TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State did not officially learn its bowl destination or opponent until Sunday. That didn’t stop the Sun Devils from preparing for the uncommon offense they expected to meet.
Anticipating a Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl bid, ASU began preparing for Navy’s triple-option offense over the weekend. The Devils accepted the bid Sunday night, and discussion turned quickly to how the defense would get ready for the Midshipmen’s offense.
“Obviously it’s completely different, and defensively it’s tough,” ASU coach Todd Graham said. “You can’t underestimate their abilities. We’ve been working on it for a couple of days, and it will take us a while.”
The triple-option offense, more common at the high school level, is a run-heavy scheme that gives the offense three options to run the ball. The quarterback makes a decision based on how the opposing defensive end attacks on a given play. He can hand off to the fullback up the middle, keep the ball himself or pitch to a halfback. There are various versions of the offense, with each utilizing different personnel.
Navy, under fifth-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, runs a variation of the “wishbone” triple option called the flexbone, which lines its halfbacks, or “slotbacks,” up on each side of the quarterback on the edge of the offensive line. The Midshipmen currently rank sixth in the nation in rushing offense with 285.5 yards per game.
The offense was installed at Navy by Paul Johnson, who hired Niumatalolo in 2002 and left to coach Georgia Tech in 2007, taking the offense with him there. Air Force and Army also run the flexbone. With so few teams running a true triple option, the Sun Devils are starting slow in their simulations.
“It’s hard to simulate in any week, but much more difficult this week,” Graham said. “Being an old high school coach, I’ve spent a lot of time defending that type of offense, so I think we have a pretty good idea how to do it. It’s still not very easy because of the blocking and how they go about blocking.”
In addition to his high school experience, Graham has coached against the flexbone once as a defensive coordinator, that being against Navy in 2004, and twice as head coach, those games being against Army in 2006 and ’07.
As tough as the scheme may be to defend, it also offers some degree of predictability. While there may be three options in the run game, the defense can count on the ball staying on the ground a large majority of the tame. Navy still has one game to play Saturday against Army, but through 11 games, the Midshipment are averaging just 13 passing attempts per game.
“It’s all run,” ASU freshman defensive tackle Jaxon Hood said. “They don’t throw the ball but 10 times a game.”
Added senior safety Keelan Johnson: “It allows us to focus on one area of the game compared to another. We don’t really have to worry about passing so much. We’ve still got to think about it but not really focus on it.”
Both Johnson and Hood indicated assignment soundness as the key to defending Navy’s offense, as it relies less on playmaking than it does taking advantage of the defense’s decisions.
“When they score, when they get a big play, it’s because somebody (on defense) didn’t do their assignment,” Hood said. “Someone freelanced something or thought something instead of knew. You’ve just got to focus and do your job. You’ve got to have blinders on.”
Navy’s passing offense ranks 117th out of 120 FBS teams at 108.6 yards per game. No quarterback on the team has thrown more than 19 passes in a game, and primary quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a freshman, only threw 80 passes all season.
Reynolds has compiled 754 passing yards, ranking him behind 140 other FBS quarterbacks, and threw eight touchdowns. He has also rushed for nine touchdowns on 585 yards, more than any ASU running back, on 125 attempts, just two fewer than ASU leader Cameron Marshall.
Navy senior Brandon Turner led the Midshipmen with just 19 receptions this season, and senior running back Gee Gee Greene led the team with 280 receiving yards.
But ASU’s rushing defense was shaky at times this season and finished the regular season ranked 10th in the Pac-12 at 172.0 yards allowed per game. The Devils gave up 212 yards on the ground to UCLA, 225 to USC, 292 to Arizona and 406 to Oregon.
So they should have their hands full against Navy Dec. 29 in San Francisco. To their benefit, they have nearly a month to prepare.
“It’s a difficult scheme, a very tough scheme to defend,” Graham said. “It’s not easy, but we’ll get it done.”