Beat writers for Navy and Air Force exchange questions and answers in this back-and-forth from Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., and The Gazette's Brent Briggeman.
Questions about Navy...
Brent Briggeman: I've been pretty wrapped up in figuring out Air Force's quarterback situation and haven't paid much attention to where Navy stands at that spot. What has taken place at that position in regard to Malcolm Perry Garret Lewis, and would Perry be expected to play the full game if healthy on Saturday? Given the Falcons' struggles against the pass, is there a quarterback on the roster that would best take advantage of that?
Bill Wagner: Navy’s quarterback changes have mostly been situational. Perry is the clear-cut starting quarterback and gets the majority of game repetitions, evidenced by the fact he has a whopping 86 rushing attempts – 53 more than the next highest ball-carrier on the team. Zach Abey is used exclusively in short-yardage or goal-line situations and has been awfully good in that role. Abey has picked up a first down or scored a touchdown on 14 of 20 carries this season. Garret Lewis is the team’s best passing quarterback and his role coming into the season was to run the two-minute drill or direct the offense in instances the Mids are way behind and need to throw the ball to catch up. However, Lewis has played quarterback more than expected due to injuries sustained by Perry.
BB: Last year Air Force seemed surprised to find Navy come out from the shotgun and operating an attack that included some principles New Mexico had so often used to flummox the Falcons defense. Did they use that down the stretch last season, and would you anticipate seeing the same look this year?
BW: Navy offensive coaches definitely visited with New Mexico to learn more about the zone option concepts. I do think that was done to create a package specifically for Air Force. Navy also operated out of shotgun with zone blocking schemes when Malcolm Perry started against SMU and Army last season. We have not seen that very much this season, but given the number of times Perry is running the ball it might be time to pull the shotgun formation back out.
BB: Do you believe Navy's uncharacteristic recent struggles – losing 8 of 12 games – is the result of playing in a conference?
BW: I certainly think the overall competitive level of the American Athletic Conference has been a big factor. Navy is no longer able to manage its schedule like it did as an independent when there were four annual opponents that were definite underdogs. The Midshipmen play one Football Championship Subdivision opponent per year, but other than that there are no breathers. Almost all eight American opponents are formidable while there are the annual games against Air Force, Army and Notre Dame that are always tough. That being said, the Midshipmen boast a 19-7 record since joining the AAC. Only Central Florida (20-5) and Temple (19-6) have done better.
BB: The Midshipmen have struggled defensively overall, but particularly on third down. Are there some issues you can pinpoint that have led to that?
BW: Navy’s inability to get teams off the field has been a source of frustration for some time. It is almost uncanny how many big plays the defense gives up on third-and-long. There were several instances during the SMU loss when a Navy pass rusher was a second too late or a defender in coverage arrived a moment after the ball was caught. Simply put, the Mids just cannot seem to make a play on third down, although they routinely come tantalizingly close. Navy just does not have enough dangerous pass rushers in order to get pressure on the quarterback while the defensive backs are a step slow by comparison to the wide receivers in the American Athletic Conference.
BB: The numbers CJ Williams has posted in just 21 touches are staggering. Do you expect an attempt to carve a larger role for him?
BW: I think Navy needs to utilize C.J. Williams more because he has proven a dynamic threat in both the running and passing game. Williams is averaging a team-high 9.3 yards per carry, but has only gotten the ball 15 times. The sophomore speedster is averaging 24.7 yards per catch, but has only been targeted six times. It’s obvious Williams is a playmaker and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper must find a way to highlight him more.
Questions about Air Force...
Bill Wagner: Air Force has used three different quarterbacks so far this season. In your opinion, which one gives the Falcons the best chance to win? Who do you expect to see on Saturday?
Brent Briggeman: Hard to offer a short answer to this one. A sophomore version of Arion Worthman would probably be the best option, but that was two years ago. For whatever reason, his effectiveness has trended the wrong direction over the past two years and he's probably the No. 3 choice now. I am guessing Isaiah Sanders draws the start, and he's been solid in his three extended performances so far. Donald Hammond III was intriguing last week and is the popular choice around here because of an exciting skill set. I haven't seen enough of Hammond to say he's gives the team a definitive edge over Sanders, but he sure is a fun talent.
BW: Air Force has scored a non-offensive touchdown in all four games this season. Do you see that trend continuing against Navy? If so, what type of touchdown do you think it will be - defensive or special teams?
BB: Those plays have been crazy. A Pick 6 from a linebacker, a blocked punt, a ball simply ripped away from a kickoff returner and then a 99-yard interception return two snaps after replay took away a Nevada touchdown. I don't think you can plan on those kind of plays continuing, but you can to put yourself in the right position to increase the odds.
BW: Air Force has several notable offensive weapons, including fullback Cole Fagan, tailback Kadin Remsberg and wide receiver Ronald Cleveland. Obviously, whoever starts at quarterback is also in that mix. Who do you see being a difference-maker on Saturday?
BB: I think Remsberg is the one to watch. He has elite speed but hasn't been able to break free and really show it yet. Cleveland is always involved in a few big plays each game, and Fagan has been solid in the first season he's received playing time. But Remsberg, who will likely draw his third career start, has the skills to be a difference-maker and is probably about due to bust loose.
BW: Air Force football has lost five of its last six games dating back to last season. Do you sense the program is backsliding a bit?
BB: I think that's an accurate assessment. Half of the past six seasons have ended with losing records, and now the team is off to a 1-3 start (with no relief in sight on the schedule). I should mention that the other three seasons in that time have included a pair of 10-win years and a Mountain Division championship in the Mountain West, so it's not a dire situation. Clearly consistency has become harder and harder for the team to attain.
BW: Is there any sense among the Air Force faithful that the Troy Calhoun era has run its course? Could a second straight losing season increase the pressure on the 12th-year head coach?
BB: I've never heard anyone suggest that's the case, but at some point if attendance continues to drop and the losses keep piling up that will become an issue. Also, Air Force hasn't yet hired a replacement at athletic director (they dropped the interim label from Col. Jen Block, but by all indications there is still a push to bring in someone else). A new AD may see that as an opportunity to put a stamp on the athletic department. But at this point, I think Calhoun's overall body of work has kept him insulated from any such pressure.