One consequence of East Carolina’s 44-24 win at South Florida last week is that it should keep Navy from taking the Pirates lightly on Saturday.
If ECU hadn’t progressed from an 0-2 start that included a 51-28 American Athletic Conference loss at home to Central Florida and a 49-29 nonconference setback at Georgia State, the Midshipmen might have been inclined to believe that getting to 3-0 in the AAC might be as easy as last year’s 42-10 win over the Pirates in Annapolis.
“They’re coming off a big win,” said veteran Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo on Wednesday. “A huge win, on the road against South Florida. They’re coming with a lot of momentum.”
Niumatalolo also knows that ECU has a new defensive coordinator, Blake Harrell, who will be dealing with a triple option offense that has allowed the Midshipmen to average 49.7 points per game against the Pirates in building a 6-1 lead in the series.
“Their defensive coordinator knows option football,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s been around it. I mean, so has Coach (Mike) Houston. They’ve got guys on the defensive side that know option football.”
ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers has been up and down this season but Niumatalolo credits the experience Ahlers has gained since ECU’s third game of the 2019 season at Navy.
“From our defensive side of it there, we’re going to play an offense that has a quarterback that’s playing well with some confidence,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s a returner. He’s got weapons to throw the ball, run the ball. They played pretty well last week up front. They were able to run the ball. They were able to protect him.
“Defensively, we’ve got to go in against a coordinator that knows option football and a head coach that knows option football. Those are definitely going to be challenges for us. …
“He (Harrell) is going to have a good plan. There’s no doubt in my mind those guys are going to be ready. I’m sure they’ve had our game circled. This is going to be a tough game. Their DC has seen it. Coach Houston for many years was head coach of a team that ran option. So they know option football.”
“Coach Houston just got there,” Niumatalolo said. “This is his second year as the head coach. So he’s not concerned about any of the other games that have been in the past, prior to him getting there. This will be the first time for us going down there against his team. They had a huge win last week, just like we did (31-29 over Temple in Annapolis).. I know they’re trying to build off it, just like we are.
“The team that does better at that, of building off their last win, will be the team that comes out with the victory. Both of us are feeling better about ourselves after last week’s win.
“Their DC, Coach Houston, this is not their first rodeo with option football. They’ll have a really good plan.”
Navy (2-2) has bounced back from a pair of decisive losses. Brigham Young downed the Mids, 55-3, to start the season on Sept. 7. Navy had not gone live in practice because of COVID restrictions and it showed against the Cougars, now 4-0, who have since risen to No. 14 in the Associated Press rankings.
After trailing 24-0 at Tulane on Sept. 19, Navy rallied to win, 27-24. Then came a 40-7 loss at Air Force before the win over the Owls.
Quarterback Malcolm Perry ran for four touchdowns and threw for two more against the Pirates last season. Dalen Morris is his successor.
“Malcolm Perry is certainly a special player, probably the best player we faced all of last year, individually,” Houston said. “He really made their offense go last year. They’re a little different this year. Still, they’re what you expect when you lineup against Navy. Dalen Morris, he’s a senior and has a tremendous amount of experience in that offense.
“They have three seniors and two juniors on the offensive line. They have a senior and a junior fullback. So, they have a very old, experienced offense. So, you’re going to see a lot of the same stuff. The 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 of the things that you encounter anytime you line up against this offense.”
True freshman quarterback Ryan Stubblefield has been playing the part of Morris on the ECU scout team.
“We’re using Ryan primarily,” Houston said. “I kind of joked when I was talking to Coach Harrell and some of those guys and said he would be a great triple option quarterback. Because he runs very well. He’s got great feet. He just has that savviness to him. He’s not going to want to hear that because I think he’s a good RPO (run-pass option) quarterback too. But he’ll give us a great look.”
The scout team has been working late on Sundays on Navy’s offense.
One factor in hiring Harrell was his history in defending the option.
“It was a big part of the hiring process,” Houston said. “Obviously, I’ve known Blake for a very long time and respect very much his knowledge as it relates to defending the triple. He has experience beyond his time with me, with his time at Kennesaw State.
“But I think the other things too are Roy Tesh, who was primarily with special teams last year, now he’s coaching our defensive line, has extensive experience coaching the defensive front against the triple option. Tripp Weaver, who was with me at The Citadel, has significant experience defending the triple option. Now all of a sudden, you have more people in the room that have experience against this style of offense. That’s proven to be valuable already.”
The scout team can’t approach Navy’s precision and the experienced defensive coaches are still working with a lot of young personnel.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever feel good about matching up with Navy,” Houston said. “They’re so good at what they do. They’re so difficult to defend. I said this last year, when we were running the triple at Lenoir-Rhyne and The Citadel, we did a lot of stuff, clinic-wise, with their staff because we respect their staff as kind of the innovators, the cutting edge guys.
“You saw that a lot with their game plan last year. What little I know about how they prepared for us last year, how they went back and studied film from when I was at Lenoir-Rhyne on what we might do, they’re really good at what they do. Do I feel like we’re going to be more prepared this year? Yes. Do I feel like you’re ever going to be completely prepared or have mastered defending them? No one is going to ever 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.”
Houston said he knew the Midshipmen wouldn’t be defined by the loss to BYU.
“I think you can toss out the BYU game completely and I think that anyone who has any common sense understood what the coaching staff had to go through,” said the ECU coach. “Certainly, I do as a head coach. They just were not prepared for that ballgame. After watching that game, I said to myself, I wish that was the Navy team we’re going to see, but it’s not. That’s not who we’re going to see when we line up against them.
“When I flip on the Temple game, I see about what I expect from Navy. I see a team that’s 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 fullbacks 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 is improved drastically since that game way back in early September. Just overall, special teams wise, they’re as solid as anyone we’ve seen. I think their defense is improved drastically. I know they had a couple of guys out last week that I would expect back this week. So, I think 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.”