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Opponent Preview: Navy Midshipmen

Navy has made a bowl game in 14 of the last 15 years. The Midshipmen are good enough to make it 15 of 16 in 2018.

NCAA Football: Military Bowl-Virginia vs Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

If you are looking for a team you can expect to go bowling in 2018, you wouldn’t be off base by betting on the Navy Midshipmen. That’s not necessarily because Navy is stuffed with NFL-ready talent or because they are going to compete for the College Football Playoff. The reason you can feel comfortable with an investment in the Midshipmen most years is because they are consistent. In fact, they have gone to a bowl game in 14 of the last 15 years.

Last season’s 7-6 finish continued that bowl appearance streak, but Navy’s loyalty to consistency cut both ways. After winning its first five games of the season and reaching the national rankings, Navy then went 1-6 during the last seven games, limping its way into the postseason. Thanks to a 49-7 drubbing of Virginia in the Military Bowl, Navy managed to finish a season with a winning record for the sixth-straight year. So, yes, 2017 was a bit of a step back from the previous couple years, but Ken Niumatalolo’s squad just finds ways to win enough to remain in contention and play in December or January.

When Do They Play Cincinnati?

When the Cincinnati Bearcats’ schedule turns over to November, it amps up a bit in difficulty. It starts when they face the Midshipmen at Nippert Stadium on Nov. 3. After that they tangle with USF and UCF before closing the regular season with a home game against East Carolina.

What They Do Well

If you even have a tangential knowledge of college football, you probably know about Navy’s offense, which is reliant on a triple-option scheme. That means there are rushing yards all over the stat sheet. The Midshipmen ranked second in the country in rushing offense (just don’t talk about who came in first around Annapolis), marking their fifth season in the top five. That streak would be longer, but Navy “only” finished sixth in 2012. Zach Abey, Malcolm Perry and Chris High were at the forefront of the run game last year, with Abey and Perry both surpassing 1,000 yards on the ground. Perry and Abey are both back, but High has moved on. Don’t expect that to drastically change the game-plan, however.

The offense wasn’t just built on guys who could run the ball, but also on guys who could protect those guys running the ball. That’s a sentence, isn’t it? No team in the American Athletic Conference gave up fewer tackles for loss than Navy (58) in 2017. UC actually ranked second (62) but was still off the pace set by the Midshipmen, who tied for 14th nationally in the statistic.

Adherence to the triple-option did not stop Navy from finding success on third down either. Even though opposing defenses knew a run was coming most of the time, Navy still managed to convert 85 of 187 third down tries into first downs, ranking just a fraction off of Houston’s AAC-leading success rate.

Navy also dedicated itself to limiting unnecessary lost yardage while absolutely dominating time of possession. Constant running will do that. Navy ranked first in the country in time of possession per game, at a little more than 36 minutes per game. It was also a top 10 team in terms of penalties allowed, tying with Rice and Texas State for the ninth-fewest in the land.

All told, Navy’s mostly one-sided offense was still one of the better groups in the AAC, finishing 38th in the country in offensive S&P+. On defense, the Midshipmen tumbled to 83rd, but its worth noting that they put forth a solid run defense and at the very least limited large gains. Their return coverage on special teams also aided their run to seven wins.

What They Don’t Do Well

The Navy offense doesn’t pass well by design. The triple-option is meant to utilize run after run after run. With only 1,005 passing yards and as many interceptions (10) as touchdown passes (10), Navy quarterbacks were not going to win any throwing contests last year. One aspect of Navy’s passing game that is effective is the depth of the passing plays. Abey, who led the team in passing attempts (72), averaged 11.2 yards and 8.8 adjusted yards per attempt, showing that when Navy does decide to throw, it goes for big chunks of yardage. There are even some who think the passing game is actually going to improve and become a bigger part of the offense in 2018.

Defensively speaking, where Navy could use a boost is on the pass rush. We know all about weak quarterback pursuit at Down the Drive, so its easy to recognize when another team struggles in this area, but there are also numbers to prove the point, as Navy had only 16 sacks a year ago. That lack of pressure was at least partially to blame for Navy’s inability to force many turnovers (16), while there was a touch of poor ball security by the Midshipmen offense (-3 turnover margin).

Along with a weak pass rush, the Midshipmen were also very easy to score on in the red zone. In the 45 opportunities they allowed 40 scores, including 30 touchdowns. The only team in the AAC with a worse red zone scoring percentage was East Carolina.

On special teams, Navy did not get the best work from placekicker Bennett Moehring, who made only 8-of-15 field goal tries. As a team, Navy ranked second-to-last in the AAC in field goal percentage. UC was the team that fell behind. Moehring will be a senior this year and was much better in 2016 (8-for-10 on field goals).

Players to Watch

Malcolm Perry, QB

In addition to being able to do that, Perry rushed for 1,182 yards and 11 touchdowns, while also adding 303 yards as a receiver. The junior is already one of the most dynamic offensive playmakers in the AAC and will only get better.

Zach Abey, WR

Abey was the starting quarterback last year, but Perry’s ascension has pushed him to the outside. Perhaps there really is a reason to believe in the passing game?

Anthony Gargiulo, FB

With High gone, Gargiulo becomes the top rusher that doesn’t play quarterback. He rushed for 423 yards and three touchdowns on 76 carries in 2017.

Andrew Wood and Jake Hawk, OT

The offensive line should be pretty strong again this year with Wood and Hawk protecting the edges. Wood has started every game since 2016 and Wood started 12 times a year ago.

Sean Williams, S

Williams was an all-AAC honorable mention as a junior. He ranked second on the team in tackles (76) and also had four passes defended.

Josh Webb, DE

Webb was Navy’s sack leader a year ago (4.0) and will be a key player if the team gets better at rushing opposing quarterbacks.

Series History

Imagine waiting 61 years for a rematch. That’s what the Cincinnati Bearcats endured after losing to the Midshipmen 13-7 during the 1956 season. Six decades came and went before UC got a chance to avenge that setback. Finally, last season, they had an opportunity and they lost 42-32 on the road. With another failure to Navy from 1940 also on the docket, the Bearcats have lost each of the three all-time meetings with the Midshipmen. This year’s matchup will be the first outside of Annapolis, so maybe things will change.

Would This Be Better as a Basketball Game?

Is David Robinson still playing for Navy?

Prediction Time!

Navy rushed for 569 yards against Cincinnati in last year’s contest. If I have a prediction for this game its that UC will be hell-bent on avoiding such a breakdown in run defense, even if it was against a team that ran the ball 72 times and threw it thrice. With the expectation that Navy will once again be a strong team, this could very well be another loss, but there has been enough roster turnover (D.J. Palmore, Micah Thomas, High) that there is reason to believe UC could pull a November upset. Let’s choose to believe in that reason.