Military Bowl Preview: Breaking down Virginia-Navy

military bowlVirginia plays an option team every year in the ACC, so the ‘Hoos should be ready for Navy in the 2017 Military Bowl. Right?

That’s the conventional thinking, at least. But there are key differences to the way Navy runs its option from the approach of Georgia Tech.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo unveiled a new zone-option look midseason, giving opponents two offensive schemes to game-plan for.

In the zone-option look, Navy quarterbacks Zach Abey and Malcolm Perry, both of whom gained over 1,000 yards in 2017, take snaps in the shotgun, and often run straight QB draws resembling basic Wildcat plays, made more effective because of their speed.

The option part of the zone-option comes with traditional read-options utilized by a number of spread teams, with a handoff to one of the running backs flanking the quarterback reading the defensive ends.

But the bulk of the work is done by the QBs – Abey and Perry accounted for 53.9 percent of the rushing attempts from scrimmage by Navy in 2017.

The challenge in game prep is that Niumatalolo can also go back to the triple-option, with the quarterback under center in a flexbone attack like the one used by Georgia Tech, with fullback dives and pitches as part of the scheme, either exclusively, or for a series or even mixing and matching with the zone-option.

Meaning, yeah, good luck, Bronco Mendenhall, the UVA head coach and defensive coordinator, who will have to spend time over the next several practices game-planning for both.

For what it’s worth, Virginia did a solid job defensively in its 40-36 win over Georgia Tech back on Nov. 4, the 36 points surrendered being a bit deceiving, with a picksix and a short-field drive fluffing the scoring line.

The Yellow Jackets put up a modest 220 yards rushing, gaining 4.2 yards per attempt, well off their season averages of 307.4 yards per game and 5.3 yards per tote.

Navy puts up comparable numbers – 343.0 yards a game and 5.5 yards per attempt.

You won’t see the Middies throwing the ball an awful lot: Navy averaged just over eight pass attempts per game, though it’s worth noting that Georgia Tech, which averaged just under 10 attempts through the air per game in 2017, ended up attempting 22 passes, and though only six were complete, they gained 179 yards, including a late 33-yard Ricky Jeune touchdown catch that put the Jackets up with 3:10 to go.

Navy’s vulnerability is on the defensive side of the ball. The D isn’t on the field a lot, with the offense holding the ball for just under 36 minutes a game, but when it is, it gets gashed on the ground, allowing 4.6 yards per rush attempt, and sliced and diced through the air, allowing opponents to average 9.0 yards per pass attempt, throw 23 TD passes, while only picking off six passes on the season.

Virginia will need to get healthy on the offensive line, in particular, to give senior quarterback Kurt Benkert time to pick apart the Navy secondary.

For the season, Benkert threw for 3,082 yards, completing 59.6 percent of his passes, with 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.

The issue for UVA down the stretch was that its ground game all but deteriorated, averaging just 67.8 yards per game and 2.6 yards per attempt in the Cavs’ final six games, putting more pressure on Benkert to move the chains, and allowing opponents to tee off on him, racking up 19 sacks in the closing stretch.

Better line play and an early commitment to the run would seem to be two focal points for offensive coordinator Robert Anae, with Mendenhall keying on keeping Navy behind the chains on first and second downs to force the Middies into third-and-longs that are the enemies of option teams.

Preview by Chris Graham


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