• Diane Roberts

Insider Bill Wagner Talks Navy's Struggles on Offense

by Diane Roberts

The Navy Midshipmen had a bye week as they prepare to start conference play and look for their first win of the season against the University of Houston. The Houston Cougars have put up 89 points in two victories in the past two weeks. Their only loss this year is to Big 12 opponent Texas Tech.

We had a chance to connect with Navy Athletics beat writer for The Baltimore Sun and Capital Gazette, Bill Wagner, to talk about the Midshipmen going forward, and a series of games that Wagner has dubbed, "Murder's Row." Bill is a friend to Behind The Lines and also co-hosts the podcast Believe in Navy Football with two former Navy football players: Keenan Reynolds and Eric Katani.

Here is our conversation:

Diane Roberts: We'd like to pick your brain because you've covered the team for a long time and you know a lot about them as a beat reporter. First of all, after the 0-2 start, with Navy scoring only 10 points -- which they're normally more of an offensive team -- they can't get anything done in the red zone. When you look at what you've seen the first two games, what do you think?

Bill Wagner: Well, it's just a lot going on. The encouraging element was that the Navy offense did move the ball against Marshall [in game 1] and the offensive line looked good in that game. And, as you mentioned, 1 for 5 in the red zone was the undoing in that game. So I think there's potential.

Air Force is unique. Army and Air Force know how to play the option. And the biggest thing with those games is that they're going to stack the line of scrimmage if you do not prove that you can throw the ball. And Navy did not do anything to back Air Force off the line of scrimmage. And that's why there was just nothing there.

Now, granted, the offensive line must share some blame and that the blocking . . . eventually you've got to win your one-on-one match-ups. And clearly, Air Force was winning the line of scrimmage. So it's really hard to know for sure.

Is the offense as bad as it looked against Air Force? Is it as good as it looked at times during the Marshall game? We'll find out in these next few weeks, because this is, starting with the Houston game, about to be a really rigorous stretch of American Athletic Conference contests followed by Notre Dame.

Diane: And, as we know, heading into this game against Houston, all anyone wants to talk about is Navy offense. They have failed to score more than seven points in any of their last five games, and they've lost the last seven straight dating back to last year. When you think about those numbers, those statistics, it might make some people understand why Athletic Director Chet Gladchuck wanted to fire Ivan Jasper, Offensive Coordinator for Navy. Were you surprised by that move when you heard about it? And then were you surprised again when Coach Jasper was reinstated?

Bill Wagner: Well, first and foremost, to address the first issue, it is very frustrating watching this Navy offense. This offense has worked like clockwork in its execution at a high level and nobody, no opponents, are really able to entirely shut down the offense, for the most part. So seeing what's happened over the last two seasons is, frankly, dismaying. And I'm not sure what's wrong.

They've got to get back to being Navy football. And that entails running the triple option the old-school way that Paul Johnson, who brought it here from Hawaii originally, the way he invented the offense. So I just think they need to get back to the basics.

Now, with regard to the Ivan Jasper situation, that was nothing but crazy, to be honest. I've never heard of anything like that. I understand Chet Gladchuck is frustrated. He has been watching an offense that just isn't getting the job done. And he's had it. He's frustrated and he wants changes.

And I think if you really ask Chet to take a truth serum, he would say that he wished he'd handled it differently.

I know Chet. He's a reasonable guy. And I think if he had gone home and let himself cool off, I think the next day he would have done what they ultimately did. He and [Head] Coach [Ken] Niumatalolo met, discussed the situation, Chet made his points and made it clear that something has to change. We're not going to just go through the season merrily like this.

And I think Ken offered some points, number one being: Who's going to coach our quarterbacks? We've got young quarterbacks and they need a coach, and there is no better quarterbacks coach than Ivan Jasper when it comes to option football. So I think they both realized that and they came to an agreement.

Diane: Is there any one thing that AD Gladchuck said to you in the interview on your podcast that sort of stood out to you that you think our viewers should know?

Bill Wagner: Well, nothing earth-shattering. Basically, he kind of went through the chronology of events. And, without coming right out and saying it, he expressed some regret for how it all went down. And he said that he did agree with Coach Niumatalolo that having Ivan as part of the staff was important for a variety of reasons. However, he also held to his original stance that he didn't want Ivan calling the plays anymore.

And frankly, Ivan only called plays for the Air Force game. So since 2018, that was the first time that Ivan called plays. So, it really wasn't all of Ivan's fault.

The truth is, there's an entire offensive staff. Ashley Ingram is the running game coordinator and the running game picked up thirty two yards against Air Force. So should he have been fired?

I think the bottom line is that the offensive staff as a whole--and Coach Niumatalolo is part of that--has to get it together.

Diane: Is Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo on the hot seat, given everything that we've just talked about with Navy offense and the team underperforming in general?

Bill Wagner: I don't know, I really don't know.

I think based off his track record, if he ends up having a losing season, that would be three of [the last] four, and that's not a good trend. But there are other issues in play, number one being that the American Athletic Conference is incredibly competitive and the schedule Navy's playing is unbelievable. Never in the history of the program have they played a schedule this tough across the board. And I think there's a lot to take into consideration. So I don't know the answer to that, to be honest.

But I'm not sure who you're going to get in here that's a better coach than Ken Niumatalolo. And there's no question in my mind that Navy needs to run the option. There's just no other offense that's going to work at this service academy. So, who's going to come in here that knows the option better than Ken Niumatalolo?

Diane: Last question: In a sentence or less, can they right the ship against Houston?

Bill Wagner: It's going to be hard. Houston's good . . . the game is on the road . . . but yes. Navy went there two years ago and beat Houston in a high-scoring affair and looked great. So, yes, I think they can. I think they have to.

Diane: Bill Wagner, the Navy athletics beat writer for The Baltimore Sun and Capital Gazette. Thank you so much for being with us.