Date: Friday, December 23, 2016
Kickoff Time: 3:30 PM CST
Location: Fort Worth, TX
Stadium: Amon G. Carter Stadium
Streaming: Watch ESPN
Series Record: Navy leads 2-0
Last Meeting: 2010, Navy 37-23
Betting Line: La Tech -6.5
If you like points, you’re gonna have fun on Friday afternoon, as the Armed Forces Bowl between the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs and the Navy Midshipmen is reported to have the highest over/under of any remaining bowl game. La Tech comes in as the 3rd highest scoring offense in the country, while Navy is currently the 15th highest.
They do it in very different ways, however. La Tech has the second most proficient passing attack in the nation. Navy, on the other hand, has the nation’s second best rushing attack courtesy of the triple option. The pace of the game will be largely determined by which offense is on the field.
Louisiana Tech Outlook
After a slow start to the season (1-3), the Dawgs rolled off seven straight wins to clinch their second C-USA West title in just their fourth season in the conference. After a very late bye week, however, they were shocked on the road by rival Southern Miss and couldn’t get it done in the C-USA title game at WKU.
The Bulldogs’ potent passing attack is led by C-USA MVP Ryan Higgins at quarterback, but he’s not alone. He has a pair of wide receivers that have been torching secondaries all year. Carlos Henderson was the C-USA offensive AND special teams player of the year. Trent Taylor comes in as Tech’s all-time leader in receptions and ranks second nationally in that category (one of only three receivers with 100+ catches so far this year). He is also third nationally in reception yards, but is only 16 yards behind that other T. Taylor from C-USA, who has already played his bowl game.
Taylor and Henderson were banged up in their final two games, so Tech is hoping that a few weeks off was enough to get them back to 100%. When these guys are healthy, not many defenses can slow them down. Tech scored more than 50 points in five games this season, to include two games of over 60 points. The fewest they’ve been held to all season was 20 in the season opener at Arkansas, a game where Higgins didn’t play.
Navy came into 2016 needing to replace quarterback Keenan Reynolds. They thought they had their guy in Tago Smith, but he was injured in the season opener. Backup Will Worth took the reigns and led Navy to the incredible offensive performance they had all season. Worth actually led the team in rushing. But in the American title game vs Temple, he and slotback Toneo Gulley each broke a foot in one play. Both will miss the bowl game. Zach Abey is now the man under center for the Mids.
Navy started out 3-0 before having their rush attack shut down by Air Force (who would go on to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy). They followed this up with a monumental upset win over 6th ranked Houston. They would fall on the road to South Florida, but then get a rare win in their rivalry series with Notre Dame. They would win out from there to get home field advantage in the American Championship, but in the game where they lost Worth and Gulley, they got blown out. They would then lose to Army for the first time since 2001.
Quarterbacks are normally known for passing, but Navy doesn’t pass much (only Army and Air Force throw fewer passes). So losing the quarterback shouldn’t matter much, right?
Not even close. Although they don’t pass much, the quarterback is still vital to the success of the triple option. For those less familiar with it, the triple option is essentially a combination of the read option and speed option into one play. When the quarterback receives the snap, he runs a type of read option with the fullback. He can choose to give it to the fullback, who would then try to run up the gut and hope the offensive line can help him knock over a few defenders. Should the quarterback choose to pull it, he then runs a speed option to one side. Here, he can choose to keep it and run the ball himself, or he can pitch it to a running back (often called a slotback in this scenario) who is running with him but back a few yards. The quarterback’s split-second decision-making is crucial to success in this offense. He also has to be careful with ball security, as one bad pitch can be disastrous.
In situations where Navy does choose to pass the ball, keep an eye out for Jamir Tillman, Navy’s leading receiver. He has 38 receptions this year. For reference, only one other receiver has double digit catches, and that’s Calvin Cass, Jr. He has 10.
Both teams can put up a ton of points, but neither team is very good at that whole defense thing, as both teams give up over 400 yards a game. Tech has one of the worst secondaries in the nation, allowing over 280 passing yards a game. Navy is a little better here, but still gives up over 240. In rush defense, Tech isn’t great, but isn’t terrible, as they rank 30th in stopping the run. Navy, however, comes in at 74th, allowing 187 rush yards a game (although they did play both Air Force and Army, which Tech did not).
Tech’s secondary may be terrible, but Navy almost never passes it, so it won’t hurt them as much as in other games. Navy’s secondary may be better, but it still gives up a ton, so advantage Bulldogs here. However, the defensive backs will need to remain vigilant so they don’t get burned on the occasions that Navy does pass the ball.
The biggest factor will be the Navy quarterback position. Losing Worth is huge. Although he was the quarterback, he led the team with 264 carries for 1198 yards. No one else on the team had over 100 carries, and the second leading rusher had 500 yards. Zach Abey is a sophomore who was clearly overwhelmed by the moment in the first half of the Army-Navy game. The bright side for the Mids is that he did better in the second half once he settled down.
I think that Abey will be in a better place mentally in this game. He’s gotten valuable experience from playing part of the Temple game and all of the Army-Navy game. This game won’t have the same amount of pressure as that game, and he’s had plenty of time to prepare. However, he still started this season as the third-string guy, and there’s a reason for that. Although the secondary for La Tech isn’t great, Abey so far has four interceptions with no touchdown passes. Jaylon Ferguson on the defensive line can get pressure, so when Abey does go to pass, the offensive line will need to control Ferguson. If they don’t, Abey could get either sacked or hurried into a bad throw, and safety Xavier Woods can make you pay for that.
The key to this game is first and second down when Navy is on the field. As with any option offense, If Tech can force third and long, they have a shot to get off the field and put Higgins and company to work. If Navy can get positive yardage, they can sustain a drive and chew a lot of time off the clock. The last thing Tech wants is long Navy drives, as that keeps their offense off the field while also tiring out their defense.
The triple option can be very challenging if you aren’t used to defending it, and Tech hasn’t faced it since 2013 in a loss to Army (in DFW, by the way). In fact, Tech has never beaten a service academy. However, all prior meetings with a service academy have been in the regular season. This time around, they’ve had plenty of time to prepare for the option. If they can avoid giving up several long drives, they’ll have a good chance.
If Will Worth wasn’t injured, Tech would have its hands full. But Abey is inexperienced, and it will show. He’ll do much better than he did against Army, but he won’t be able to outscore La Tech. Navy had three turnovers against Army, including two Abey interceptions. I see Tech winning the turnover battle and winning a shootout.
La Tech 44 Navy 35