Run-oriented Navy, Temple clash in AAC title game
No. 20 Navy and its high-powered triple option attack will face a huge test against visiting Temple in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday (Noon ET, ABC).
The Midshipmen (9-2, 7-1), who won the West Division of the AAC, are playing for a conference title for the first time in the 136-year history of their program. Navy, led by quarterback Will Worth, is averaging 342 rushing yards per game, second best in the nation behind New Mexico (360.9).
Temple, which won the East Division, advanced to the conference championship for the second consecutive season. The Owls (9-3, 7-1) are riding a six game winning streak and have allowed 273.4 yards per game, ranked third behind Alabama and Michigan.
The winner of this game will be in the hunt for the Group of Five bid to a New Year's Six bowl.
“It's a great offense and they've done a terrific job of wearing teams down and winning the war of attrition,” Temple coach Matt Rhule said about the Midshipmen. “That's something we pride ourselves on. It's not often that we play other teams that run, run, run and pound people until they submit, but that's what Navy has done.”
Worth has put together one of the finest seasons of any Navy football player. He was thrust into the starting role when Tago Smith went down with a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Fordham.
From there, Worth has seamlessly run the triple option, managing 2,544 yards of total offense — 1,181 rushing and 1,363 passing. He has also scored a touchdown in 11 consecutive games, which is the longest active streak in college football.
Still, Worth's focus has been fully on winning the AAC title, rather than personal stats. Navy spent 134 seasons as an independent before joining the AAC last year.
“This is exactly where we wanted to be,” Worth said. “The entire offseason, this is what we worked for. We feel great, just got to keep things rolling right now.”
Worth will face a tough challenge from an aggressive Temple defense led by defensive linemen Haason Reddick and Praise Martin-Oguike, who have dominated opponents throughout the season. Reddick has registered 21.5 tackles for a loss, while Oguike has seven sacks.
The Owls' secondary is equally adept, allowing just 145.8 passing yards per game — second best in the nation behind only Michigan.
“It is going to be a tough, hard-nosed football game,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I don't think any of us expect anything different during a conference championship game.”
Temple quarterback Phillip Walker has also played a vital role over the team's six-game winning streak. Walker had thrown for 2,700 passing yards, third all-time among Owls' quarterbacks for a single season, with 18 touchdowns. He could find some space against a Navy defense that is allowing 264.9 passing yards per game.
Walker is complemented by running backs Jahad Thomas and Ryquell Armstead, who have combined for 31 touchdowns this season.
The Owls have come a long way since opening the season 1-3. However, they never quit believing in themselves and their confidence is riding high.
“Nobody believed we were going to win this championship at the beginning of the year, but we did though,” Walker said. “We lost our first game and then lost our third game and our goal was still right in front of us. We won the east side now, we just have to get prepared for next week.”
Navy leads the all-time series against Temple, 6-5, including a 31-24 victory in the last meeting at Lincoln Financial Field in 2014.
The Midshipmen have one key advantage in hosting the championship game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where they are tied with Houston for the nation's longest active home winning streak. Navy has not lost in Annapolis since a 36-27 setback to Western Kentucky on
Sept. 27, 2014.
“It's really exciting for our program to have the championship game here in a venue where we've had a lot of success,” Niumatalolo said. “We're going to need all our fans to come and cheer and support and be loud for us. We're going to need every edge and advantage we can get. Hopefully, playing at home will be a benefit for us.”