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Opponent Preview: Navy Midshipmen

Run, rinse and repeat.

NCAA Football: Houston at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the 2017 season preview for the Navy Midshipmen. Now let’s talk about the Houston Cougars.

Wait, what?

Stick with me.

Navy was scheduled to play the Cougars on Oct. 8 last fall. The Cougars were rolling into that contest, sporting a 5-0 record and a No. 6 national ranking. All it would take for the boys in red to make it into the College Football Playoff seemed to be a romp through a weaker American Athletic Conference, at least weak in comparison to the leagues other contenders had to deal with. Of course, as you should know, the dreams of an AAC team in the CFB were dashed before we even got to Halloween, as the Midshipmen stunned the college football world by outlasting Houston 46-40 in Annapolis, Maryland.

That win was the highlight of the season for Navy, but that’s not to say the year went downhill from there. The Midshipmen ended up winning the West Division of the AAC and made an appearance in the AAC title game. While they did lose three-straight games to end the year, including a 34-10 setback against Temple in that championship bout and a 21-17 failure against rival Army, Navy’s 2016 season was a certifiable success, something that has been commonplace under Ken Niumatalolo, who has brought Navy to eight bowl games in nine years.

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about the 2016 squad was the fact that they won nine games and upset Houston the year after Heisman Trophy snub Keenan Reynolds made the move onto the NFL. They are going to have to replace another quarterback this season, as Will Worth has moved on, but something tells me they’ll be able to compete all the same.

What They Do Well

They run a lot and they do that fairly well, which is good since their triple-option offense is based almost entirely on moving the ball on the ground. The Midshipmen not only led the AAC in rushing yards and carries, it ranked second in the league in yards per attempt (5.85), which shows that they didn’t just pound the ball against a wall over and over again hoping for success.

But that’s the obvious answer. With such a successful ground attack, the Midshipmen were also quite good at converting on third down. Actually, no team was better than Navy, which converted 54.4 percent of its third down chances into first downs, the best mark in the country. Only eight teams had a mark above 50 percent. That third down success also carried over into the red zone, where the Midshipmen turned a league-best 79.7 percent of their opportunities into touchdowns and 89.7 percent into points of some kind.

Navy’s efficient offense was even better because it controlled the ball and pace of play like you wouldn’t believe. It only turned the ball over 16 times, which was a league-low, and because of all the running, the team ranked fourth in the AAC in time of possession per game.

What They Didn’t Do Well

While they were busy converting more than 50 percent of their third down chances into first downs, the Midshipmen were letting their opponents do the same thing. They were the only team in the nation (that’s right, not just the AAC) to allow more than 100 third down conversions and one of only two to surrender a better than 50 percent success rate in such situations.

Their defensive success in the red zone also followed this alarming trend, as teams scored 91.3 percent of the times they got close to the promised land. However, its important to note that Navy had the fourth fewest red zone attempts against.

Players to Watch

Zach Abey, QB

Abey is considered the front runner to follow in Worth’s footsteps. He started in the last two games of last year and rushed for 384 yards and six touchdowns on 70 attempts and also threw for 352 on 20-of-35 passes, while he was intercepted four times.

Chris High, FB

A senior and the top returning rusher on the roster (546 yards, seven touchdowns), High should get plenty of carries, especially with Shawn White gone.

Micah Thomas, LB

We know about tackling here at UC thanks to Eric Wilson, last year’s leading tackler in the AAC. Thomas was right on his heels with 107 stops.

D.J. Palmore, LB

All Palmore did was lead the Midshipmen in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (6.0).

Do They Play Cincinnati

Boy do they and early on for that matter! On Sept. 23 the Bearcats and Midshipmen will clash in Annapolis at 3:30 p.m. on CBS Sports Network. This will mark just the third all-time meeting between the two program as well as the first time they will face off since Navy joined the AAC.

We’ll have to pull a Samwell Tarly and go deep in the archives to remember the first two meetings. The first was in 1940 when Navy won 14-0. The second was in 1956 when Navy won yet again (7-6). So this fall the Bearcats get a chance at revenge that’s been 61 years in the making.

Prediction Time

Navy has a well oiled game plan on offense and does enough on defense to consistently make the postseason. That’s not going to change this year, especially with Houston expected to take a step back. The Midshipmen will be right in the thick of the AAC title chase, but I think they’ll come up just a bit short to Memphis. Punch in eight wins and a bowl appearance and walk away. Actually, run away. That’s what Navy would want.