Dobbs' 1st start may be an acid test

QB's performance tonight vs. Northern Illinois likely to answer questions about offense's problems

Navy Football

November 25, 2008|By Don Markus | Don Markus,don.markus@baltsun.com

The campaign for Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo to switch quarterbacks began nearly a month ago, when sophomore Ricky Dobbs came off the bench to replace injured senior Jarod Bryant against Southern Methodist and rushed for 224 yards and four touchdowns in a rout of the hapless Mustangs.

Tonight, when Dobbs makes his first college start for Navy (6-4) at Northern Illinois (6-5), the campaign will turn into either a coming-out party for Dobbs or a continuation of the problems that troubled Bryant after he took over in August when Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada tore his hamstring.

Dobbs' performance will likely determine whether the inconsistency of Navy's triple-option offense in Kaheaku-Enhada's absence for most of the season had more to do the play-calling of first-year offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, Bryant's reading of defenses or the unit's lack of overall execution.

If Dobbs fails to move the Midshipmen, then Niumatalolo's refusal to blame Bryant might have some validity.

If Dobbs provides the same kind of magic he showed in leading Navy back from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit against Temple, then nearly doing it against Notre Dame at M&T Bank Stadium the following game, it might show that Niumatalolo should have made the move sooner.

The first-year head coach doesn't mind if Dobbs proves him wrong.

"I'm just looking for us to execute, to get better offensively," Niumatalolo, who'll become the 10th coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision to start three quarterbacks this season, said last week. "If the question is answered, I'm fine with that."

Regardless of what happens against the Huskies, a team in need of a big win to secure a bowl bid, most believe that Dobbs will give Navy a more potent threat at quarterback, one who can beat teams with his legs as well as his arm.

"People say Ricky can throw the ball, [but] Jarod can throw the ball," Niumatalolo said. "I think the dimension that Ricky adds is that he's a strong runner."

It will be interesting to see how much of the triple-option - as well as potential trick plays - Navy uses with Dobbs.

The biggest criticism of Bryant was that his inability to make the proper reads caused Niumatalolo and Jasper to simplify the offense, which became predictable and, at times, plodding. Despite his own mistakes, Dobbs made big plays because of his athleticism and strong right arm.

Jasper said being the starter shouldn't be much different for Dobbs than coming off the bench.

"The main thing about being on the sideline is staying [mentally] in the game," Jasper said. "If he's on the sideline and doesn't pay attention, it can be disastrous. As far as what he sees and what he should know going into the game, it shouldn't be any different. It's a matter of going in there and just playing."

Said Dobbs: "I don't think it's any different. I just have a different mentality going in. Coach told me to prepare like I was a starter, and I always prepared like I was a starter as a backup. Now I'm preparing as the starter and I'm starting. It's just football."

Dobbs is not underplaying the significance of his first college start, coming against the same team that Bryant played well against in place of an injured Kaheaku-Enhada last season. Bryant carried 27 times for 139 yards and a touchdown in a 35-24 victory at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

"I'm definitely excited, I just can't let my excitement be overwhelming," Dobbs said. "I'm the leader of this team right now, so I've got to stay composed for everybody else. Step outside of myself because I want to be excited, but I'm excited on the inside, I just don't let it show."

TONIGHT'S GAME

Matchup: Navy (6-4) at Northern Illinois (6-5)

Time: 7 p.m. Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill.

TV: ESPN Classic

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Northern Illinois by 3

Series: Navy leads 1-0

Last meeting: Navy won, 35-24, in Annapolis on Nov. 17, 2007

Navy offense vs. Northern Illinois offense: Sophomore QB Ricky Dobbs takes over for senior Jarod Bryant. Dobbs has come off the bench the past three games to lead the Midshipmen to two victories and nearly helped knock off Notre Dame on Nov. 15 at M&T Bank Stadium. Navy is second in the country in rushing at a little over 295 yards a game but is coming off a season-low 178 yards against the Fighting Irish. Dobbs is more of a passing threat than Bryant or Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada. The Huskies have a solid defense, tied for 20th overall at 305.5 yards a game. DE Larry English has eight sacks. Weather could also play a factor in how the Midshipmen attack the Huskies because Dobbs, who grew up outside Atlanta, will have to deal with temperatures in the 20s by game time.

Navy defense vs. Northern Illinois offense: The Midshipmen intercepted Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen three times and forced five turnovers, bringing their total to 25 this season, tied for 21st in the country. But Navy has proved susceptible to teams that are more than one-dimensional, and the Huskies have a balanced offense led by redshirt freshman QB Chandler Harnish, who rushed for 117 yards and two touchdowns while throwing for 173 yards and two touchdowns a week ago at Kent State. Considering that the Huskies need a win to enhance their bowl opportunities - the game is being billed as a "Battle for a Bowl" - Navy's defense has to play one of its best games of the season to win.

Prediction: Northern Illinois 27, Navy 20

Don Markus

NAVY (6-4) @NORTHERN ILLINOIS (6-5)

Tonight, 7:45

TV: ESPN Classic

Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Northern Illinois by 3

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