Air Force Football: First Look At The Navy Midshipmen
The Falcons will look to take steps in reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy when they host rival Navy in early October.
Are the Middies in for another year-long struggle?
Air Force Football: First Look at 2022 Non-Conference Opponents
Air Force’s quest to reclaim the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy will begin in Week 5 when the Falcons host the Navy Midshipmen in Colorado Springs.
Location: Annapolis, Maryland
Series History: Air Force leads the all-time series, 32-22.
2021 Record: 4-8 (3-5 AAC)
Head Coach: Ken Niumatololo (16th year at Navy, 105-75 overall). Are the cracks beginning to show in Niumatololo’s program? After winning the AAC West division three times from 2015 to 2019, the Midshipmen have fallen on hard times with three losing campaigns in the last four years. Last year was particularly tough, but it also could have gone in a few different directions: Navy’s wins over UCF, Army, and Tulsa came by a combined 11 points, but they also lost four games by eight or fewer points, as well.
John Marshall, STRIKER
Marshall has made 20 starts for Navy over the last two seasons and his role will be counted upon to contribute even more in 2022. Among those returning, he led the team with 54 total tackles and added 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack, so the tri-captain will play a crucial role in some capacity or other.
Tai Lavatai, QB
Lavatai’s first year as QB1 had its ups and downs, but he shouldered the heaviest workload in the Navy option offense by leading the Midshipmen with 170 rushing attempts which totaled 371 yards and a team-high seven touchdowns. He also completed 34-of-61 pass attempts and averaged 7.4 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and two interceptions. With greater stability around him, Lavatai could see better numbers across the board.
TAI LAVATAI IS A GROWN MAN. TOUCHDOWN NAVY 😤😤😤😤 pic.twitter.com/NMgzFZrKcq
— 247Sports (@247Sports) December 11, 2021
Clay Cromwell, DT
Though he was primarily a backup at nose guard in 2021, Cromwell certainly maximized his time on the field with 15 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. He’ll play closer to the edges of the line in 2022, but that kind of disruption could cause problems against an Air Force offense which requires an efficient ground game.
Rayuan Lane III, S
It isn’t often that a freshman cracks the starting lineup at a military academy, but that’s what Lane did in making six starts last season. That opportunity ended up being a fairly productive one, too, as he finished the season with 37 total tackles, two tackles for loss, and four passes defended.
— American Football (@American_FB) October 30, 2021
Maquel Haywood, RB
Haywood spent most of his time last year as Navy’s primary kick returner, a role he handled with aplomb by averaging 31 yards per return with one touchdown. He also started the season finale at slotback against Army and, as of June, is slated to be the starter at that position in 2022.
Navy’s offense was nowhere near the same league where Air Force and Army operated a year ago. The Midshipmen ranked 126th in yards per play and finished 114th by available yards percentage earned and 97th in points per drive, an issue which led to an awkward firing of offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper (perhaps not coincidentally, that happened after Air Force defeated the Middies last September) before he was brought back two days later.
It’ll be an uphill climb to rebuild. Lavatai and Xavier Arline are Plan A and Plan B at quarterback, but more importantly is finding athletes who can replace the team’s top four rushers. Haywood is the projected starter at slotback while Anton Hall Jr. projects to start at fullback, but others like Vincent Terrell II and wide receiver Jayden Umbarger should play roles in the retooled ground game.
The offensive line finished in the top 30 by stuff rate allowed and power success rate, but Navy also finished dead last with a 23.6% sack rate and, more critically, managed an opportunity rate of 43.3% that ranked 112th. The unit returns three starters, including the tackle tandem of Jamie Romo and Kip Frankland, but there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Despite the presence of star linebacker Diego Fagot, the Midshipmen defense wasn’t much better overall than its offensive counterpart, finishing 101st in yards per play allowed, 92nd in available yards percentage allowed, and 97th in points per drive allowed.
The defensive front returns a lot of the key pieces that proved stout against the run last year, not just Cromwell and Marshall but also nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. (23 tackles, 25 tackles for loss), defensive end Jacob Busic (5.5 TFLs, two sacks), and RAIDER Nicholas Straw (33 tackles, six TFLs, one sack). Whether they’ll be able to improve a collective pass rush that ranked 103rd with a 4.9% sack rate remains an open question, however.
As for the secondary, it had the fewest passes defended (34) of any team, allowed the highest completion rate (66.7%), and the most yards per attempt (8.6) of any team in the AAC. Eavan Gibbons, like Lane, was elevated to the starting lineup in the second half of 2021 and both figure to be cornerstones of the present and future.
Navy might be a little bit better than they were last season, but it doesn’t seem all that likely they’ll have enough answers on defense to contend with an Air Force offense that, on paper, has the talent advantage. Expect that the Falcons will be able to take that crucial first step toward reclaiming their prized rivalry trophy.
Air Force 31, Navy 13