Now, two games from wrapping up a tumultuous, pandemic-marred season, Navy is holding quarterback competitions on a weekly basis. A year after finishing 19th in the country in total offense with 455.8 yards per game, Navy has struggled under center, leaving the offense ranked 117th nationally at just 310 yards per game.
“Look at us over the years: The quarterback has always been a big part of the offense,” Jasper said. “We’re just not getting that right now. We have to just keep pushing forward. We’re not going to have that guy back there like we did last year. I’m not going to say his name. I’ve told myself I’m not going to mention that name anymore. I fine myself when I do.”
Navy (3-5, 3-3 American) will host Tulsa at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in its rescheduled home finale. The Mids have 17 consecutive wins on senior day, a hallowed tradition at the academy, but that mark is in danger against a Golden Hurricane team angling for a conference championship. Tulsa (5-1, 5-0) is No. 24 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 22 in the Associated Press poll.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said the staff decided by midweek who would start at quarterback, but he wouldn’t tip his hand. That the position remains unsettled after three months of football is far from ideal.
Senior Dalen Morris opened the season as the starter in a 55-3 loss to BYU and was benched for freshman Xavier Arline at Tulane, the second game of the season. That lasted a little more than a quarter before Morris was reinserted as the Mids rallied from a 24-0 deficit to a 27-24 win. Junior Tyger Goslin made his first career start the next game at Air Force while Morris dealt with a medical condition, and the offense sputtered against an extremely undermanned Falcons defense in a 40-7 loss.
Morris was the man for the next four games, and the Mids went 2-2 before the pandemic forced a 27-day break between games. Niumatalolo opened the quarterback competition in that time, and the keys were handed back to Goslin when the team returned against Memphis last Saturday. That lasted less than three full quarters; the Mids managed just seven points, and Arline was sent back in, though Jasper said the coaches planned to play Arline at some point. The Mids still lost, 10-7.
Now Navy’s plans are shrouded in mystery.
“We’re not a very good football team right now. We can’t give anybody any data,” Niumatalolo said. “Trying to keep it as vague as possible for [Tulsa Coach Philip] Montgomery and his defensive staff.
“When you’re playing well and it’s Malcolm, you want everyone to know it’s Malcolm. We’re struggling a little bit. The poor quarterbacks, man, to put that on Dalen, Tyger and Xavier — yes, they could be playing better, but it’s not like we’re playing lights-out anywhere else. But, unfortunately, they understand the quarterback gets all the glory and he gets all the blame. Unfortunately, it’s part of the position. You hate to put it all on him because that’s not the reason we’re 3-5, all because of the quarterback. It’s a lot of spots.”
The biggest problem is that Navy runs the triple option, and this season, only one of those options has been effective. The fullbacks, particularly senior Nelson Smith (589 yards, eight touchdowns), have shined running up the middle, but the Mids have struggled on the edges with their slotbacks and quarterback. Morris, Arline and Goslin have combined for 126 rushing yards.
The Mids, the No. 1 rushing team in the nation in 2019 and ranked in the top five every season since 2013, are 40th at 192.8 yards per game in 2020.
“This offense is a triple-option offense; at some point, one of those options is going to have to be a threat,” Jasper said. “Obviously, our [fullbacks] have been running the football great this year. But perimeter-wise, we’re struggling right now, and also quarterback-wise we’re struggling right now as far as getting the run game going. We’re going to just continue to push forward.”
Niumatalolo acknowledged the players are frustrated. The quarterback has to be, at minimum, a threat to run and force the defense to play more honestly. Tulsa brings the No. 24 scoring defense (22.2 points per game) to Annapolis, but its run defense ranks 50th (148.5 yards per game).
“It’s just tough,” Niumatalolo said. “We get the ball on the perimeter and [opponents] make a play, can’t get anybody on the ground. We’ve just got to get better at quarterback. He’s got to be more of a threat. It’s been like that all season long. All those guys bring something to the table; it just hasn’t been what we need game in and game out.
“Last year, the other guy we had back there was pretty good. We got a lot of production out of there. This year, it’s pretty clear what we’re not getting right now.”