South Florida travels to Annapolis, MD today to take on a Navy football team that at 5-1 appears to be traveling under the radar in the American Athletic Conference to a degree this season. Given the three un defeated teams the AAC currently has in the top 25 in Houston, Memphis, and Temple, it's somewhat understandable, but this Navy team sits at 3-0 in conference play so far, and with a win today, they would set up an extremely important showdown next week in Memphis.
South Florida brings a three game winning streak into the contest, having racked up 37 points per game on their way to victories over UConn and ECU in conference and a three touchdown victory against ACC foe Syracuse as well. Willie Taggert has this program looking better and better with each game of the season and may *gasp* finally have the Bulls moving in the right direction. Not bad for a guy who was all but toast in our preseason hot seat rankings.
When Navy has the ball:
USF hasn't played a triple option team by my account since defeating Wofford to open the 2009 season. That may be the biggest factor the Midshipmen have going for them heading into this game. Taggert faced Navy while he was the head coach at Western Kentucky in 2011, but the Mids got the best of the Hilltoppers that day 41-14. Will USF take a page from Tulane last week in their scheme to defend the triple option? According to the Navy players and coaches this week, they expect to see similar formations again, but they feel they will be much better prepared to throw some counter punches of their own.
The Bulls defense is led by senior safety Jamie Byrd. This is a defense that likes to dial up pressure and make plays in the backfield. USF currently sits in the top ten in FBS in tackles for a loss on the season, but they will have to remain disciplined if they hope to stop the Mids triple option attack. The pin your ears back and get after the quarterback approach will not work against an effective triple option team without giving up large plays, and given who the Midshipmen have lining up behind center, it's a risky approach to say the least.
For Navy, they will try and "get back on track" to an extent after struggling early on against Tulane. I believe that this will be the key to today's game. Aside from the Tulane game last week, Navy has been very effective in the first halves of games this season, and they must put an emphasis on a fast start this week and use the lack of experience against the option in their favor early on. I have said it before and will say it again, I believe the early success of the Navy offense this year can be attributed to the inability of opposing teams to simulate Keenan Reynolds and Co. in practice. As the teams make adjustments throughout the game and it slows down for them, they are able to see more success, but they are often too far in a hole at that point to climb out.
***Reynolds rushing TD record watch: Keenan Reynolds now sits just two touchdowns behind Montee Ball for the all-time career rushing TD record in FBS and will have a great shot of tying or breaking the record today against the Bulls.***
When USF has the ball:
Shhh...don't let anyone in on our little secret this season. The Navy defense is good! They are the fifth best team in the country in limiting explosive plays. They are producing turnovers at a high rate. They are the fourth best team in the country in fumbles recovered and third overall in turnover margin. They have a top 25 scoring defense. All of these stats highlight the fact that Navy has a talented bunch of defenders across every position group that are hungry to prove week in and week out that this isn't a team that simply relies on the triple option and limiting the number of possessions to win football games.
The USF Bulls will present a huge challenge today though. Led by dual-threat quarterback Quinton Flowers and All-AAC running back Marlon Mack, South Florida will give Navy all it can handle on the defensive side of the ball. Mack and Flowers provide a pick your poison duo that will utilize the read-option and an up tempo offense to their advantage.
In the end, I think this game is closer than the Vegas oddsmakers predict. The key for me is a fast start by Navy's offense and winning the turnover margin. Do those things, and I think Navy escapes with a victory to move to 1-0 before taking on Memphis next week.