Originally published in The Fordham Ram on September 7, 2016.
The Andrew Breiner Era of Fordham Football got off to an inauspicious start on Saturday when the Rams traveled to Annapolis to take on the Navy Midshipmen. The Rams notched a win against another military branch – and their lone FBS opponent that season as well – last season against the Army West Point Black Nights, but were not as successful this time around, falling 52-16.
The first play of the game was not something you hope to see, not just as a start to a season, but also as the first play under new head coach Andrew Breiner: on the kick return, senior defensive back and return man Jihad Pretlow was hit hard and fumbled the ball, which Navy recovered on the Fordham seven yard line. On their first play, Navy quarterback Tago Smith made use of the lethal triple option to walk right into the end zone and put the Midshipmen up 7-0 12 seconds into the game.
The Rams first true possession typified most of their day. Senior quarterback Kevin Anderson did a pretty good job picking apart the Navy secondary, including a nice completion to sophomore receiver Austin Longi for 13 yards. Junior running back Chase Edmonds added a shifty 12-yard rush to the drive as well. However, the drive eventually stalled when Anderson threw what would certainly have been a pick six on fourth down if the Navy defender had not dropped it.
It looked like the defense had figured itself out on the first full drive for Navy’s offense, using a dropped snap and sack from sophomore linebacker Noah Fitzgerald to put Navy at third and 18. But once again, they got turned around by the triple option. Smith was able to bust out a 62-yard scamper and score again four plays later to make it 14-0.
Coach Breiner pointed out that figuring out the triple is not easy: “The challenge of playing the triple is once you figure out one answer they change the question on you.”
The triple option is an offensive scheme where the quarterback can either keep the ball and run, hand off to the running back or bounce outside and then pitch it to another back.
“The triple option is tough because it takes great eye discipline,” said junior defensive back Caleb Ham. “Everyone has to do their job and their job only.”
Breiner elaborated on the concept: “Anytime you defend the triple option you have to absolutely exact on every single play. That means the player responsible for the dive has to be in position, and not only there but physically make the tackle,” Breiner said. “The person that’s responsible for the quarterback has to be there and then physically be able to make the tackle. And the person responsible for the pitch has to be there and make the tackle.”
While they had the theory down, they still often were caught out of position, with the Midshipmen finding success each way multiple times. “It has to be on every single play of the football game and we did not do that on a high enough rate,” said Breiner.
Very few teams run the triple option, making preparing for it and executing difficult, especially without mainstays in junior linebacker Niko Thorpe and senior defensive lineman Manny Adeyeye being lost to injury relatively close to game time.
The Rams offense looked good early in drives, but all the yards did not add up to points. Fordham actually had 464 yards of total offense, including 302 in the air for Anderson. But they only had 16 points to show for it thanks to drives stalling in Navy territory. On multiple occasions, this was due to Anderson simply overthrowing his receivers, though one was a costly drop for senior tight end Phazan Odom in the endzone.
The Rams had seven drives where they gained 40 or more yards. They kicked a field goal on three of them (an okay outcome in a close game, but not one where you are down multiple scores early), scored a touchdown on one and turned it over on downs the other three times.
“We didn’t execute the way we need to down in the red zone,” said Breiner. “We moved the ball down the field and had some opportunities for some big plays and just missed them and then we got the ball down to the red zone and we tightened up. We didn’t execute at a high enough level to get the ball in the end zone.”
Even when Smith was injured and Navy went to their backups, Fordham could not contain the triple option. In fact, freshman Malcolm Perry – who was not dressed for the game and was in the stands before being pulled onto the sideline at halftime – came in during the fourth quarter and orchestrated a 90-yard drive that resulted in a field goal for the Midshipmen.
Finding positivity in a loss is important for the Rams. “Although we didn’t win the game I know for sure we came out a tougher team,” said Ham. “Losing was like a reality check for us and helped us realize that we are far from where we want to be this season.”
There were a few positives on the offensive side of the ball as well, despite the lack of production on the scoreboard. While Anderson and Odom were clear bright spots for the offense, Breiner commended another group as well: the offensive line. “To go up against an FBS defensive line like Navy’s and to be able to run the football somewhat consistently and protect the passer really pretty well considering we dropped back and threw it 45 times,” he said. “I thought we made big strides on the offensive line.” The line certainly helped Edmonds, whose 18 rushes for 70 yards are not up to his standards, but were still impressive in the face of an FBS defense.
The Rams will get a chance to redeem themselves and flip the script on a lower level school next Saturday against Division II school Elizabeth City State University. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.