TAMPA — USF takes its two-game win streak to Annapolis on Saturday afternoon where they will be challenged by the nation’s top ground attack and one of the stingiest defenses.
Led by senior quarterback Malcolm Perry, Navy’s triple-option is churning out a nation’s-best 327 yards per game rushing. Perry is second in the American Conference to Memphis’ Kenny Gainwell in averaging 120.8 yards rushing per game, a figure that is sixth nationally. His 12 rushing touchdowns are tied for the conference lead with SMU’s Xavier Jones and are sixth in the country.
“It’s going to be a big test for us this week,” said Charlie Strong. “We are playing a team where we have to be very disciplined. It is going to take a lot of responsibility against an option team.”
The responsibility includes being alert for an occasional big-gainer over the middle. As is usually the case with Navy quarterbacks, Perry can also foil a defense with his arm. This season he is averaging more than 20 yards on his 24 completions.
“The secondary comes up (to defend the run) and all of a sudden a ball thrown over your head,” said Strong. “We have to be smart and can’t allow it to happen where we are so locked in on the run. (The passing threat) makes teams pull off you because they don’t want to give up the big home runs, but they also don’t want to give up a lot of yards when they end up keeping the ball on the run.”
Keeping the ball is something the Bulls’ offense will need to do. After all, the best defense against the option is to play keepaway. The Midshipmen are averaging 34:26 in time of possession, which leads the AAC and is sixth nationally.
Navy (4-1/2-1) can strike quickly, too. In last week’s 45-17 win at Tulsa, three of their scoring drives of at least 50 yards totaled less than six minutes.
Regardless, it will be imperative to get off to a productive start on what is forecast to be a nice autumn afternoon with highs in the low-60s. The Bulls (3-3/1-1) are going in with the expectation that possessions will be precious.
“We need to start fast because we won’t get many possessions, so we have to take advantage of every possession that we get,” said Strong. “It’s really critical that we get off to a good start and move the football down the field. When they get the ball they are going to grind it out and grind it out.”
Grinding it out is something the Bulls would like to do. It will not be easy against a defense allowing a paltry 86 yards per game on the ground, which leads the American and is ninth nationally. Though above their average, the Middies held Air Force’s option attack to 104 yards.
Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry’s unit also leads the American and is 16th nationally in yielding 286 total yards per contest. The Middies have also recorded 12 sacks this season.
“It’s a lot of movement, a lot of shifting, a lot of adding people and it’s a lot of misdirection,” said tackle Marcus Norman, who has helped spearhead a USF rushing game that totaled 556 yards in wins over UConn and BYU the pas two weeks. “They are trying to make you look this way, but they are coming from the other way. As long as we stay focused on our assignments and our technique, we should be good.”
Quarterback Jordan McCloud should be good as well. That is, good to go against the Midshipmen. He revealed following last week’s win over BYU that he had trouble gripping the ball and also suffered a shoulder stinger.
Offensive coordinator Kerwin Bell said Wednesday that McCloud’s hand was bruised, something Strong downplayed both in his postgame press conference Saturday and again Monday when he said the redshirt freshman will be fine for Navy.
Blake Barnett remains out with a high ankle sprain. There are reports that he is done for the season.
Kickoff is 3:30 and the game will be televised on CBSSN.
USF and Navy split two previous meetings. The Bulls lost, 29-17, in Annapolis in 2015, Navy’s first season as an AAC member. In 2017 at Raymond James Stadium, the Bulls prevailed 52-45. At one point in the third quarter USF led 45-14. The teams combined for 1,245 yards, including 616 by Navy, the most by an opposing team at RJS. Quinton Flowers and Marlon Mack combined to run for 301 yards and three touchdowns on 24 attempts….The Bulls are averaging 10.3 tackles for loss per game to lead the nation. Linebacker Dwayne Boyles leads the team with 8.5 and fellow LB Patrick Macon is next in line with 8.0…..Jordan Cronkrite rushed for 306 yards the last two weeks in wins over UConn (158) and BYU (148). He had 85 yards in the Bulls’ first four games…..Trent Schneider, who had a pair of 61-yard punts against BYU, is 13th nationally with an average of 45.7 yards per boot….Bentlee Sanders is averaging 29.2 yards per kick return, good for 10th nationally.
The Midshipmen, who are averaging 37.8 points to rank 22nd nationally, are seeking to win three straight for the first time since 2017 when they opened 5-0…..Navy has scored in each of its 21 trips inside the red zone, including 20 touchdowns…..The defense has held the opposition without a first down on 25 of 57 (43.9 percent) possessions. The unit has also held opponents to a 30.1 percent third-down conversion rate, good for 15th nationally….In 13 career starts at quarterback, Malcolm Perry, who has also started at slot receiver during his career at the Naval Academy, is averaging 141 yards rushing per game with 25 touchdowns….Navy is 50-13 at home under coach Ken Niumatalolo….The Middies have six players from Florida on their roster, neither from the Tampa Bay area. One of the Floridians, Diego Fagot (fuh-GO) of Fort Lauderdale, leads the team with 32 tackles and is second with 5.0 TFLs.
Tom Layberger is a contributing writer for forbes.com. Follow him on Twitter.