As Navy welcomes ECU to Annapolis on what should be a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the cheesy metaphors almost write themselves. Navy, playing in its first conference game in school history, is setting sail and embarking on new territory and uncharted waters, and who should stand in their way but a bunch of Pirates that hail from Greenville, NC.
Now that my obligatory nautical reference is complete, let's take a look at what this game has to offer. Even though they are meeting for the first time as conference foes, Navy and ECU are no strangers to competing on the gridiron having played recently during a three game stretch from 2010-2012. Navy took two out of three during that period, scoring a combined 167 points in that span, but they suffered their lone defeat in the only game played in Annapolis.
Navy is coming off of an early week two bye. Coach Niumatalolo used the bye week to hold shortened yet efficient practices in an attempt to keep his team fresh and prepared throughout the season with a long stretch of continuous games upcoming.
In their first contest, Navy routed FCS opponent Colgate 48-10, overcoming a shaky first series to dominate the Raiders in all facets of the game. In particularly, some young corners and linebackers including Sean Williams, Elijah Merchant, Micah Thomas, and Kevin McCoy made significant impacts on defense and the three headed fullback monster of Chris Swain, Quinton Ezell, and Shawn White combined for 192 yards and 4 touchdowns on offense.
ECU enters their first conference tilt having defeated FCS opponent Towson 28-20 in week one followed by giving the Florida Gators all they could handle last weekend in Gainesville. The Pirates were in position to try and tie the game late, but a costly fumble at the Gators 30 yard line allowed Florida to escape with a 31-24 victory.
When Navy has the ball:
When Navy has the ball, ECU will rely heavily on preseason All-AAC first team linebacker Zeek Bigger to lead their defense in stopping the triple option. Bigger is the team leader in tackles through two games with 17 and as the Mike ILB, he will need a strong performance if ECU hopes to slow down Keenan Reynolds and Navy.
If ECU decides that Bigger is their best bet for containing the Midshipmen, then I would expect a similar approach to what Colgate attempted in which they force Reynolds to hand the ball off to Swain and Co. and take away the pitch and QB as much as possible.
If they looked closely at the Colgate game, they may decide that three bruising fullbacks who average over 250 pounds and run with a full head of steam isn't their best option and they may force Reynolds to beat them on the outside or through the air.
Speaking of the passing game, I expect Navy to take some chances down the field as they get on the ECU side of the 50. The emphasis put on pass protection, pass efficiency, and the passing game as a whole this offseason could lead to a few more chances being taken in this game, and if that is the case, Navy needs to continue to improve in this area.
Jamir Tillman caught all 3 of Keenan Reynolds completions against Colgate, and he could be the X factor on offense against ECU. I believe a stat line that reads somewhere close to 4-80-1 for Tillman would be exactly what Navy is hoping for in this game. Across the board, the Midshipmen need to cut down on the dropped passes and increase the completion percentage on the few attempts they do take if they want to be successful.
Overall, I believe that Navy will have the upper hand in this matchup. ECU has not proven itself capable of slowing down Navy under head coach Ruffin McNeill in recent memory with the Mids gaining over 500 yards on the ground in two of their last three meetings. With Keenan Reynolds directing the triple option attack and three bowling balls at fullback eager to run right through the middle of the ECU defense, look for Navy to be able to move the chains effectively and score against the Pirates.
On a side note, I will be watching how starting center Blaze Ryder looks in his first game back from an ACL injury suffered in the spring. It will be interesting to see how many snaps he takes under center and how comfortable he looks in his first game action since the injury.
When ECU has the ball:
ECU will look to build off its momentum in the passing game from last week in Gainesville while trying to rediscover the running game that looked formidable in their opening game against Towson.
Junior lefty Blake Kemp seems to have found his comfort zone in first year offensive coordinator Dave Nichol's scheme. He is coming off a 333 yard 3 TD performance against a very good Gators secondary last week. Although Florida was without All-American Vernon Hargreaves at corner last week, they still have a talented group in the secondary. Kemp looked poised running an ECU offense that includes a plethora of bubble screens and quick throws designed to get their skill players in open space and push the tempo as much as possible.
While ECU lost All-American and the NCAA all-time leader in receptions in Justin Hardy this season, Junior receiver Isaiah Jones has done his part to try and step in that role among the receiving corps. Jones is coming off a 14 catch 135 yard performance against Florida and will present a challenge for Navy's secondary.
The rushing attack was a tale of two games so far for ECU. Senior Chris Hairston looked outstanding with a 154 yard outburst against Towson, but was held to just 15 yards on 17 carries against Florida. As a whole, ECU was held to -13 yards against Florida, their third lowest output in the team's history.
For Navy, they get back starters Quincy Adams and Brendon Clements at cornerback, and this will be my matchup to watch on defense. I anticipate Clements to be the X factor on defense, making tackles in space, and helping to slow down ECU's passing attack. How effective Adams is coming off a nagging hamstring injury that kept him out of most of fall camp remains to be seen, but the coaches have indicated that he is back to full strength, and the fact that they were able to get some of the younger guys valuable experience against Colgate should help them this week.
ECU will be able to put up points. It is hard to stop their offense completely, but if Navy is able to prevent them from consistently establishing the run and play well in space in the secondary, they should be able to do enough to limit the Pirates on the scoreboard.
On a side note, it appears ECU has been dealing with a shuffling of their quarterbacks in recent weeks. After losing projected starter Kurt Benkert to injury early on, Kemp took over the starting role. Before the game against Florida, second-stringer Cody Keith announced his intent to take a leave of absence from the team while remaining enrolled at ECU, moving converted wide receiver James Summers into the backup role. Summers completed 3 of 4 passes against Florida and coach McNeill indicated this week that he "[liked] the way those two worked together" leaving open the possibility of seeing both quarterbacks again this week.
Prediction: Slight to ECU
ECU has used a different placekicker in each of their two games. Junior Connor Torruella got the start against Towson, connecting on all of his PAT's, but missing his lone field goal opportunity from 37 yards. Against Florida, Davis Plowman got the nod, and he was successful on each of his PAT's and his only FG attempt from 30 yards. It will be interesting to see if Plowman of Torruella is used this week against Navy.
On the Navy side, there is no question who the placekicker will be as Austin Grebe continues to have an outstanding career since taking over in the middle of last season. The punter spot is where the battle lies for the Midshipmen, with Alex Barta and Gavin Jernigan each punting once against Colgate. Coach Niumatalolo has indicated he will make a decision soon as to who the starter will be going forward.
In the end, I believe that the Navy offense will be too much for ECU to handle. If Navy is able to control the clock and time of possession by using methodical drives to keep ECU's offense off the field, I believe the Navy defense will get enough stops and the Midshipmen will come out on top in their first conference game in school history. Regardless of the outcome, this should be a special weekend in Annapolis as Navy charts a new course in the American Athletic Conference.
Navy 34-ECU 24