Midshipmen Need A Sense of Urgency
Navy SB Shun White
Navy SB Shun White
Posted Nov 17, 2008

Navy quarterback Ricky Dobbs came within 34-yards of dropping a bombshell on the college football landscape.

Fortunately for Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, lighting did not strike twice for Navy this past Saturday, as the Irish hung on in a late-game thriller to defeat the Midshipmen 27-21 before a sellout crowd in Baltimore. The Navy comeback attempt, begun under the direction of backup quarterback Ricky Dobbs, nearly played out to the tune of Navy's overtime comeback against Temple on November 1st. In that game, Navy came from twenty points down in the final fourteen minutes to eventually beat the Owls 33-27 in overtime, once again largely on the heals of a sudden offensive "spark" provided by the 6'1 sophomore from Douglasville, Georgia. And while it looked like the Mids were in position to do the unthinkable again after recovering two late onside kicks against Notre Dame, it was ultimately Dobbs' fourth and thirteen incompletion to Corey Finnerty with just 22 seconds left which put to rest any Irish fears of even greater program embarrassment.

Despite the valiant comeback attempt, the mood around Annapolis has been one of debate these past two days. Not without merit, the quarterback controversy the Midshipmen find themselves in centers around the classic case of the "hot hand" against the experienced veteran. And, like most quarterback debates, this one is already bringing out the opinions of anyone and everyone associated with the program to including fans, journalists, and obviously the coaching staff. We of course have the "start the hot guy" crowd, the increasingly confused yet stand-to-reason "Let's follow the coach on this one" crowd, and opinions everywhere in between. Each argument has its points, but each also leaves something more to be desired. Personally I remain torn, knowing full well that the Midshipmen have received a much needed spark under the direction of sophomore Ricky Dobbs over the past month, while also readily acknowledging the presumed fact that Jarod Bryant knows and runs the offense "better."

Frankly, I don't know if starting Dobbs will lead to a late season and much-needed offensive explosion out of the Midshipmen. Of course I'd like to think it would, and however shortsighted some may think the very conception of it would be I still lean towards the idea that he can give the Mids the spark they've been looking for. But then again I don't have decades of coaching experience behind me, much less a thorough and critical eye of what goes on in practice on a day-to-day basis. So, when head coach Ken Niumatalolo maintains that Bryant is the better quarterback at practice, I more or less have to take him at his word. After all, it's not like the Mids haven't found themselves in similar quarterback conundrums within the past few seasons.

Case in point, the quasi-quarterback controversy of midseason 2006, when Brian Hampton's season ending knee injury put Navy fans at odds over who should start against what would become a BCS bowl-bound Notre Dame team. While I don't presume many fans were frequent readers of the now mostly dormant Navy Fan House, some may remember that at the time of Hampton's injury I argued for Jarod Bryant to start over classmate Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. My reasoning was simple; Bryant had looked good late in the game against Rutgers in the previous week, and Kaipo did not. That's right; based on what I had seen that afternoon (in fact less than a quarter of play in garbage time) I was convinced that if Paul Johnson just started Jarod Bryant the next game than the Mids would surely end 42-years of frustration and pull the biggest upset ever. The outcome, as it were, couldn't have been further from my prognosis. Bryant would go on to end the game with less success than Kaipo began it with, and for the rest of 2006 and almost all of 2007 the so-called Flying Hawaiian directed one of the most dominant offensive Navy teams in history.

So what does this have to do with the present state of affairs in Annapolis? Well, the lesson is that just because one player appears to give a team a spark doesn't mean that player is the best choice for that team to start. Of course it does not mean the spark-inducing player shouldn't get the start, it just cautions against basing the starting job only off of late game "heroics," which, to be perfectly blunt, may not have come against the most focused of opponents. Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to justify that Jarod Bryant be given the reigns for the last two Navy regular season games and Dobbs be regulated to the bench, but I just think when considering who should play quarterback in these final two games more factors need to be considered. They are as follows:

1) Need. I've heard a number of individuals address the point of developing Dobbs further, getting him ready for 2009 and, more specifically, the opener against Ohio State. The problem (in my mind anyway) with this argument is that it almost concedes Navy's still unaccomplished goals in 2008. Let's be real for a moment; Navy can still finish with a losing record this year, and can still lose to Army. That being said, the Mids can't afford to go with the quarterback they hope will develop for the future, but must go with the quarterback who gives them the best chance to win now. While I know Navy fans pride themselves on the "six wins and the rest be gravy" argument, the sudden upsurge of Troy Calhoun and Air Force present a real challenge to Niumatalolo's ability to sustain the program. Winning the final two games of the year and having a respectable showing in the bowl game will go a long way towards keeping the balance of SA power in Navy's favor.

2) Opponents. Ken Niumatalolo said in the aftermath of last week's game that Notre Dame and Pittsburgh played similar fronts, collapsing inside on the Navy offense which struggled to establish any kind of perimeter game. Both NIU and Army have seen Navy's offense in the past, and last season both were able to hold Navy's prolific offense "relatively" in check. This means the Mids will need to mix it up against both teams to find success.

3) Situation. This is the kicker for me. Dobbs has been very good in relief of Bryant, no doubt. But the operative word here is "relief." He's still yet to start a game and despite his performance in a rain-soaked blowout of SMU, has still yet to face an experienced defensive front which actually knows what it's doing (at least not in the final few minutes of a game.) Then there is the question of the opponent's mindset. Dobbs came in against Notre Dame on a rainy afternoon in which the Irish were up by 20. By the time Navy scored its first fourth quarter touchdown the Irish had all their backups in. In the game against Temple Dobbs played against a decent Temple front seven, but one in which had seldom been in control of a substantial lead and, as the old adage goes, didn't know how to finish games. Taking nothing away from Dobbs, one still has to admit that he's found himself- at least to begin with- in situations conducive to his success this year. How will he react then under normal game experiences, when a "nothing to lose" attitude can mean digging the team in a hole as opposed to taking steps to get out of one?

Therein lays the million dollar question I suppose, and the point most likely to be questioned as the debate over Navy's quarterback situation continues. Head coach Ken Niumataolo was not just blowing smoke when he said the team should be playing much better this far into the year, and he wasn't just giving the company line that Navy's offensive problems run much deeper than poor quarterback play. Indeed, the entire offense has seemingly ground to a standstill at times over the past month and a half, with the Mids managing just 178 yards rushing against Notre Dame and 194 on the ground against Pittsburgh. Once more, against Temple Navy's offense was held to just seven points before Dobbs entered the game, despite having veteran quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku Enhada at the helm for a solid two quarters. This fact alone leads me to conclude that Navy's offensive problems are in fact deep-rooted, and go beyond just missed reads or assignments by the quarterback.

No, the real problem with Navy's offense is that the Mids just aren't playing with the sense of urgency for three quarters that they've often found themselves playing with in the fourth quarter this season. Some of this has to do with what the opponent- usually more conservative late in the game- shows on defense, but part of it is also dependent on a sort of team psychology and resiliency. The question then becomes how Navy is able to translate the factors of their late-game play to the earlier stages of the game, when the offense has struggled the most in recent contests.

Regardless of where one stands on who should play quarterback for Navy in the final two games, the point remains that the Mids still have a lot to play for. Even with a bowl berth well in hand Navy could still end up on the bottom side of .500 for the year, and once more the Mids could still lose their biggest rivalry game of the year. Perhaps that fact alone will provide the real spark – that is to say the desperately needed sense of urgency- that the Midshipmen have only been able to come across in late game heroics this season.

Adam Nettina covers Mid American Conference and Navy football for CollegeFootballNews.com

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Dobbs Shines in Relief for Midshipmen
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Navy runs past SMU, 34-7
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