Navy football well grounded with high-powered rushing attack

Navy Football has remained competitive through the years with the triple-option. 

NCAA Football: Navy at Temple

Navy Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) runs with the ball against the Temple Owls during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Navy defeated Temple 31-24. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — The option offense has seen resurgence in recent years with several schools applying it as an effective addendum to a high-powered scoring attack.

But few teams use it predominately.

In an age when most think of the spread, pistol, and the shotgun as the best means to get the ball downfield effectively, the Navy Midshipmen have used a constant supply of the ground game to attain sustained success on the gridiron.

The most recent display of this concept occurred on Sept. 6 in Philadelphia, where they accumulated 487 yards (7.7 per rush) in a 31-24 win over the Temple Owls.

This idea of a run-heavy triple option game plan began under Paul Johnson, who took over the head coaching duties in Annapolis back in 2002, with the program coming off two straight 10-loss seasons. The rebuilding was on and following a 2-10 effort in Johnson’s first year, the team was 8-5 in 2003 and was invited to a bowl game.

Over the next four seasons Navy won 35 games and led the nation in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in 2003 and from 2005-07.

Navy Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) hands the ball off to fullback Noah Copeland (34) during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Navy defeated Temple 31-24. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
Navy Midshipmen quarterback Keenan Reynolds (19) hands the ball off to fullback Noah Copeland (34) during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Navy defeated Temple 31-24. (Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

Johnson left for Georgia Tech following the 2007 campaign and took his option offensive tactics with him. However, those ideals remained planted in the brain of new head coach Ken Niumatalolo, a longtime Johnson assistant.

With that, Navy continued to thrive in its ground game. The Midshipmen finished as the country’s best rushing attack for the fourth straight year and in 2013 averaged 325.4 yards. They have attained at least eight wins in five of the last six years, reaching a bowl game each time.

Controlling the ball controls the clock and limits the possessions of the opposition. This leads to several victories against tough opponents and the occasional upset, including the program’s first triumph over Notre Dame in 43 tries (a triple-overtime road win in 2007).

In order for the offense to be effective, a tough and savvy quarterback is a necessity. Fortunately for Johnson and Niumatalolo, there has been a revolving door of signal-callers that have kept the triple-option system thriving.

Ricky Dobbs ran for 1,203 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2009. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada led his team in rushing touchdowns with 12 in 2007. Craig Candeto totaled a team-best 16 TDs in 2003, as he and bruising running back Kyle Eckel together combined for more than 2,300 yards on the ground.

The current star of the system is Keenan Reynolds. In a little over two seasons as the Mids’ quarterback, the junior has rushed for 2,210 yards and found the end zone 44 times. His 2013 season was astounding—1,346 yards and 31 TDs.In the victory over Temple, he led all rushers with 173 yards.

One week earlier, against No. 5 Ohio State, Reynolds deferred to running back Ryan Williams-Jenkins. It wasn’t a bad choice. Williams-Jenkins churned out 118 yards while the team totaled 370 and 5.9 per rush attempt, keeping the Buckeyes on their heels for the better part of three quarters until favored OSU pulled away.

It’s plainly apparent that it hasn’t mattered who is behind center or in the backfield. And that’s certainly a testament to the coaches and recruiters. For a program such as Navy to bring in this breadth of talent to a service academy is truly remarkable.

The students that represent this school have more important duties ahead of them. Therefore, the most talented high school players won’t be eyeing Annapolis as a stopping point on their direct route to the NFL. Even so, the Midshipmen are enjoying their best run of success since the days of Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach.

That said, the work of Johnson and Niumatalolo has helped make Navy a consistently relevant football program again by throwing away modern football ideals and (literally) running them into the ground.

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