As they prepared to meet Navy in Monday's season opener at M&T Bank Stadium, the Maryland Terrapins gave themselves an advanced course on the intricacies of the triple-option offense.
The Terps studied Navy's offense on film. Coaches asked the scout team to simulate the multiple-faking attack without a ball. Then they brought the ball back and drilled some more.
"It is very, very difficult to defend," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, whose team enters the season on a seven-game losing streak. "The more we look at it, the more we have to play the 'what ifs' — what if they do this, what if they do that?"
Navy led the nation in rushing from 2005 through 2008 and finished fourth last season at 280.5 yards per game. The Midshipmen, who return five of their top six rushers, are led by senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who set an NCAA record for his position last season with 27 rushing touchdowns.
The game marks the renewal of an in-state rivalry that both schools say they hope to continue. Navy was 10-4 last season and is anticipating another big year. Maryland is trying to rebound from a 2-10 season that was Friedgen's worst at the school.
"I think 2-10 is a part of who we are," said Maryland offensive tackle R.J. Dill, a redshirt sophomore. "Why do people study history? It's to learn from the mistakes of the past."
Third-year Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told his players at practice this week that their counterparts in College Park have been reminded often about last season, and he expects the Terps to be a different team in Baltimore.
"They're still an ACC team, they're still twice our size. Looking at those guys' 40 times. We don't have anybody [in the] 4.3s. They're bigger and faster than us," Niumatalolo said after practice Monday. "If we think anything different, we're foolish as a program."
Maryland frequently practiced against the triple option without a ball — a strategy employed in the past by its defensive coordinator, Don Brown, the former Massachusetts head coach.
Brown faced such an offense in a UMass-Navy game in 2006. UMass lost 21-20, but managed to force four turnovers.
Against Georgia Southern in 1998, UMass — with Brown as defensive coordinator — gave up 457 rushing yards to a Paul Johnson-coached triple-option offense but forced seven turnovers and won the Division I-AA national championship with a 55-43 win. Johnson later coached at Navy and is now at Georgia Tech.
Brown said the key is disrupting the offense's timing. "Really what it comes down to is you've got to try to change the tempo," he said. "It's just like a passing quarterback. If he gets into a rhythm, it's hard to stop the faucet."
Brown said Navy's current version of the triple option is especially hard to defend because Dobbs "throws the ball better than any option quarterback I think I've prepared for."
While Maryland prepared for the option by having its scout team go without a ball, Navy passed nearly 40 times in its first public scrimmage.
Niumatalolo indicated some gamesmanship may have been involved.
"You never know who is in the stands, but also we need to work on it quite a bit more," Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo said that he can see throwing the ball more this year than his first two years.
"Probably in the teens, the low teens, 15 to 20ish," Niumatalolo said. "Some people see that they can throw a hitch for four yards or a screen for four yards. We feel like we can run the football for four yards. "
Throwing the ball more "will definitely help [the option] running game more," Niumatalolo said. "Coach Johnson showed that at Georgia Tech."
Freshman quarterback Devin Burns was the stand-in for Dobbs on Maryland's scout team. He and other players had to adjust in practice to running and defending the triple option without a football.
"It's definitely kind of weird," said Maryland linebacker Alex Wujciak, whose 10.6 career tackles per game leads the nation. "It's just basically so we get our keys down."
Nick Peterson knows the Midshipmen better than any Terp. The backup linebacker transferred from the Naval Academy to Maryland two years ago and said he keeps in touch with Dobbs, among other Navy players. He supported the idea of removing the football during scrimmages with the scout team.
"If you have a ball, people tend to go for the ball rather than taking care of their responsibilities," Peterson said.
Eventually, Maryland started using a ball again at practices. Friedgen said coaches "were worried about guys overrunning" the play without a ball.
The key for the Terps on Monday, Peterson said, is to focus "on playing to the whistle, hustling and finishing the plays."
"That's the only way you're going to beat Navy is be able to finish all the plays," Peterson said. "Because they're going to hustle and they're going to work just as hard as anybody in the country."