This time last year, the Navy football team’s most pressing issue heading into its game against Air Force was red-zone inefficiency. The Midshipmen were able to move the ball between the 20-yard lines, but once they advanced farther, the offense bogged down so much that it was ranked 118th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in red-zone scoring over the first four games.
This season, Navy is flourishing from the 20 and closer, and that crisp execution has the offense seeking redemption for a 14-6 loss that ended the Midshipmen’s seven-game winning streak against their service academy rival. It was the first time in 20 years Navy failed to score a touchdown against Air Force.
“That game kind of added to our struggles,” Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said of last year’s defeat in Colorado Springs, where his unit made three trips to the red zone and netted just two field goals. “But this year so far to this point, the big thing is we’ve had some big plays, some long runs, which we hadn’t had in a long time from our slotback position. It’s a good thing for us, but again, it’s a week-to-week deal.”
In eight trips to the red zone this season, Navy has six touchdowns and a field goal, tying it for 44th in the country. The Midshipmen were 2 for 2 in the red zone against then-No. 10 South Carolina in their most recent game on Sept. 17.
Navy’s best production in the red zone came during its season-opening 40-17 victory over Delaware. The Midshipmen got touchdown runs of 13 yards from slotback Aaron Santiago and a one-yarder by quarterback Kriss Proctor, who also completed a 12-yard scoring throw to Santiago for the final points.
That performance was in stark contrast to how Navy began the season last year in a 17-14 loss to Maryland. In that game, quarterback Ricky Dobbs was stopped on fourth and goal from the 1-yard line, allowing the Terrapins to preserve the win. Dobbs also lost a pair of fumbles at the Maryland 1, and the red-zone failings escalated from there through the Air Force game.
“We really didn’t produce in the red zone at all,” senior fullback Alexander Teich said. “There’s a lot of guys on that team that weren’t able to produce that are back again this year, so that’s been a chip on our shoulder. Something that we’ve talked a lot about this week is finishing. Finish the drive in the end zone, finish the game in the fourth quarter.”
The Midshipmen entered their game against South Carolina without a trio of linebackers because of injuries, but this past bye week gave those players valuable time to heal. Now it appears seniors Jarred Shannon and Mason Graham, both starters on the outside in Navy’s 3-4 alignment, are ready to go, and junior Keegan Wetzel is close behind.
Shannon had been nursing a sore right shoulder but is listed as probable after sitting out against the Gamecocks. Graham, meantime, was recovering from a sore right knee and also is listed as probable.
Both players practiced at the start of this week, and although Graham was wearing a green non-contact jersey on Monday, he remained involved in the defensive game planning for the top-ranked rushing offense in the country (411.7 yards per game) and the No. 16 scoring offense (39.7 points per game).
Wetzel missed the South Carolina game while recovering from a concussion. Wetzel still needs to pass post-concussion tests before being cleared to play, but Coach Ken Niumatalolo was optimistic one of his top reserves at outside linebacker would be able to do so.