It is a game ECU circles on its calendar nearly every year simply because of how much trouble Navy’s triple-option attack gives opponents. Since 2002, the Midshipmen have never ranked lower than sixth in rushing yards per game and set a program record with 360.5 yards on the ground per contest in 2019.
Navy ran wild on the Pirates in a 42-10 blowout last season, urging ECU to make defending the triple-option a requirement for its new defensive coordinator.
“We’ve been preparing for this game staff-wise since coach Harrell was hired,” head coach Mike Houston said. “Certainly a background and a philosophy against the triple-option was a big part of the hiring process for our new defensive coordinator. We spent a good bit of time staff-wise, we have spent time with our players during preseason camp and also throughout the season thus far. A big part of it has been after practice on Sunday’s, we’ve kept the offensive scout team out there on the field and ran Navy plays after practice to make sure they were prepared for this week.”
Harrell has been coaching defenses against the triple-option for roughly a decade and a half, but he is not alone in that department. Houston coached option teams at The Citadel and Lenoir-Rhyne, while ECU defensive tackles coach Roy Tesh and safeties coach Tripp Weaver have defended the scheme at various stops in their careers.
From having relatively little experience on the coaching staff against the philosophy a season ago, the Pirates made sure to rectify that issue heading into the 2020 campaign. Nevertheless, completely stopping the triple-option has proved impossible in the past, no matter who is wearing the headset.
“Do I feel like we’re going to be more prepared this year? Yes,” Houston said. “Do I feel like we’re ever going to be completely prepared or have mastered defending them? Nobody is ever going to master defending them. I think they’ve shown that in just how they’ve responded to some of the adversity they had early in the season and how they played against Temple this past Saturday.”
Navy has been outscored 95-10 in two non-conference games this season, but has pulled off two American Athletic Conference wins by a combined five points over Tulane and Temple. A 27-24 edging of Tulane took Navy’s largest comeback in school history to pull off, while the Midshipmen broke up a game-tying two-point conversion to survive the Owls last Saturday.
While Navy has struggled to put up its traditionally gaudy rushing numbers, it kept the ball on the ground 60 times one week ago for 251 yards and four touchdowns. That included two separate drives of at least nine minutes, one to begin the game and one to help ice it late. Still, the Midshipmen will enter Saturday averaging just 166 rushing yards per game, two less per contest than what ECU is currently averaging.
“When I flip on the Temple game, I see about what I expect from Navy,” Houston said. “I saw a team that is very, very good up front on the offensive line. They have that experience, boy they really come off the football just like a Navy team usually does. I think their full-backs are fantastic, both of them. I think they have great feet, they hit hard, they have great vision, good balance. I think the quarterback play has improved drastically since that game way back in early-September…
“I think that you’ve seen a veteran coaching staff take a veteran team and overcome adversity and put a team on the field this last Saturday that’s what you expect.”
Led by one of the most experienced coaching staffs in the country and the 10th-longest tenured head coach in FBS in Ken Niumatalolo, the Midshipmen have a combined 14 players on offense and defense with at least 10 career starts. That, however, is being paired with a youth movement that has seen 20 players make their first career starts in a Navy uniform.
That mark ranks Navy second in the country, as it is the only team in the FBS to have started three different quarterbacks in the season’s first three games. Senior Dalen Morris is the lone signal-caller to start two games for Navy this season. In his time on the field, Morris has passed for over 200 yards and helped engineer the second half comeback against Tulane.
Where it begins and ends for the Midshipmen, however, is with their full-backs. Junior Jamale Carothers was a big part of Navy’s offense in 2019 and currently paces the program with 229 rushing yards this season. Senior Nelson Smith is not far behind with his 185 yards on the ground after a 120-yard and two touchdown effort against Temple a week ago.
“Dalen Morris, he’s a senior, has a tremendous amount of experience in that offense,” Houston said. “They have three seniors and two juniors on the offensive line, they have a senior and junior full-back. So they have a very old, experienced offense, so you’re going to see a lot of the same stuff. Inside, outside veer, you’re going to see the zone option, you’re going to see the belly, you’re going to see the toss play, you’re going to see the double-option, you’re going to see the play-action passes, you’re going to see the base dives. You’re going to see all the things that you encounter any time you line up against this offense.”
Of course, a staple of the triple-option attack is clock management. Last week, Navy won the time of possession battle by nearly 11 minutes and won the game despite being out-gained on offense 299 to 407.
For ECU, getting defensive stops and throwing Navy off rhythm as often as possible is a big key to success. That begins with getting the triple-option attack behind the chains and making sure Navy does not consistently get into third down and short situations.
“I think the big key for us is trying to get them off rhythm early in the ball game, try to get some stops,” Houston said. “Try to get them out of that second and six, second and five, third and two, first and ten, get them off schedule. If you can do that, then you got a shot at getting a stop, getting a punt or whatever and getting the ball back for your offense.”
Offensively, the Pirates proved against USF that they can move the football. Effective at doing so on the ground with freshmen Rahjai Harris and Keaton Mitchell, the Pirates racked up their own 11:12 edge in time of possession against the Bulls.
With all their success running the football early in the season (168 rushing yards per game), ECU enters Saturday ninth in the nation in average time of possession per game at 33:56. Overall, the Pirates have a plus-23:38 edge in that category through three games, an average of 7:53 per contest.
“I think offensively we got to maximize possessions,” Houston said. “You’re going to have limited possessions playing a triple-option football team, we’ve got to make the most of each one. Does that mean we have to score on every possession? No, not necessarily. We got to limit the number of three-and-outs, we got to try to take advantage of any positive field position when we get it. We do that by continuing to build on what we did last week. Last week — no turnovers, very few penalties, much improved execution, strong running game, did a good job with protection in the passing game.”
In a normal year, the Pirates would have devoted much more time to the triple-option than they have in 2020. Without spring practice and due to an interrupted and shortened preseason camp, the time just has not been there to dedicate to defending the scheme. Still, the coaching staff and players are invested heavily in teaching and learning assignment football and matching up the best way they can against a Navy team that has been nearly unstoppable in recent years.
“We probably spent more time on this single opponent than we have anybody on our schedule just because of the uniqueness of the offense,” Harrell said. “Practiced it everyday during fall camp and then every week spent some time on it with our players in practice, watching film with it. It’s been a game — just because of the uniqueness of the offense — that you have to circle and kind of prepare for it all season long until you face that opponent.”
Right now might be the best time to catch the Midshipmen considering they are still attempting to fill the hole left by their record-setting quarterback Malcolm Perry. Even so, the Midshipmen have owned the Pirates of late, winning the last four matchups and averaging 52 points per game in those victories. At Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, Navy is a perfect 3-0 and has scored an average of 66 points per contest while racking up better than 500 rushing yards each time out.
With some confidence built up defensively from shutting down USF in the second half last weekend, ECU’s defense is presented with an opportunity to make a statement against a team that has had the Pirates’ number over the last handful of years. Playing sound, assignment-orientated and disciplined football will be a big part of that on the defensive side of things, while continuing to effectively move the ball on offense should help ECU keep up in the time of possession battle.
“In some ways, it’s like every other week,” Harrell said. “You got to focus on your opponent, you got to get familiar with them and what they do, how you think they’re going to attack you and make sure your kids understand the plan, know the plan, feel comfortable with the plan and then go execute it. Execute it with great effort and great energy.”
ECU and Navy are scheduled to kick-off inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at noon on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN2.