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Armed Forces Bowl: Can Middle Tennessee contain Navy’s triple option?

Sam Cooper
Dr. Saturday

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Navy's Keenan Reynolds (USA Today Sports Images)

Armed Forces Bowl
Middle Tennessee vs. Navy
Dec. 30, 2013
Fort Worth, Texas

Navy is one of a dwindling number of teams to still feature the triple option offense. And with record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds under center, the Midshipmen run the offense extremely efficiently. Running the ball almost exclusively, Navy averages 322 rushing yards and 34.3 points per game.

With three touchdowns in Navy’s win over Army on Dec. 14, Reynolds set an NCAA single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 29. As a team, the Midshipmen have registered a nation-best 47 rushing touchdowns.

The option offense is a unique challenge for opposing defenses to prepare for, so Middle Tennessee will certainly have its hands full in Monday’s Armed Forces Bowl. The Blue Raiders gave up 185.4 rushing yards per game this season, but ended its season on a five-game winning streak to finish 8-4 and go 6-2 in league play in their first year in Conference USA.

The Blue Raiders suspect rush defense should be a cause for concern, but with over three weeks to prepare for the Navy offense, it will be the matchup to keep an eye on. Additionally, Middle Tennessee’s rush defense improved as the season progressed. In their last three games – wins over Florida International, Southern Miss and UTEP – the Blue Raiders gave up just 116.6 yards per game.

The Midshipmen, who ended the year with a four-game winning streak to also finish 8-4, have struggled in bowl games under Ken Niumatalolo. Since he took over before the 2008 season, Niumatalolo has lost three of his four bowl appearances, including last year’s 62-28 loss to Arizona State in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Maybe that’s a sign that with extra time to prepare, the option can be contained.

Middle Tennessee’s offense is led by quarterback Logan Kilgore, who threw for 2,289 yards and 16 touchdowns, and running backs Jordan Parker (767 yards, 6 TDs) and Reggie Whatley (640 yards, 3 TDs). Despite also putting up an 8-4 record, the Blue Raiders were snubbed for a bowl game in 2012. The Blue Raiders should be ready to play.

MASCOT FIGHT

Since MTSU’s original mascot was Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan (and later changed to a blue horse with wings named Lightning), I’m going to go ahead and give the edge to Navy.

PREDICTIONS

Graham: Navy 34, Middle Tennessee 13. Middle Tennessee played well during the latter half of the season, but none of the teams it played were any good. Navy, on the other hand, has played - and beaten - a lot of decent teams this season. I think the Midshipmen cruise in this game.

Nick: Navy 29, Middle Tennessee 23. How is a Blue Raider different than a Red Raider? Will we get to find out as both teams are playing on Monday? Either way, Navy is the better team here, and as we'll see in both of Monday's early games, the triple option takes some getting used to. Here's saying it'll be too little too late for Middle Tennessee.

Sam: Navy 35, Middle Tennessee 30. No one runs the triple option better than Keenan Reynolds. Sure, three weeks of preparation will give Middle Tennessee a better chance than if they had just one week to prepare, but practicing against the scout team is nothing like the real thing. MTSU has a solid offense, so I would be surprised if they don't keep it close, but Navy will pull out the win.

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