While watching the tape of last year’s Air Force game, Navy’s offensive line quickly was reminded how badly it was outplayed in the trenches.
“They got after us,” left guard Osei Asante said. “We only scored one touchdown on offense last year. And most of it came from field position and special teams. This year, the first thing we’ve got to do is establish things at the line of scrimmage.”
One of the first changes Ken Niumatalolo made as coach last year was moving 6-foot-4, 295-pound Ricky Moore to center; he called it his “Air Force move” because the Falcons employ a 5-2 defense in which a nose guard is lined up over the center on every play. But that still didn’t stop Air Force nose guard Ben Garland from wreaking havoc. He disrupted the Midshipmen’s triple option and was the main reason Navy produced a meager 206 yards on the ground.
The Mids (2-2) escaped Colorado Springs last year with a 33-27 win thanks to two special teams touchdowns, and they know their offensive line is going to have to get much more of a push Saturday if they are going to beat the rival Falcons (3-1) for the seventh straight time.
“Two years ago, that’s what we did,” said Asante, Navy’s offensive captain. “[Center Antron Harper] got movement on the nose, and we knocked them back a couple yards. That’s all we need. If we get that movement, it’s going to make it that much easier to rack up yards and score touchdowns.”
Niumatalolo learned from last year’s game that he needs his best offensive lineman at center to deal with the Falcons’ defense, not just his biggest. So that is why, two weeks into fall camp, he and offensive line coach Ashley Ingram decided to move Curtis Bass to center.
The 6-1, 265-pound senior isn’t the Mids’ biggest offensive lineman, but he is their most dependable. Bass started all 13 games at right guard in 2008 and has made a seamless transition to center.
Garland, who in 25 career starts at nose guard has 9.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, presents the biggest challenge for Bass yet. But he got a warmup for the 5-2 front last week against Western Kentucky, when he easily handled the Hilltoppers’ nose guard and the Mids piled up 373 rushing yards. Still, he conceded the Falcons will be much tougher to deal with.
“This is the hardest kind of defense you can go against for us,” Bass said. “We’ve just gotta fight and play hard. That’s all we can do.”
Because the two teams know each other so well, the Mids are keenly aware that it is going to take more than proper fundamentals to win their individual battles.
And with a leg up for the coveted Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy on the line, the games between the rival service academies carry added emotion. Nowhere is that more evident than up front, where the linemen battle every single play.
“It’s about who’s going to want it more,” Asante said. “If you get your technique right, he might get his technique right also, but it’s going to come down to who wants it more. If you want it more, you’re going to win that battle. You’ve just got to keep it going. You’re not going to win every single battle, but if you can win a majority of them, it’s a done deal.”