Unlike last season, when Navy opened up against an overmatched 3-9 Towson team at home, the Midshipmen will begin their quest for a seventh consecutive winning season this year in one of college football's toughest venues. Indeed, there will be no proverbial "warm-up" game for coach Ken Niumatalolo and his squad, who travel to Columbus to take on an Ohio State Buckeye team which finished last season 10-3 and ranked ninth in the country in the final Associated Press poll. The Buckeyes, who recently wrapped up spring practice in front of a near-capacity crowd at Ohio Stadium, have won at least a share of the Big 10 Title each of the past four seasons, and figure to enter the 2009 campaign as the favorite to repeat.
For Niumatalolo, the game presents the toughest challenge of his still young head coaching career. When asked about the Buckeyes, the second year Navy headman didn't hold back, pointing out that Navy's opening day opponent will have decisive advantages in terms of personnel and setting, and will be far and away the best team the Midshipmen have played during the so called "triple option era." Referencing the 95,000 fans who attended Ohio State's nationally-televised spring game, Niumatalolo said that the idea of playing in front of so many hostile fans was "pretty alarming," while also drawing attention to the talent disparity which exists between a perennial Top 10 school like Ohio State and a Service Academy like Navy.
"We're going to have to be ready," said Niumatalolo, his face turned stone-cold by the mere question of whether or not he feels like his Mids can compete with the Buckeyes. "This is by far and away the best team we have ever played. I mean it is not even close."
Niumatalolo went on to say that while the Midshipmen have played some very good teams in recent years (scoring upsets over the likes of Rutgers and Wake Forest in 2008 and Pittsburgh in 2007) no Navy team of the past twelve seasons has ever encountered a team as talented as Ohio State, which went to back-to-back National Championship games in 2006 and 2007.
"We play Pitt and they are phenomenal. Rutgers is a great team too. Notre Dame…They are all great, and I'm not taking anything away from them; but a top tier BCS team that loses the draft choices that [Ohio State] loses and they still have a top five recruiting class? I mean they are freaks. Those guys are just well coached and a very good football team and we are going to have our hands full just to compete with those guys."
The seriousness for which Navy's coaches are taking the challenge of playing Ohio State hasn't exactly been a Pentagon secret. When I visited the Navy coach after spring ball, the usually reserved Niumatalolo admitted that his top two assistants – offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper and defensive coordinator Buddy Green – were both well into their initial study of Ohio State's 2008 game film. Considering his team's questions at several key positions (including the transition to junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs) Niumatalolo was unwilling to guess how his team would fare come September, instead choosing to reiterate the point that all they could do was "to be ready."
Despite the obvious challenges of playing an Ohio State team which has made BCS bowl games a post-season home away from home in recent years, some fans and analysts see the possibility of a Midshipmen upset. Many Navy fans in particular have been quick to point out that while they expect a clearly more talented Ohio State team to take the field against Navy on September 5th, they nevertheless view the Buckeyes as vulnerable coming off of a disappointing 2008.
It's a point not totally without merit, for while Ohio State returns sophomore sensation Terrelle Pryor (right) at quarterback, they do lose multiple stars from both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball from last year's Fiesta Bowl team. Tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells (who accounted for some 1,200 rushing yards despite playing in only 10 games in 2008) departs for the NFL, as do the top two Buckeye pass catchers from a season ago in Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. Also gone is All-Big Ten tackle Alex Boone, as well as starting guard Steve Rehring and tight end Rory Nichol.
Defensively, Ohio State loses several key members of their 2008 defense, which finished the year ranked 14th in the country in total defense and 18th in the nation in rushing defense. Yet to repeat their impressive numbers in 2009 the Buckeyes will have to do so without three-time consensus All-American linebacker James Laurinaitus, as well as top defensive backs Malcolm Jenkins (2008 Thorpe Award Winner) and Donald Washington. If that wasn't enough, the Buckeyes will also have to replace second team All-Big 10 linebacker Marcus Freeman and honorable Mention All-Big 10 tackle Nadar Abdallah. And don't forget about placekicker Ryan Pretorius, who graduates after serving two years as Ohio State's field goal and extra point man.
By the same token, Ohio State has had scares against seemingly "lesser" non-conference foes in the past, with the most recent coming in a near loss against Ohio University last season. In that game, the Buckeyes outgained the Bobcats by only eight yards of total offense, and had to overcome a third quarter deficit to eventually defeat Frank Solich's feisty Mid American Conference team by a final score of 26-14. These factors, coupled with the "lay it all on the line" attitude of what figures to be a fired up Navy team, have left many Navy fans with a cautious optimism coming out of the spring, and have forced even some "experts" to question whether or not the game will be a lopsided as they originally thought.
Navy's coaches aren't buying into their fans' reserved optimism though, and caution that even a perfectly played football game may not be enough to pull off what would figure to be one of the greatest college football upsets of all time. Personnel loses notwithstanding, coach Jim Tressel's Buckeyes have been nearly impervious at home against non-conference competition, compiling a 23-1 record since 2001. Likewise, the Buckeyes won't exactly be featuring a team of young and unproven talent when they take on the Midshipmen, as Ohio State regularly registers among the top ten programs in the country in yearly recruiting rankings compiled by the likes of Scout.com and Rivals.com. Ohio State's personnel losses on both sides of the ball could be mitigated by a talented core of former backups who have already proven their worth this spring, in particular linebackers Etienne Sabino and Tyler Moeller, who were notable standouts in the spring game.
There is also the issue of Ohio State's offense, which looks primed for a big year with the return of Pryor and several of last year's young contributors. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel has already vowed to go to a more spread out attack this season, and if the Buckeye spring game was any indication than up-and-coming skill position players "Boom" Herron, Ray Small, and Dane Sanzenbacher could all be major factors on offense come 2009.
For Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green, the challange of defending Ohio State's offense – complete with its new emphasis on spread formations – is a dizzying one. Calling last year's Big 10 Freshmen of the Year "the best quarterback in the country," Green said Pryor's unique ability to make plays with both his legs and his arm make containing him almost impossible. Added to the fact that Pryor should be better supported by an offense tailored to his unique skillset, and Green says that Ohio State will be second to none in terms of maximizing their already gaudy talent.
"I have been watching [Ohio State] games from a year ago and boy are they ever impressive" said Green, whose path has crossed with Jim Tressel several times since the days when Green was head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga and Tressel was at Youngstown State.
"They are very, very talented and very big and we are probably going to be playing the best quarterback in the country. [Terelle Pryor] can do it with his arms and he can do it with his legs and he can make you miss, and overall they are a strong football team."
When I asked Green if he agreed with Niumatalolo's assessment about how the 2009 Buckeyes would be the "best" team that the Navy staff has ever coached against, the straight shooting defensive coordinator did not hesitate to answer.
"They will probably be ranked in the Top Five, definitely in the Top Ten [next season]. They have the talent, the size, the speed, the depth…this is without a doubt the biggest challenge we have ever faced since we've been here.
So is it "mission impossible" for coach Ken's Navy Midshipmen? In the days of Appalachian State over Michigan and Stanford over USC one can never say never, but for the time being Navy's players and coaches have more than an uphill battle in front on them.
Adam Nettina can be contacted at AdamNettina@gmail.com.