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Q & A with The Birddog

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We sit down with Mike from Navy football blog The Birddog, to see what he can tell us about the midshipmen before the matchup with Navy this Saturday.


Big thanks to Mike from The Birddog for answering our questions this week. If you're not feeling up to working on this fine Friday, head over there and read more about option football than you ever thought you could digest! Without further ado, lets trim the jib, haul up the topsail, and tack back on some questions (those words are all things, right?):

1. Last week, Notre Dame faced off against Air Force, another option-based attack. How do Navy and Air Force's option attacks differ, and what advantages do you see Navy's attack having over Air Force's?

I don't know if I'd call Air Force a true "option team." Troy Calhoun doesn't seem to like the term, anyway. Navy is much more committed to the option in the sense that their entire offense starts with the triple, then evolves based on what the defense does to stop it. Air Force runs a lot of option plays, obviously, but they'll also put a halfback 7 yards deep and try to hand him the ball 20-25 times per game. When they do run the option, Air Force isn't usually as spread; unlike Navy, they frequently use a tight end and will put multiple backs in the backfield in formations like the Stack I. Both offenses use zone and veer blocking schemes, but Air Force uses the former more often while Navy employs more of the latter.

2. In preparation for this game, it appears Navy, like Notre Dame, has started to utilize the pistol formation. How much pistol should we expect to see out of the Midshipmen and when are they most likely to use the pistol?

Navy started mixing in pistol and shotgun formations last year in response to seeing more and more defenses put 9-10 guys in the box to stop the option. They run the same plays out of the shotgun that they run with the quarterback under center, but sometimes defenses overreact to the different formations and motions they see in the gun, giving Navy a numbers advantage. Assuming that Notre Dame will line up against Navy the same way they have for the last few years, though, I don't think we'll see it more than a handful of times on Saturday.

3. How has Keenan Reynolds played this season, and what are some of his strengths and weaknesses. Do you see these playing well against Notre Dame?

Keenan has played well for the most part, but he's been hurt and has missed a lot of practice. He developed a sore arm in fall camp that hasn't fully healed, suffered a mild concussion against Western Kentucky, vomited twice on the sideline against Toledo thanks to the flu, and sprained his ankle last week. He actually played better against Pitt after he hurt his ankle, which demonstrates his biggest strength: his composure. Nothing fazes him, and that ability to stay cool under pressure has led to a lot of big plays. Sometimes you wish he would feel just a little pressure when he drops back to pass, since he also takes some bad sacks trying to extend plays rather than throwing the ball away. Still, Navy's doing ok taking the bad with the good. Keenan is an accurate passer, too, although a little less so this season. I think the arm still bothers him a bit and causes him to underthrow some of his receivers.

4. Last season, ND rushed for almost 300 yards and 5 TDs against Navy in Ireland, but last week, Navy was able to hold Pitt to only 135 rushing yards in their 24-21 victory. Which Navy rush defense will we see on Saturday, and what do you see as the keys to the improvement?

Navy's terrible defense in Ireland last year was due to a combination of being physically mauled and having a complete lack of gap integrity against Notre Dame's zone running scheme. The Irish still have a physical advantage (and always will), but Navy is far more disciplined now than they were in game one last season, especially at linebacker. I don't doubt that the Irish will still be able to run the ball, but it shouldn't be to the level of last year's debacle.

5. This Navy team has some size when compared to Navy teams in the past, with 6 players over 300 lbs and three more over 290. Is size a new focus for the Academy when it comes to football?

Size is a little bit more of a focus on the offensive line because of rules changes. Navy used to employ very wide splits to create running lanes for the fullback, but NCAA rules were changed to create a "low blocking zone" that forced the Mids to tighten up their formations. The tighter formations mean that line play is more physical for the Mids, and it makes sense that they are a little bigger as a result. For the most part, though, Navy's bigger size is due to recruiting success. Rather than being forced to choose between big guys and and fast guys, Navy has been able to land some who are a bit of both. It's all relative, of course. Navy's recruiting wouldn't register on a Notre Dame fan's radar, but for a service academy it's been pretty impressive.

6. What is your prediction for the game, and how do we get there? Also, include your prediction for the Ram Vela player of the game for Navy (the player who makes the most ridiculous play possible).

I don't like to make predictions because so much depends on game planning that we aren't privy to. Of course, game planning didn't matter very much the last two years; Notre Dame so thoroughly dominated Navy physically that scheme wasn't even a factor. That might be an opportunity for the Mids. Notre Dame's defensive schemes in those games were pretty basic stuff. Navy just couldn't block anybody. With Navy playing better and the Irish a little banged up on defense, the Mids have a chance to move the ball. Let's be real, though. Notre Dame is a huge favorite for a reason. Navy will have to play close to a perfect game to have a shot at winning.

As for the the player most likely to make a Ram Vela-like play, that would be another OLB, Chris Johnson.