Preview No. 1: Navy Midshipmen

This the first of a series of articles previewing Ohio State’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season.

On Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland, home of the NFL’s Ravens, the sixth-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes will take on the Navy Midshipmen in the season-opener for both teams. Kickoff is slated for 12:00 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on the CBS Sports Network with Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson calling the action and Allie LaForce reporting from the sidelines.

Navy quarterback Keenan  Reynolds. (AP Photo)

Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. (AP Photo)

Last Season:

Navy had a record of 9-4 last season with wins over Indiana (41-35), Delaware (51-7), Air Force (28-10), Pitt (24-21), Hawaii (42-28), South Alabama (42-14), San Jose State (58-52) and Army (34-7) during the regular season. The four losses were to Western Kentucky (19-7), Duke (35-7), Toledo (45-44, 2OT) and Notre Dame (38-34). The Midshipmen went on to defeat Middle Tennessee (24-6) in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl

History & Coaches:

While Navy has a long history of playing collegiate football dating back to 1879, the last half-decade hasn’t been too kind for the program. Since 1964, the Midshipmen have only finished in the Associated Press top 25 once, and that was in 2004.

But just one season prior in 1963, No. 1 Texas faced No. 2 Navy in the Cotton Bowl, though the Longhorns defeated the Midshipmen and its Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Roger Staubach, 28-6. (Note: There were no final polls after bowl games back then, so even if Navy had won, Texas would still be crowned national champions.)

After that, Navy had just one winning season until 1975 when third-year head coach George Welsh guided the Middies to a 7-4 record. Welsh had five winning seasons during his nine-year tenure from 1973-1981, but he left to coach at Virginia.

The next two decades, the Midshipmen struggled on the gridiron.

In 2002, Paul Johnson departed Georgia Southern and returned to Navy as head coach to take over a program that had four-straight losing seasons and a grand total of nine wins during that span. Johnson’s initial season saw the Midshipmen win only two of 12 games, though the season ended on a high note with his first victory over Army.

While Johnson got off to a rocky start that year going just 2-10, that was double the amount of victories for the previous two campaigns. But it did lay the foundation for brighter days ahead.

The 2003 team completed the regular season with an 8–4 mark, including wins over both Air Force and Army, and earned a berth in the Houston Bowl, Navy’s first bowl game since 1996. However, the Midshipmen lost to Texas Tech, 38–14. In 2004, Johnson’s team posted the program’s best record since 1957, finishing the regular season at 9–2 and once again earning a bowl berth, this time in the Emerald Bowl. There Johnson coached the Midshipmen to a win over New Mexico, 34–19, the fifth bowl win in the school’s history. The win gave Navy 10 wins on the season, tying a school record that had stood since 1905. For his efforts, Johnson received the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award.

The 2005 Navy squad recorded a mark of 8–4, highlighted by victories over Army, Air Force, and Colorado State in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl. In 2007, Johnson coached the Midshipmen to their first win over rival Notre Dame since 1963, winning 46–44 in triple-overtime.

Johnson dominated the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy competition, going 11–1 (.917) in his six years, with the only loss against another service academy coming at the hands of Air Force in his first season. He is the only coach in Navy’s history to go 6–0 in his first six seasons against Army, and his 2006 senior class was the first in Navy history to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy all four of their years.

Much of Johnson’s success was predicated on his triple option flexbone offense, which was inherited by his offensive coordinator, Ken Niumatalolo, who took over the head coaching duties at Navy on Dec. 8, 2007, after Johnson left for Georgia Tech.

Now entering his seventh year at Navy, Niumatalolo has led the Midshipmen to at least eight wins and a total of five bowl appearances in his six seasons with an overall mark of 49-30. He has had just one losing season during his tenure and that was in 2011 when the Midshipmen went 5-7. Niumatalolo stands third all-time in career wins and holds Navy coaching records for most wins in the first two seasons (18), three seasons (27), four seasons (32), five seasons (40) and sixth seasons (49) of a career.

Offense:

Eight of the 11 starters from last year’s team return including junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who had a tremendous sophomore season. Reynolds gained 1,346 yards on 300 carries (4.5 avg.) with 31 touchdowns, while throwing for 1,057 yards on 68-of-128 passing with eight TDs and two INTs. Reynolds finished the 2013 campaign No. 1 in the country in scoring per game (14.7), tied for first in rushing touchdowns (33) and tied for 11th in points responsible for per game (18.2). He finished 23rd overall and second among quarterbacks in rushing yards per game (103.5).

Second on the team in rushing last season was junior fullback Chris Swain as he gained 420 yards on 107 attempts and four touchdowns, though he’s second on the depth chart at the position behind senior FB Noah Copeland, who toted the rock 69 times for 339 yards and two TDs. Third-string fullback Quinton Singleton will see plenty of action as well after gaining 361 yards on 65 carries, while senior slotback Geoffrey Whiteside (49 att., 363 yds., 3 TDs) and junior slotback DeBrandon Sanders (42 att., 340 yds., 1 TD) also get into the mix. Sanders was also Navy’s top pass-catcher but had just 13 receptions for 223 yards and a score.

Senior right guard Jake Zuzek, who has started 26-straight games, anchors the offensive line and is joined by three other returning starters with senior center Tanner Fleming, junior left guard E.K. Binns and senior left tackle Bradyn Heap.

Defense:

Utilizing a 3-4 defense, Navy returns seven of the 11 starters from a year ago, though the Middies two top tacklers from last season, middle linebackers Cody Peterson and D.J. Sargenti are gone. The top returning defensive stopper is senior outside linebacker Chris Johnson who recorded 84 total tackles. Senior free safety Parrish Gaines was second with 65 total tackles.

The major problem with Navy’s defense last season was the ability to get upfield. The Midshipmen were dead-last in Division I FBS in tackles for loss and second-to-last in sacks. Senior middle linebacker Jordan Drake led Navy in sacks but had just three, while sophomore backup outside linebacker William Tuider had a grand total of 4.0 TFLs to lead the team. Johnson and Gaines both shared the team lead with three interceptions.

Up next, we preview Virginia Tech.