As last Friday's game at Central Michigan unfolded for the Navy football team, one thing became abundantly clear: With freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds running the offense, the Midshipmen began to resemble the teams from Ken Niumatalolo's first three seasons as head coach and Paul Johnson's last five years in Annapolis.
It was not only the first time that Navy had dominated a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent both in terms of the scoreboard (31-13) and time of possession (35:47 to 24:13) this season, but the first time in as many as four years that all aspects of the triple option were completely in sync. The Midshipmen ran a season-high 73 plays, compared to 44 for Central Michigan.
"The thing that's been unbelievable with this kid is that we haven't had to pare back our offense," Niumatalolo said of Reynolds after practice Monday. "It's not like, 'Okay, Keenan is in there, we can't do this.' We're doing everything. I can't remember somebody we've been able to do that with. We've been able to run our offense without any restrictions."
Coming off two straight victories — Navy beat Air Force in overtime the previous week with Reynolds leading a fourth quarter comeback — the Midshipmen (3-3) will need to do the same Saturday when they face Indiana (2-4) in a 3:30 p.m. homecoming game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
"We're executing," Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said. "When you keep the football and convert on third and fourth downs, you're going to get more plays, not a lot of three-and-outs. That's just the entire offense. When they go out and play like that, it's not about the playcalling, it's about the kids. When they do what they're supposed to do and play hard and take care of the football, we have success."
While the Hoosiers are at the bottom of the Big Ten standings in one of the league's worst seasons in history, they are still capable of scoring points and doing it quickly. Not only will an improving Navy defense try to defuse a team that put up 49 points and still managed to lose last week against Ohio State, but the offense will try to keep the Hoosiers' fast-striking counterparts off the field.
"Ohio State possessed the ball and they still scored 49 points," Niumatalolo said of Indiana. "They have a no-huddle offense, go fast and we're going to have a hard time slowing them down."
That means putting together the kind of drives the Midshipmen had last week against the Chippewas, who like Indiana were near the bottom of the 120 FBS teams in rushing defense. Four of Navy's eight possessions lasted at least 10 plays and more than 4 ½ minutes.
"To me, the blueprint for our success was this past [Friday]: run the ball, we did a great job defensively, get them off the field," Niumatalolo said. "That's how we win."
Asked how much of Navy's recent success is attributable to Reynolds, Niumatalolo said, "A lot has to do with the quarterback. We played well up front. We were able to get them off the field. I think there are a lot of contributing factors, but he was a big part of it."
Said senior slotback Gee Gee Greene, who caught two of Reynolds' three touchdown passes last week, "You never see a freshman come in and play, a plebe, especially at the academy and do as well as he's doing. I've seen the potential in him ever since he came from camp. ... He knows the offense just as good Ricky [Dobbs] did when he was here. That's the biggest thing, his knowledge of the offense."
The biggest difference in Navy's offense could be Reynolds' ability to throw. While other recent Navy quarterbacks had success with play action, Reynolds seems to be able to throw on the run, a carryover from his years of running a double-option offense in high school in Tennessee.
Last week, Reynolds became the first Navy quarterback to throw for three touchdowns in a game in 15 years.
"You hope it opens up the offense, and gets people to back off you, that's our goal," Jasper said. "We'll continue to work on it and make people aware that we can throw the football. It's good to see. But honestly, as coaches and option guys, we love throwing touchdown passes — that's why we call them — but we want to grind it out and play Navy football."
Indiana (2-4) at Navy (3-3)
Time: Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 1090 AM 1430 AM
Series: Indiana leads 2-0
Last meeting: Indiana won 52-29 on Sept. 20, 1986 in Bloomington
Navy offense vs. Indiana defense: Just like last week against Central Michigan, the Midshipmen will be facing an opponent that is among the worst in the country against the run. The Hoosiers are ranked 109th in the Football Bowl Subdivision, giving up just over 221 yards a game. Navy is up to 14th in the country in rushing (233.3) and seemed to have success last week with fullbacks Noah Copeland and Prentice Christian sharing the load. They combined for 134 yards on 28 carries, markiing the first time in three years that two Navy fullbacks each carried the ball more than 10 times in a game. But the key for the Midshipmen will be freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds, coming off throwing for three touchdowns in his first college start. If Navy can limit Indiana tackle Adam Replogle, who leads all Big Ten defensive lineman with nearly seven tackles per game, the Midshipmen might be able to get their triple option going. Navy's kicking game has become a weapon too, with freshman placekicker Nick Sloan a perfect 6-6 on field goals and sophomore punter Pablo Beltran ranking 10th in the country with a 45.5 yard average.
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Navy defense vs. Indiana offense: The Midshipmen have given up just 49 points in their last four games, the fewest for a Navy team in a four-game stretch since 1981. It has been a combination of a young secondary learning on the job and better pressure up front. Navy will be challenged by Indiana's quick-strike offense, which is averaging fewer than six plays over 24 scoring drives (19 touchdowns). Quarterback Cameron Coffman, a junior college transfer who took over when starter Tre Roberson sustained a season-ending injury in the team's second game, has completed 108 of 172 passes for 1,076 yards with seven TDs and one interception. He threw for 275 yards and a touchdown in last week's 52-49 loss to Ohio State. Tailback Stephen Houston scored three TDs against the Buckeyes, including a 59-yard run and a 25-yard reception. Outside linebacker Keegan Wetzel leads the Midshipmen with four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.