Sunday, October 07, 2007

Breaking Serve

Navy football is a lot like tennis. Let me explain.

For those of you who watch professional or even highly competitive amateur tennis, you know that breaking your opponents serve is key to winning a set, and for that case an entire match. Breaking serve consists of winning a game when your not serving, a task that is much harder to accomplish when you consider the kinds of serves some of the top players pack these days. So how is this equatable to football? Easy. It's no secret that Navy is very good on offense, and not so much on defense, often allowing the other team's offense to dictate the drive and to score on a regular basis. In this way, Navy is no better than Andy Roddick. Yea, you can be lights out on serve (offense) but if your going to allow the other team to score on their serve (against our defense) than your match (the game) is always going to come down to a playoff (aka a nail-biter.) It's what we saw against Ball State, it's what we saw against Duke, and it's almost what we saw against Air Force.

To be fair, my father has been using this metaphor for several years now, and not just in relation to Navy football either. But don't take his or my word for it, let's check some honest to God numbers (OMG statistical analysis? Uh, not quite...)

TEMPLE 1st T21 15:00 Kickoff T22 12:46 Punt 3-1 2:14
RUTGERS 1st H25 15:00 Kickoff V41 12:12 Punt 6-34 2:48
BSU 1st B25 09:20 Kickoff N00 02:47 *TD 13-75 6:33
DU 1st D18 15:00 Kickoff D28 12:18 Punt 5-10 2:42
AF 1st A16 15:00 Kickoff A25 13:15 Punt 3-9 1:45

The above is a reproduction of the first series of the game for all of Navy's five opponents up to this point. As you can see, Navy has stopped four of the five teams they've played this year on the first series of the game. Interestingly enough, the one case in which the Midshipmen did not "break serve" on the first series came in a situation in which Navy got the ball to start the game, as opposed to the opposition. We all know Coach Johnson likes to kickoff to begin the game if Navy wins the coin toss, but I (and I'm assuming a number of you) have always figured it had more to do with making adjustments and coming out swinging after the half. But, as you can see from the above, another way to look at it is giving his defense the chance to come up with a stop in a much more favorable circumstance. In that way, kicking to begin the game compliments itself; it gives the defense the ability to get a stop, and it gives the offense a more favorable position to score coming off the half.

But how exactly is giving the ball to the other team conducive of a more favorable environment for the defense? Part of it may have to do with play-calling, as offensive coordinators are generally more conservative to open as they get a "feel for the defense," while players are generally speaking more tight. A quick check of the records seems to support this notion, as four of five Navy opponent's started the game with a run on first down. Another part may be psychological in that emotion is said to resonate more on defense, and in the early stages of the game emotion is not hard to come by. A third reason, one which I'm a little iffy on, might have to do with the positioning of the defense, which has been sketchy this year. That is to say it's easier for players to identify and line up against the offense early in the game, although I have no idea why and as I said it's just a rough guess if that. In any case, Navy's defense usually plays better on the first series of the game then at any given point within the first half, a point which, numerically speaking, would probably take me several more hours to demonstrate (those with qualms can look up the numbers for themselves.)

So what does all this mean? I know it may not look terribly convincing this early in the year, but I truly believe that for Navy to win, it all starts with breaking serve on the first series of the game. We take it for a given that Navy will hold serve on their series' (actually we're 3-5 scoring on the first drive with a missed field goal this year) and considering how well Johnson makes adjustments at halftime the goal is to theoretically go up by a break and remain on serve coming out of the half. Among other things, this makes the opposition play catch up, and hopefully make a mistake. Keep in mind this kind of game plan is significant not because it's "duh, this is what we want to do to win," but rather because it's a game plan for winning that accounts for having a struggling defense. So, theoretically at least, by stopping the opposition on the first series of the game -"breaking serve" if you will- you could go the rest of the game without stopping the opposition just as long as the offense continues to score. Obviously it rarely, if ever, works exactly that way, but the game typically does follow a rough outline, with either team cancelling out each other's drives as the game goes forward. That's why breaking serve, and doing so especially early, is so critical, because your giving your team the ability to go into the fourth quarter with the lead and making the other team come back. Because we take it for a given that the offense if going to have a fairly high degree of success, we can surmise that as long as the game is managed correctly, then Navy still has a shot to win, despite the Achilles heel of the defense.

Of course, we could just stop other teams of defense, but where's the fun in that? I'll be coming back to this subject next week, hopefully with some examples from previous years as well as Wednesday nights game.

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