Air Force Non-Conference Preview: Navy Midshipmen
What will the Middies bring to Colorado Springs when they visit Air Force and try to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy?
Both teams will be motivated to get a leg up in their rivalry.
Location: Annapolis, MD
Mascot: Bill the Goat
Conference: American Athletic Conference
2016 Record: 7-6 (4-4 AAC)
Head Coach: Ken Niumatololo (84-48 overall). Interestingly, Niumatololo and Air Force’s Troy Calhoun are now tied as the third-longest tenured coaches in the Group of 5, having both been hired in 2007. In Niumatololo’s case, it’s easy to see why his name continually pops up for big name jobs: On a per-carry basis, his option offense has ranked 14th or better in eight of the last ten years, he’s won four of his last five bowl games,
Last year’s win-loss record might look disappointing, but it’s worth noting that the Middies were 3-4 in games decided by eight points or less. They haven’t lost a game by more than 10 points since the AAC championship in 2016, either, so Niumatololo’s squad remains as dangerous as ever.
QB Malcolm Perry
How good does a running quarterback have to be to force another QB, who just finished the second-most productive season in program history, to switch positions? For the junior Perry, the answer is “pretty dang good”, since Zach Abey will be at wide receiver after leading Navy with 1,413 rushing yards in 2017.
It isn’t as though Perry didn’t earn the starting job, though. He averaged a staggering 8.7 yards per carry on 137 attempts, doing his part to pilot an offense that ranked tenth in Success Rate (50% of necessary yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, 100% on 3rd and 4th), fourth in Power Success Rate (conversions in short yardage situations) and second in Stuff Rate (plays stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage).
LB (RAIDER) Nizaire Cromartie
Navy has always run the ball efficiently, but they’ve always done a solid job of defending against the run, as well. Last year, the Middies ranked fourth in the AAC in yards per carry allowed and Cromartie, who played as a defensive end in 2017, was a key part of that effort with five tackles for loss in just ten games, the most among returning Navy defenders.
FS Sean Williams
Williams is the only returning Navy player to have received all-AAC honors last fall, when he earned an honorable mention after finishing second on the Middies defense with 76 tackles and collecting 2.5 tackles for loss and an interception. He’s the leader of a secondary that will hope to be prepared for Air Force’s vertical passing game and turn around a DB Havoc Rate (percentage of plays with TFL, forced fumble or pass defended) that has dropped for two straight seasons, from 83rd to 99th to 123rd.
SBs Tre Walker and Keoni-Kordell Makekau
Very few teams can move one 1,400-yard runner to a different position and lose another 1,000 yards or so to graduation, but Walker and Makekau are likely to be the reasons why Navy continues with business as usual. Both were listed atop the depth chart at slotback in late April.
Walker, a senior, only played in three games before being lost for the season to injury, but he’s averaged a healthy six yards per carry in limited time across the past two seasons. Makekau, a sophomore, averaged 6.4 YPC, and both are the kinds of numbers that could make life difficult for Air Force’s rebuilt front seven.
DE Josh Webb
Navy has never been known for a dangerous pass rush but, if Air Force falls behind and is forced to throw, someone like Webb could emerge as a serious threat. The senior led the Middies with four sacks last season and might wreak havoc on a line that allowed a sack rate of nearly 13% when Arion Worthman dropped back to pass.
Run, run, and then run some more: Navy has run the ball at least 700 times in each of the last six seasons, leading the FBS with 822 attempts last fall. Perry will have plenty of weapons around him, not just Walker and Makekau but also senior fullbacks Anthony Garguilo and Mike Martin. The bigger mystery is who will catch passes from Perry in the rare instances that he must throw. Abey will help there, but Ryan Mitchell and Taylor Jackson have zero career catches between them.
The Middies have just four returning starters back on defense, though much of the depth chart is nonetheless littered with juniors and seniors. Defensive ends Webb and Jarvis Polu, as well as nose guard Jackson Pittman, form a solid front line. Junior linebacker Hudson Sullivan has the most starts under his belt among that unit, but Cromartie and Taylor Heflin both saw action in at least ten games in 2017. Williams will anchor a secondary that could feature two sophomores, strong safety Jake Springer and cornerback Micah Farrar. They’ll hope to replicate the advantage Navy earned in last year’s win, when they sacked Arion Worthman twice and created five tackles for loss.
It might be difficult for the Falcons and Midshipmen to top last year’s offensive bonanza, when they combined for over 1,100 yards of offense and 93 points, but it seems like they could come close. Air Force’s ability to stretch the field, which is Navy’s most significant question on offense, could prove crucial, but the Falcons’ reloading running game should be able to match the production they had a year ago against this defense. Remember, they had Navy dead to rights in 2017 and lost the game with under a minute to go. A little more good fortune should give Air Force the inside track in reclaiming their biggest rivalry prize. Air Force 41, Navy 38