Navy up next for Pirates

GREENVILLE, N.C. — ECU will square off with new conference member Navy on Saturday in Annapolis, marking the teams' first conference contest of the season.

Saturday’s matchup between East Carolina and Navy marks the first American Athletic Conference contest for both teams this season.

The Pirates (1-1) and Midshipmen (1-0) have met three times in the Ruffin McNeill ear, the last game ending in a 56-28 win for Navy in 2012.

In that 2012 matchup in Greenville, Navy picked apart ECU’s defense and rushed for 512 yards — the second highest total in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium history. The rout was on the heels of a three game series starting in 2010 that finished with Navy holding the two games to one edge. In total, the Midshipmen outscored the Pirates 167 to 101.

If recent history and stats mean anything, then the Pirates will likely have their hands full with the vaunted triple option attack that Navy has become so accustomed to running.

However, it’s important to remember that current defensive coordinator Rick Smith wasn’t a part of the ECU teams that were blown out twice at home by Navy. In fact, the last time the veteran coordinator faced Navy was in 2006 when he was calling the defensive plays under Skip Holtz.

Smith fared far better than his predecessors, and successors depending on how you look at, and escaped Annapolis with a 28-23 victory.

“I haven’t played them in nine years,” Smith said. “They’ve added a lot of one-back stuff and so they’re making us do more. If you’ve got an option call on defense and they audible out of it then it forces you to adjust.”

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who took the Navy reins following Paul Johnson’s departure in 2007, has become a master of the rarely used triple option. Navy, Air Force, Army and Georgia Tech stand as the only well-known FBS teams to still enlist the storied offensive attack.

Extra emphasis is put on the quarterback position in the triple-option, albeit in different ways than in conventional offenses. Instead of relying on an accurate arm and good vision in the passing game, triple-option signal callers are relied on to read the movement of their offensive lines and make split-second decisions. A tough job, certainly, as one poorly-read play can produce disastrous results.

Enter senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds — truly the catalyst in the potent offensive attack. His 64 rushing touchdowns are not only the most in school history, but the most in NCAA history by a quarterback. He’s electrifying on the ground and can pass when needed.

Reynolds owns 21 wins during his tenure at Navy, but during the Midshipmen’s dismantling of Colgate in the first week, it was backs Chris Swain and DeBrandon Sanders that shined. Swain accumulated 131 yards in 11 carries while Sanders rushed for 66 yards on just three takes.

What makes Navy’s offense so challenging stop is just how rarely the formations are used in today’s game. In a world of spread offenses and air raids, Navy’s tripe option stands as a connection to the way the game was played while still succeeding in modern times. That fact makes it all the more vaunting to face.

“Throughout the game (we’re making adjustments),” head coach Ruffin McNeill said. “Every game I’m holding my breath. That’s what’s draining. The guys have done a good job with retention from fall camp.”

Containing Navy’s triple option early on is imperative. Smith will attest to that fact. When the Midshipmen get the ground game going it not only eats away at the clock, it wears down the defense and puts added pressure on the offense to score quickly. Quick stops early are a key to the Pirates’ success but the defensive coordinator knows it’s not that easy.

“They take great pride in being tough,” said Smith. “Their offensive line takes great pride in knocking you off the football. If they knock you off the ball they’re going to win the game, and they know that.”

It’s not all offense about Navy’s offense, though. Its defense has made the offensive production possible because the Midshipmen have been just as staunch on defense.

“They’re disciplined all around,” McNeill said. “It reminds me of my time (as a player) and your defense becomes as disciplined as the offense. Brendon Clements, their defensive back, he’s a really good player. An up-front guy, at defensive end, Will Anthony has a lot of change of direction, a quick-twitch type of guy.”

The game marks a milestone for the historic Midshipmen program. It’s not only the team’s first conference game of the season, it marks the first ever AAC game, while its rival Army remains and independent.

The addition of Navy to the conference this season adds another element to the American’s dynamic. The Midshipmen have been known to put a scare in Power Five teams, playing Notre Dame and Ohio State close last year before eventually going down in both contests.

Wins over any team are always nice, but starting conference play with a victory can help ease the pressure, especially considering just how tough the Pirates’ non-conference schedule is this season.

“The non-conference schedule tests you and gets you ready for our conference schedule,” McNeill said. “This conference is really good top-to-bottom, coaching-wise. Every school competes each week. They’re all big games to me.”

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