Ohio State and Navy last met in 2009's season opener in Ohio Stadium. A combination of opening game jitters, poor execution, Navy epitomizing the kind of values you might expect from a Naval Academy football team and a certain degree of over-respect culminated in the Buckeyes being a Brian Rolle two-point conversion return away from possible disaster.
Despite losing one of college football's two or three best players, the Buckeyes are expected to best Navy. But there's a reason Urban Meyer's spent the better part of the last 48-72 hours talking up this team as "the best personnel of a service academy" he's ever prepared for.
If Ohio State collectively dodges a Braxton-injury hangover and Miller understudy J.T. Barrett isn't intimidated by the prospects of becoming the first non-game experienced season opener starting quarterback in Meyer's coaching career, the Buckeyes should handle business. But there's also a reason this is a sleeper upset choice for national college football experts seeking to position themselves as ahead of the curve.
How they got here
The formula still works
Two years removed from an 8-5 side that checked in at 97th in the F/+ rankings, Navy bounced back to finish 2013 58th with a 9-4 record and a thorough 24-6 rout of Middle Tennessee in the Armed Forces Bowl.
After some inconsistencies on offense, the investment and patience with future star quarterback Keenan Reynolds paid off in spades as the Mids finished 32nd in Off. F/+ and Reynolds finished tied for the lead nationally in rushing TDs with 31. In fact, Reynolds' rushing scoring season was so prolific, only Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders and Wisconsin's Montee Ball have ever rushed for more in a single season.
The defense was more of an adventure, with them not looking the part against Duke, Toledo, and to a lesser extent Indiana a year ago, and also getting deflated against Notre Dame and San Jose State before finally finding themselves down the stretch in their annual rivalry game against Army and then in the bowl.
But like everything about the Naval Academy, the defense was nothing if not disciplined. Big plays were few and far between, and while less athletically talented than some of their opponents, their mistake-minimized sound tackling and knack for preventing home runs kept them in contests.
Recruiting at the service academies is essentially a masterclass in talent, character, and personality short order evaluation, and the rankings accordingly can't really be measured even in context of the Midshipmen's future conference mates in The American (Navy joins the league as football-only members next season). It takes a particularly unique talent to crack the two-deep as a plebe, and Navy's most recent depth chart doesn't list so much as a single one.
What Navy was at the end of December is more or less what they'll be now; minus a few faces, plus an offseason of development and growth. The good news for Navy is at least at season's end, they had all the makings of a pretty good football team.
Our advanced statistical preview of the Navy matchup is full of unknowns -- making it that much more exciting for Buckeye fans.
Questions but some answers
Ohio State rides a 24-game regular season winning streak into this one, but the last two contests leave probably the most defined taste in the mouths of the fan base.
After losing a pair of winnable games against their season-best opposition that included nightmare stretches and message-board/sports-talk-radio-unfriendly playcalling and decision-making, the Buckeyes were all set to enter 2014 with new coaches (former Arkansas/Wisconsin defensive coordinator Chris Ash and longtime Penn State stalwart defensive line coach Larry Johnson Jr.), new faces (RB/WR Curtis Samuel, H-B/WR Noah Brown, LB Raekwon McMillan amongst them), and a new outlook. And then disaster struck.
Though Braxton Miller's future with the Buckeyes and post-second throwing shoulder surgery sustainability at quarterback are both left to speculation and idle debate at this point, the season's not canceled and Ohio State should still be favored in virtually every contest they were prior to Miller's injury. Gone is the Heisman short list playmaker, but still very much around is a stacked depth chart loaded with top recruits and three-star sleeper types honed by a world-class coaching staff.
Redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett is the guy at quarterback for now -- by no means a Miller clone but a capable runner who might even be a bit more surgical than Miller in terms of his makeup as a passer -- though Urban Meyer was clear this past week that redshirt sophomore backup Cardale Jones wasn't far behind. Jones had, in fact, been awarded the backup job until just two weeks ago when Barrett's showing in fall camp helped clinch him the nod. Barrett will get his first taste of live game action, in a semi-road environment outside the comfortable confines of Columbus no less, on Saturday.
The offensive line was likely the biggest question entering 2014 as the team prepared to lose four starters from a group that had often seemingly struggled to keep Miller out of harm's way even in the best of circumstances. Redshirt frosh Billy Price and junior Jacoby Boren (kid brother of former Michigan-to-OSU transfer Justin and NFL fullback Zach) are expected to start at left guard and center respectively, while Pat Elflein, who filled in more than admirably for the double-bird-salute-suspended Marcus Hall against Michigan State and for long stretches in the Orange Bowl, allows for a sense of continuity on the right side at guard with career backup senior Darryl Baldwin getting the honors at right tackle.
And then there's the secondary. After a six-year streak of top-20 Def. F/+ finishes, the Buckeyes plummeted to 45th, largely on the heels of a flat back four. Even NFL Draft first-rounder Bradley Roby seemed largely out of physical and mental sync when he was available and after losing senior captain safety Christian Bryant in the fifth game of the season, the Buckeyes implored a matador approach for much of the rest of the year.
With Ash doing the instructing now and a pair of fresh faces in former five-star sophomore Vonn Bell (or former four-star corner Cam Burrows) and Michigan game hero Tyvis Powell set to inherit the starting roles, with a group as talented as they have on paper, it's hard to see the unit going anywhere but up.
||Proj Off S&P+ Rk
||Proj Def S&P+ Rk
|2014 Ohio State Schedule
||at Penn State
||at Michigan State
|Five-Year F/+ Rk
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*
||5 / 8.6
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)
||12 (5, 7)
|2014 Navy Schedule
||vs. Ohio State
||at Texas State
||at Air Force
||San Jose State
||vs. Notre Dame
||at South Alabama
|Five-Year F/+ Rk
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*
||12 / 4.6
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)
||13 (7, 6)
Ohio State's biggest advantages
Ohio State's offense could be one of the most efficient in the country once again. There's almost no chance the Buckeyes replicate their incredible consistency from a year ago with Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde, but Tom Herman and Urban Meyer know what they're doing. J.T. Barrett saw the lion's share of first-team reps in fall camp, and an adequate amount in spring ball against a talented defense as well, to where the task at hand shouldn't feel impossible.
Sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott showed flashes of potential stardom a year prior and along with a stable of bona fide backs including Rod Smith, Curtis Samuel, and Bri'onte Dunn, the absence of a power run threat like Hyde shouldn't feel as pronounced with so many thoroughbreds in the stable.
Ohio State's offense won't be quite as efficient as it was last year, and the defense has both immense upside and countless question marks. The Buckeyes aren't a sure thing, but they're still the safest bet in the Big Ten.
Where Ohio State might make their money this season is with their pass catchers. Meyer spoke to redshirt junior and former JUCO transfer Corey Smith as being the most talented receiver on the team this past week, but his career's yet to culminate in much on the field. If either he or perennial spring game MVP Michael Thomas (nephew of former NFL great Keyshawn Johnson) is able to tap into his potential to supplement Braxton Miller deep threat favorite Devin Smith and the sure-handed Evan Spencer, any butterflies Barrett might have as a newbie could be largely mitigated.
Tight end Jeff Heuerman might even be the best of the bunch, but he's limited as he comes back from a sprained foot that required surgery and kept him out of spring practices. Backup Nick Vannett isn't much of a noticeable dropoff, however, and could provide a further security blanket as Barrett supplements the Buckeyes' power run spread offensive approach with his arm.
Ohio State's biggest weaknesses can be readily masked. If there were any potential Achilles' heels for the Buckeyes, in some order, you'd probably say J.T. Barrett's lack of experience, similar questions across the offensive line, and how quickly the back four can adjust to and implement what new co-DC Chris Ash is selling.
While Barrett finding comfort in Ohio State's passing game is important long term, the Buckeyes' identity is that of a power run team.
"They'll hit you in the mouth. That's Urban Meyer's mentality," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said.
"They're going to come off the football. They're going to mash you at the ball; they can obviously throw the ball, they can do all the things they need to do. First and foremost, they're a physical team," he added.
"They've got a great offensive line coach. This isn't one of these teams that comes out and slings 90 bubble screens a day, although they can do that. It's in their repertoire. [But] they're going to hit you in the mouth."
The Bucks should be able to do all of the above with the aforementioned tailback personnel, and again though they won't have the power run threat Hyde proved in 2013, the mix of talent they do welcome back should be stout enough against Navy's 3-4.
Though the offensive line is no sure thing, that Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner have spoken to the two positional battles (left guard and center) as being so neck and neck, it's hard to envision a scenario where some combination of the four names being mentioned fail to make their presence known against Navy.
And in terms of the unsure secondary, Navy QB Keenan Reynolds completed 68 passes in 2013. The entire season. If OSU finds Navy having to pass or inexplicably the Midshipmen's game plan calls for a healthy dose of them, Ohio State may be best off daring them to try.
The Buckeyes have an obvious talent advantage. In this case, it almost goes without saying, but OSU has a personnel edge against just about every team they face. When you compare a team whose two-year recruiting ranking is second in the country only to Alabama to a team that checks in at 106th, you're not even talking about the difference between a Buckeye side and say, Purdue (No. 67).
In a vacuum, there aren't a ton of teams who can slow down Ohio State. The Buckeyes will have a noticeable edge on both sides of the line, and unless they come out completely lethargic, it'll take an unusual amount of mistakes and a nearly pristine game by the opposing side to level that disparity.
Navy's biggest advantages
Emulating the triple option is just about impossible with your scout team. Ohio State has the added advantage of having the entire offseason to prepare for Navy -- no coach, even those who see them as regularly as Urban Meyer did at Utah back when Air Force was still regularly winning Commander-in-Chief's Trophies, want anything to do with those kind of offenses on a quick turnaround -- but even given the time, it's beyond difficult to simulate what they'll see in person Saturday.
The Buckeyes had an equal period to prepare in 2009 and often looked either undisciplined or unwilling to bring the focus necessary to curtail the option, especially as the game wore on.
The critical advantages the Bucks bring to the table this go-around versus last time is the presence of one Ed Warinner. Warinner was an assistant at Army for 13 years and coached at Air Force as well. He was said to have lectured the Buckeyes' D in the leadup to this one and unquestionably provided valuable insight that some 18 contests against the Midshipmen would lend.
Navy has a theme (triple option offense, bend-don't-break defense), a hell of an option quarterback, and a rather cakey schedule in 2014. Ken Niumatalolo's team should expect to win at least nine games for the sixth time in 13 years.
The Mids' best asset may be their secondary. Sure, Rover Wave Ryder is gone, but few teams were better at preventing the big play a year prior than the Mids.
Senior free safety Parrish Gains (3 INTs) and corner Brandon Clements (3 INTs) will keep the first-time starting quarterback honest. Even if Meyer and Herman minimize the opportunities for Barrett to make mistakes, given Navy's propensity to not make them themselves, the chance for the Mids to jump ahead in the turnover battle (which they won 3 to 1 in 2009) could help stay close.
The Midshipmen are unlikely to get much of a pass rush and though their defensive line is bigger and more physical than what you might imagine for a service academy, their depth pales in comparison to what OSU brings on the opposite side of the line. But if the secondary can keep their streak of nearly no big plays allowed alive, they might not need them.
Navy may just have the edge on special teams. Bizarrely, the one thing Navy didn't do well on special teams last season was kick point afters and short field goals. The Mids' Nick Sloan, who returns for his junior season, missed four of the former and finished the year just 76 percent from 39 yards or less. He was 1-1 from 40 or more while Ohio State expects to trot out true freshman Sean Nuernbeger to handle their kicking duties.
Senior punter Pablo Beltran is back as well and averaged a solid 41.4 yards per kick on 40 punts last year (with 12 pinned inside the 20). If OSU's D is particularly stout, Beltran can still help Navy minimize the field position impact. The Buckeyes' Cam Johnston was a revelation in limited duty last year, but lacks the raw number of games Beltran brings to the table.
The Midshipmen return only one of their three most effective return men, but with slotback DeBrandon Sanders set to inherit the punt returning responsibilities and a pair of other SBs handling kicks, they should be as capable as ever. And in a surprise to almost no one, Navy's kick and punt coverage is extremely disciplined and sound. Dontre Wilson and Jalin Marshall likely won't get any easy opportunities unless Navy gets worn out late.
F/+ Projection: OSU 44, Navy 35
Win Probability: OSU 75%
Navy needs some breaks, there's no question about it. But if they play their game and can force turnovers the way they did in Columbus, while a tall order, a low two-score expected deficit is far more manageable than a three or larger one.
Navy's offense is predicated on establishing the fullback's presence and they return a trio of effective ones. Junior Chris Swain and seniors Noah Copeland and Quinton Singleton carried the ball 107, 69, and 65 times respectively a year ago rushing for 420, 339, and 361 yards accordingly with 4 TDs for Swain and 2 TDs apiece for Copeland and Singleton. Copeland is pegged as the "starter," but with each looking at 5-10 touches a piece, they'll be rotating in and out.
Overall, Reynolds is the bell cow, but slotbacks Geoffrey Whiteside, DeBrandon Sanders, and Demond Brown are all weaponized too, combining for an average of 8.1 yards per carry, 7 TDs, and 923 rushing yards. If the three-headed monster at fullback can get penetration against the Buckeyes' Michael Bennett, Tommy Schutt, and Adolphus Washington, the lanes outside will become more navigable for the Middies' agile edge rushers. If OSU gets lax or inexplicably finds themselves in a dogfight, Navy's mental toughness will factor in as well.
With so many known unknowns, Ohio State fans have to hope for a relatively low-error, high-yield season opener that brings the experience necessary to set the stage for the Bucks' biggest non-conference game of the year next weekend at home against Virginia Tech. Navy backers and well-wishers find themselves rooting again for a once-in-a-lifetime upset, and though there are no real consolation prizes, a dress rehearsal for an otherwise manageable schedule that includes just one other relative heavyweight in Notre Dame would prove some degree that.
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