Nov at UCF 17 -19.7 13%
17-Nov Tulsa 108 8.4 69%
24-Nov at Tulane 98 0.8 52%
8-Dec vs. Army 92 2.0 55%
Projected S&P+ Rk 85
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 54 / 106
Projected wins 6.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.5 (53)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 92 / 86
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / 2.4
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 48% (51%, 46%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 6.5 (0.5)

S&P+ is not designed to project service academies very accurately. The projections rely in part on returning production (of which Army, Navy, and Air Force usually have less than most) and recruiting rankings (never a strength), so when I see that Navy is projected 85th overall, I take that to mean something more like 70th. S&P+ says they’re projected to both win and lose about 6.5 games, but I’m guessing that makes something like 7-6 or 8-5 the most likely finishes.

One thing you can say about the 2018 slate: it loosens up a bit. There are only two projected top-40 opponents (at UCF, plus Notre Dame in San Diego), and the next two most difficult foes (No. 42 Memphis and No. 59 Houston) visit Annapolis. There’s a larger base of likely wins, plus some fun upset opportunities.

There’s also Perry. For all the turnover at slot, receiver, outside linebacker, etc., Navy has a true headliner at QB, and if he gets just a little bit more help, he could produce individual numbers we haven’t yet seen from this offense.

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