The East Carolina University football team will open its American Athletic Conference schedule on Saturday in Annapolis, Maryland against the United States Naval Academy.
At 1-1 on the season, the 2019 season has been a tale of two different games for Mike Houston and his Pirates. In the season opener against North Carolina State University, ECU’s offense was bottled up, and rushed for just 41 yards in a 34-6 blowout loss. Just days ago, however, the Pirates ran all over Gardner-Webb University for five rushing touchdowns and almost 600 total yards in a 48-9 rout.
“We’re very pleased with the way our team came out and competed. I thought that they played with a lot of energy,” head coach Houston said. “I thought we played really, really hard. I thought we did a lot of good things and we built on week one and improved, which we needed to.”
That improvement will be put to the test against a Navy squad that runs an old-school offense. Nicknamed the “wishbone,” the Midshipmen often line two “slot backs” and a full back in the backfield. Combined with the quarterback under center, that formation resembles a wishbone shape, thus the playful term. The triple option is ran out of the wishbone, a term that refers to the three possible ball-carries in the backfield.
Under head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who is in his 12th season as Navy’s top man, the Midshipmen have found an abundance of success with the triple option. Niumatalolo is 88-58 as a head coach, and has benefited from a rush-heavy scheme that consistently puts Navy atop the NCAA leaderboards.
Over the last 17 years, Navy has never finished lower than sixth in the country in rushing yards. For obvious reasons, Houston and the Pirates’ staff is focused on stopping that run game and putting Navy into tough situations.
“If you can ever get them behind the chains and get them off schedule. When we used to run it (at The Citadel), if we were second-and-six or second-and-four, you were in trouble,” Houston said. “But if you can ever get them to second-and-10, third-and-nine, those situations they’re not quite as effective.”
As Houston alluded to, he gained experience running the wishbone style offense while coaching at The Citadel, a tenure that lasted two seasons (2014-2015). In a normal situation, that might have provided Houston with an advantage, but with Niumatalolo’s storied coaching career and an off-week to prepare, ECU will get a wonderfully prepared Navy team.
“Coach Bob Trott and I, neither one of us is going to play a snap on Saturday. It doesn’t matter what we know, it matters what we can educate the players on and what they can learn this week,” Houston said. “I do think it helps, you kind of know how they’re going to attack us. They’re going to have wrinkles; they’ve had a long time to prepare for this ballgame and I’m sure they didn’t wait for the last two weeks either.”
In Navy’s lone game this season, they amassed some numbers typical of teams that run the triple option. Fourteen different players ran the football a combined 67 times for 449 yards and six touchdowns. Leading that attack was junior full back Nelson Smith and junior slot back CJ Williams. Those two combined for 187 yards on the ground and four touchdowns in a 45-7 victory over College of the Holy Cross.
Not lost in the statistics page is the man making all the decisions on the field, senior quarterback Malcolm Perry. Perry, who has experience as a slot back earlier in his collegiate career, is a prototypical triple option quarterback.
In nine career starts, Perry has rushed for well over 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns, averaging nearly 140 yards on the ground per contest. He has to his credit two 200-yard rushing games and has rushed for at least 100 yards in two-thirds of his starts at quarterback.
“He did a great job on Saturday and you look at their film last year, and he played a little bit all over the place last year, and then you look at them against Holy Cross and I think that’s the biggest improvement in the offense,” Houston said. “He made great decisions in the run game. He threw the ball very well, which if you can throw the ball in that offense it’s a great weapon.”
While Houston has some sort of game plan in mind on how to stop Navy’s offense, there is a big question mark surrounding how the Midshipmen will defend the Pirates.
A change in coordinators on the defensive side and lack of film from this season will likely have ECU’s coaching staff adjusting on the fly on Saturday.
“They have a lot of players coming back on that side of the ball but they’re running a different scheme. Against Holy Cross, what I saw was a very aggressive group,” Houston said. “You’ll see them blitz on first down; you’ll see them blitz on third down. We know the basics, but until we see it ready, it’s going to be a deal where we have to gauge what we see in the first quarter and make adjustments and go from there.”
With a team that loves to run the football, one of the most important aspects of Saturday’s game will be the time of possession battle. Against Holy Cross, the Midshipmen possessed the football for just over 36 of the 60 minutes, good enough to rank them fifth in the country in time of possession after one game.
For Houston, that means keeping his offense on the field and limiting long, time-consuming drives by Navy. “We’ve got to do a good job offensively of staying on the field, extending drives and putting the ball in the end zone,” Houston said.
Just like ECU, Navy was picked to finish fifth in their half of the AAC. That means on Saturday, fans will likely see two squads with fairly equal skill-sets, but ones that are employed in two different ways. Shutting down the run has been something the Pirates have struggled with so far this season.
That being said, players like senior nose tackle Alex Turner and senior defensive end Kendall Futrell will play integral roles in ECU’s success. Shutting down the run game is the number one priority for the Pirates on Saturday while exploiting a new defensive scheme is the goal for sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers and company on offense.
Kickoff between the Pirates and Midshipmen is slated for 3:30 p.m. inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.