Navy, Army: Two Ground Forces
PHILADELPHIA - The U.S. Naval Academy football team, riding a triple-option offense that clicks with military precision, already has wrapped up its seventh consecutive season with at least eight wins and a bowl berth. So what's left?
A little business here Saturday: the 110th Army-Navy game. The past decade, it has been all Navy. The Midshipmen have won a series record seven in a row and nine of the last 10. Combined score in the seven-game streak: 274-71.
Triple-option coaching wizard Paul Johnson ran his offense for six seasons at Navy before leaving two years ago for Georgia Tech, where his scheme yielded an Atlantic Coast Con ference title this season. His successor and protégé at Navy, Ken Niumatalolo, stuck with an offense that fits the type of players Navy can recruit with its academics and five-year military commitment.
In the triple option, the quarterback can give the ball to the fullback, run or pitch back to a trailing slot back. It has clicked for Navy, the NCAA rushing leader the last four years and third this year (279.7 yards a game).
At 8-4, Navy has beaten Notre Dame for the second time in three years and nearly knocked off Ohio State, losing by four. The Midshipmen will play Missouri in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 31.
Given Navy's domination of Army, is the game here at Lincoln Financial Field still the game on its schedule?
"It's definitely the biggest, just from the tradition and everything on the line and by being so more much more than just a football game," says Navy junior Ricky Dobbs, who tied a Football Bowl Subdivision record for quarterbacks by rushing for 23 touchdowns this season.
The game is being played a week later this year, moving it away from sharing the spotlight with traditional first-weekend-in-December conference championship showdowns. Both teams will pin their hopes on the triple option.
"These guys know we have been beating them a couple of times. So no senior class or no team wants to be the ones that end it," says Niumatalolo (KNEE-uh-mot-uh-lo-lo), a native Hawaiian.
The U.S. Military Academy is starting over with another new coach in Rich Ellerson, who recruited Niumatalolo to play at the University of Hawaii when Ellerson coached there and shares Niumatalolo's commitment to the triple option.
With freshman quarterback Trent Steelman running Army's version of the offense, the Black Knights are 5-6 after working through a less rigorous schedule than Navy's. That's the most victories by an Army team since the 1996 squad went 10-2. With a win against Navy, Army can clinch its first bowl trip since 1996 and play in the EagleBank Bowl on Dec. 29 in Washington against Temple.
Ellerson, who came to Army from a winning, eight-year stint as coach at Cal Poly, welcomes the Navy challenge.
"We expect it to be fiercely contested. We expect to win," Ellerson says. "Obviously, they're the more accomplished football team. . . . We're anxious to measure ourselves against the service academy that right now is dominant."
Army defensive tackle/co-captain Victor Ugenyi borrows a seagoing analogy: "We haven't turned the whole ship around, but we're starting to face it in the right direction. If we win this game, I may sit on the field and stare up at the sky. That would mean the world to me."
Players who fit the scheme
The road to success at Navy started when the academy fired coach Charlie Weatherbie after his 2000 and 2001 teams went a combined 1-20. Athletics director Chet Gladchuk hired Johnson, who had used the triple option successfully at Georgia Southern and in a two-year stint in the mid-1990s as Navy's offensive coordinator.
"The No. 1 criteria was the triple option, and of course it just fit beautifully," Gladchuk says.
Earlier this decade, Army ran pro-style offenses under former coaches Todd Berry and Bobby Ross. Stan Brock, fired after going 3-9 in each of the last two seasons, went pro style his first year and switched to the option last year.
Navy has won with continuity under Johnson and Niumatalolo. It has not only run the triple option, it has recruited players who fit it.
Navy uses two wide receivers split wide. But they block far more than they catch passes. Niumatalolo says the selflessness of the offense fits Navy. "It's a team offense. . . . You can't be worried about who touches the ball," he says.
With the military commitment, Navy doesn't tend to appeal to players who see the NFL in their futures. That goes beyond 6-5 quarterbacks with big arms.
Week after week, Navy faces teams with 300-pound-plus offensive linemen. Navy's offensive line starters are in the 255- to 265-pound range.
But the triple option keeps defenses guessing. While plays might look similar in the backfield, there's an intricate mix of blocking schemes from all angles. "You can use those smaller linemen to block bigger guys," Niumatalolo says.
Ellerson: "They knew what they were looking for when they went to recruit. They weren't looking for guys that somebody else was looking for. . . . They said that guy can play here. That's part of their secret, I suspect."
Dobbs is one of Navy's recruiting finds. As a high school quarterback in Georgia, he was about 5-9, 165 pounds. He was interested in Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets wanted him to play wide receiver.
Dobbs was born Jan. 31, 1988, the Super Bowl Sunday that Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins became the first African-American quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Navy successfully recruited Dobbs, who is African American, as a quarterback.
He's grown to 6-1, 198, and he has big plans beyond his playing days. He says he wants to run for president of the United States in 2040.
"Growing up, people always told me I was quite the politician," he says. "I just wanted to be president. That I could have an effect on people's lives."
For now, he is commander-in-chief of Navy's triple option, and that primarily involves running the ball. Dobbs' touchdown record ties Florida's Tim Tebow (who ran for 23 in 2007) and Air Force's Chance Harridge (who did it in 2002).
Navy beat Wake Forest in the rain this season without throwing a pass. It did the same last season against SMU. Navy ranks 119th of 120 teams in the FBS in passing. Army is 120th (14th in rushing). Dobbs has thrown for four touchdowns. Army's Steelman has thrown for three.
Link between coaches
Ellerson, 55, is the son of a career Army officer who graduated from West Point. Two of his brothers are West Point graduates, including one who captained the Army team in 1962.
Ellerson played center and linebacker at Hawaii. As a Hawaii assistant in the 1980s, he recruited in-state quarterback Niumatalolo. "I wouldn't be here (at Navy) if it wasn't for coach Ellerson," he says. "He got me into college football."
Niumatalolo, 44, of Samoan heritage, recalls his family putting out a Samoan feast for Ellerson during his recruiting visit. "I don't think he was too acclimated to that food even though he coached at Hawaii for a while," he says. "But my family brought a ton of food to him."
Ellerson definitely developed a taste for the triple option, even though he was a defensive assistant. His time at Hawaii as defensive coordinator (1987-91) overlapped with Johnson's stint there as offensive coordinator.
"If there is a family tree here with Kenny and I, Paul is the patriarch of the family, because he's obviously influenced our choices and style of play," Ellerson says.
At game time, the coaches will put friendship aside. "Coach Ellerson will try to beat our brains in. We're going to try to beat their brains in," Niumatalolo says. "But after that, we have great respect for each other."