Annapolis, MD (WJZ)- The old football cliche says that defense wins championships. Well, the Navy Midshipmen and Ken Niumatalolo are hoping that truism applies to this year’s American Athletic Conference.
Through six games, the Mids have posted a 5-1 record ,including a 3-1 mark in conference play, with their lone loss coming against fellow West division contender Memphis back in September. While the offense, led by quarterback Malcolm Perry, has drawn much of the praise so far this year, the defense has been a key part of the team’s success.
Last year, the Midshipmen were uncharacteristically bad on that side of the ball, ranking 103rd in the country in points allowed, giving up over 33 per game. That, in turn, led to a 3-10 season that is the worst mark of Niumatalolo’s tenure. In the offseason, the team brought in Brian Newberry to overhaul the unit, and he has done exactly that. Previously the coordinator at FCS power Kennesaw State, Newberry brought a multiple 4-2-5/3-4 style of defense that has allowed the Midshipmen to flourish this year, cutting their points allowed in half down to 16.2 (12th in FBS) per outing.
A big part of the improvement on the defensive side of the ball has been the play of the defensive line, which CBS Sports Network college football announcer Carter Blackburn calls a “play-making bunch.”
“It goes back to the defensive line. When Navy football is good defensively, they have a very salty defensive line, and that’s exactly what they have,” said Blackburn.
The play-making aspect has stood out through half the season, as the Midshipmen have collected 17 sacks, recovered five fumbles and picked off three passes. Add in the fact that they have piled up 40.5 tackles for loss, and this is a unit that creates havoc in opposing backfields. They’re going to need to do just that this week when the Tulane Green Wave roll into town.
The Green Wave have put together one of the more prolific rushing attacks in the country under offensive coordinator Will Hall, averaging over 267 yards per game and nearly six yards per carry. That makes for a fascinating test against a Navy run defense that ranks 16th in the country, holding opponents to under 100 yards per game on the ground and only three yards per carry.
It would appear that the Midshipman have the advantage on the offensive side of the ball, as the attack led by Perry ranks first in the country in rushing yards, while Tulane is right on the fringe of the top 50 in run defense, allowing four yards per carry and 142 per game on the ground. The triple-option attack is always tough for a team to prepare for, but Tulane may be better prepared than most, having run an option attack themselves in recent years.
Another edge appears to be on third downs, where Navy is converting at a 50 percent clip so far this season and Tulane is allowing opponents to convert on 38 percent of their tries this season.
Tulane enters with a 5-2 record, and this game could play an important part in deciding the West division. Blackburn calls the Green Wave “one of the more fun teams to watch in college football,” noting that they made arguably the play of the year with a fake kneel-down late against Houston to set up a game-winning touchdown.
“Willie Fritz is a strong consideration for national coach of the year,” said Blackburn. “It is a building job that is somewhat reminiscent of Stanford and what Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw did there.”
Fritz has made the Tulane program into a formidable opponent, another big test of the improved Midshipmen defensive unit. If they can pass the test, there are only three more American conference games remaining. The biggest one comes on November 23rd when the Midshipmen face the currently unbeaten Mustangs.
ESPN’s Football Power Index projects Navy with a 62% chance of beating Tulane and gives them a six percent chance of winning the conference. In order to make good on that, the defense, back to being a strength, will need to continue its stifling ways.
The Midshipmen and Green Wave kick off their American Athletic Conference matchup on Saturday, October 26th at 3:30 p.m. Eastern Time on CBS Sports Network.