Tuesday, December 18

2007 Poinsettia Bowl

In only its second year of existence, the Poinsettia Bowl moved up to the coveted opening bowl slot, which it used last December to give us a 37-7 masterpiece of TCU destroying Northern Illinois. The year before, Navy destroyed Colorado State 51-30, leading people to question why the pee-wee team from Fort Collins was invited to a bowl in the first place. There, that is the entire history of the Poinsettia Bowl.

Navy Midshipmen (by Coach Lawrence)

For the Naval Academy, 2007 has been an historic season. The Midshipmen defeated Notre Dame for the first time in 44 years, winning a thrilling 46-44 triple overtime contest by stuffing ND's attempt to pound in a two-point conversion. A blowout victory in the regular season finale against Army gave Navy an unprecedented six straight wins in the series and also gave them the Commander in Chief's Trophy for the fifth straight season. (previously, Air Force had held it for six) Along the way there have been some setbacks - a home loss to div I-AA Delaware and another home loss to Ball State marking the low points - but at 8-4 the Midshipmen roll into the bowl season with at least 8 wins for the fifth straight season.

Navy is one of the last teams left using the triple option offense. Led by Jr QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, they are the nation's only offense to average over 300 ypg rushing, at 351. When running the ball, Navy averages over 6 ypc on both first and second down. Five runningbacks average between 35 and 65 yards per game in a system that keeps defenses on their toes. The offense is extremely effective throwing on first down, though in later situations they struggle more. Defensively, the Midshipmen do give up 4.25 ypc, and the passing defense is mediocre at best.

Game Plan:
1. 5 yards on first down. Dictate the pace on the remaining downs with manageable yardage situations.

2. Patience on defense. Though Utah may try to pound Darrell Mack against the smaller defense, Navy has to like their odds of winning a rushing battle more than winning a shootout with Brian Johnson. Keep at least one safety in coverage support and don't bite the playfakes.

3. Both hands on the ball. In four losses, Navy has 7 fumbles and an average TO margin of -2. In their eight wins, they have just 4 fumbles and an average TO margin slightly under +1. All those pitches and improvised exchanges increase the risk of error - Navy must be intelligent in their decision-making and execute well so as not to give up any breaks.

Utah Utes (by Coach Pendley)

For the Utes, it wasn't the best season. Of course, that's the case any time you lose to your rival - in this case, BYU - even if the game is close. Of course, most teams would kill for 8-4 (I'm looking at you, Florida International) and a seven-game winning streak in the middle of the season. However, that winning streak was over the Who's Who of Who Cares - the "highlight" being either a) beating a dead-in-the-water TCU team 27-20 at TCU or b) beating Louisville on the road 44-35 in a game that would've been huge three years ago. Heck, even their signature win - a 44-6 slaughter of UCLA (who was ranked 11th at the time) - was largely undone by UCLA playing their scout team the second half of the season. Geting shut out by UNLV (1-7, 2-10) can also be filed under "inexcusable".

So what do these guys actually do right? Play pass defense. They had a 7 TD / 16 INT ratio on the season (that's not a misprint), only allowing an average of 188.1 yards per game. (That's including Louisville's 467-yard game.) RB Darrell Mack is the second-leading rusher in the MWC, averaging just over 100 yards a geam. They didn't do too badly in the hidden yardage / turnover games, either, coming it at 43+ yards per punt and a +10 turnover margin on the season, respectively. Of course, they're also going up against a Navy team that hasn't been formally introduced to the forward pass. Good times.

What can Utah do to win this game?
1: Take to the air. QB Brian Johnson hasn't been great with only 162 yards per game (helped by an injury sustained in the opener), but the good news is that Navy doesn't know how to actually play defense. They've allowed 31 TDs to only 9 INTs on the season, which says that the secondary doesn't play for turnovers. If Johnson can keep the ball on target, Utah should be able to go ball-control against Navy's triple option.

2: Stick 8+ in the box. Let's be honest here; Navy's leading receiver, O.J. Washington, has 22.4 yards per game receiving. They're glorified blockers. Leave your corners on an island and start assigning your LBs and safeties to Kaipo, Eric Kettani, Adam Ballard, Shun White, and Jerod Bryant (not at the same time). Seven different guys from Navy average over 30 yards per game, so don't expect to continually shut them down - but put yourself in a position to make a play. Let's be honest: the scout team isn't going to figure out how to really play against Navy's triple option, but the least you can do is give the defensive playmakers an opportunity to do just that.

3: Win the time of possession game. Utah probably needs the ball for at least 33 minutes to pull out a win, and they have the tools to do that. Get the ball in Mack's hands and play the timing route game on the pass; force Navy into a couple of quick punts and take advantage of it. Utah should win the hidden yardage game too, but since Navy lives on their rushing offense getting in a situation where Utah has to take to the air while the Midshipmen are on the ground is not a winning scenario.