Navy’s defense has stepped up when it matters most
By Gene Wang,
The Navy football team had surrendered 30 points and 410 yards to Indiana when, with Saturday’s game in the balance late in the fourth quarter, the defense forced the Hoosiers to punt after three plays netted seven yards.
On their ensuing series, the Midshipmen drove 72 yards for the go-ahead touchdown that made it 31-30 with 2 minutes 2 seconds to play, and the defense needed to withstand Indiana’s frenetic no-huddle attack for a final time to preserve Navy’s second come-from-behind victory in three weeks.
Twenty-four seconds later, Parrish Gaines’s acrobatic interception in front of the Midshipmen sideline triggered a celebration in which the sophomore cornerback wound up on the bottom of a pile of teammates at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“We make big plays when we have to,” Gaines said.
Navy’s defense has done so, particularly in the second half of its last five games, four of which have resulted in wins to get the Midshipmen (4-3) above .500 for the first time in more than a year. Navy next plays East Carolina (5-3) on Saturday in Greenville, N.C.
Since yielding 37 points combined in the second half of blowout losses to Notre Dame and Penn State to open the season, Navy has permitted an average of 7.2 points after intermission, including just 10 to the high-scoring Hoosiers. One week earlier, Indiana had scored 35 second-half points in a 52-49 loss to then-No. 8 Ohio State.
“We’ve been fortunate enough that guys got in position and made some plays,” Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said of his unit’s upswing. “We made some big stops, and I think some of the younger guys like we hoped are getting better and better each week.”
Take sophomore Jordan Drake, who had a 24-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the first half against Indiana that trimmed Navy’s deficit to 17-14. The outside linebacker was one of four sophomores who started that game, and two juniors also started for a defense that allowed 148 yards in the second half after the Hoosiers compiled 269 before the break.
The first indication that Navy’s defense was prepared to buckle down in the second half came when it forced Indiana to punt after three plays on its initial series of the third quarter. It was the first three-and-out of the game for the Hoosiers.
The Midshipmen got the ball at their 21-yard line and drove for a touchdown for Navy’s first lead, 21-20, with 7:37 left in the third quarter.
“We’re never going to give up,” senior linebacker Keegan Wetzel said. “We’re going to keep fighting and plugging away. If we see the other team start to give in and people start to get winded, that gives you all the more enthusiasm to keep attacking.”
Wetzel certainly has done his part. As one of three linebackers to have started every game this season, Wetzel leads Navy with four sacks and 8½ tackles for loss, including three overall against Indiana and two in one series.
Wetzel has had 4½ tackles for a loss over the last two games and has given Green the flexibility to call plays he otherwise might avoid out of concern for allowing long gains.
Behind the rugged play of Wetzel, senior inside linebacker Matt Warrick and junior inside linebacker Cody Peterson as well as a more aggressive pass rush, Navy has allowed 79 points in its last five games (20 quarters plus one overtime), and one touchdown longer than 25 yards in its last two games.
“I think it’s twofold,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I mean we’re playing better in the secondary, but we’re also getting some pressure on the quarterback. I don’t care how good you are in the secondary. If you’re not getting pressure on the quarterback, it makes things tough for the secondary.”