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Maryland-Navy First Look: In Which the Triple-Option Reigns Supreme

For those of you new to Testudo Times since last football season (read: probably a lot of you), and for those of you that still care about football (read: probably not so many), we have a basic pattern in the days leading up to a game. On Tuesday, there's a very basic "first look", a semi-quick overview of where the opponent is now, their schemes, vital info, and so on. On Wednesday or Thursday, I try to get a Q&A with an opponent's blogger. On Thursday or Friday, there's the full-fledged, bullet point-y preview.

The season opener against Navy will be no different, even though they play two days later than normal; habits are good. And with that, I have my introduction, so I'll jump into it head-first:

Triple option. Triple option. Triple option. Triple option. Triple option.

Not a single thing about Navy has been more centrally defining to their success and program since Paul Johnson took over (and eventually ceded control to Ken Niumatalolo) than that one offensive scheme. It's befuddled defenses left and right, and has led the way to high-profile upsets and near-upsets every year.

Quite simply, the key to stopping Navy is usually to stop the triple option, a task easier said than done. Maryland's even gone to lengths such as practicing without a ball to try to stifle the flexibility of the notoriously confusing set-up. In its most basic form, there's a dual-threat QB flanked by two wingbacks on either side of him with a fullback behind him in the traditional single-back position. When they don't pass it, there are four options to get the ball, generally with a few fakes, and Niumatalolo mixes it up pretty well.

And that's just about it for Navy's offense. The Middies throw the ball less than just about everyone else in the country. Last year, they didn't attempt a single pass against Wake Forest, and they won. Two years ago, they did the exact same against SMU. It's not that star QB Ricky Dobbs' arm is ineffective, though it's not nearly as dangerous as his feet; it's just that stopping the triple option is so hard to do that it's more efficient to just run that.

Speaking of Dobbs: he's Navy's star, and he's a legitimate one. He's media-friendly, upstanding, and really, really good. You probably know him from that great performance he had against Ohio State in the horseshoe last year. He's extraordinarily quick with the ball  and his arm is better than you'd expect considering how little Navy passes.

In fact, his arm scares me a lot. Navy rarely throws when they don't need to, but Maryland, like most BCS teams, has athleticism that they just can't match. Passing in a few select instances might give them a slight advantage. They could find themselves in a position where they need to throw or where they could surprise Maryland's defense by doing it, and Dobbs is good enough to make it work.

The good news is that Navy isn't nearly as talented elsewhere on the field. They have a bevy of average wingbacks that aren't quite as dangerous as Marcus Curry, their now-dismissed-from-the-team former starter. Their current starters are listed as Gee Gee Greene and Aaron Santiago, who combined for 42 attempts and zero starts last season. Vince Murray, however, is back at fullback for his senior season, and is a proven threat on the ground.

Really, what makes that offense work is the quarterback - his reads and his escapability - and the scheme itself. The fact that the wingbacks aren't proven doesn't mean a lot; for the most part, their aim will be to run as hard as possible once they get the ball, and Dobbs will take care of the rest. When Navy gets a QB that can run the option effectively, they're tough to play. 

On the other side of the ball, there's a lot of hardnosed, smart, disciplined players, but not a lot of pure athleticism or talent. That's just a consequence of being Navy. Wyatt Middleton, the rover (fancy word for strong safety), is the Dobbs of the defense; the senior is on the Lott Award watch list and is one of the better safeties in the nation. He's solid in run support and snagged four interceptions last year, which should be a little intimidating for Maryland's stable of unproven QBs. Past that, there's a lot of uncertainty.

They're especially thin (literally) along the defensive line, where the nose tackle in Navy's 3-4 scheme measures just 252 pounds; that's 40 pounds less than Paul Pinegar, who he'll likely be lined up against. Still, they somehow end up being competitive at stopping the run, where they were 31st in the nation last year. They're not going to pressure the QB (94th in sacks last year), which should be a blessing for Maryland's OL, which was overwhelmed last year.

The next level gets worse. The Midshipmen lost five linebackers from last year's team, and only one player - inside linebacker Tyler Simmons - has any type of experience at all. Surrounding him are inexperienced upperclassmen Aaron McCauley, Caleb King, and Jerry Hauburger; to be honest, there's really no telling what to expect from them. Hopefully for Maryland, the inexperience will result in some big play opportunities.

But really, this is the case for Navy most of the time. They've proven that they can beat big teams in big situations regardless of their mostly star-less teams: Wake Forest, Notre Dame on the road, Missouri, a two-point conversion away from sending Ohio State to overtime in Columbus. A lot of the ancillary parts from last year's team graduated, but the biggest pieces - Middleton and, especially, Dobbs - return, as does the confounding system that helped to get them where they were.

This version of Navy is a lot better than the one that Maryland played in 2005, which is troubling because Maryland snuck out a win in that one and don't look nearly as talented as the 2005 Terps. Navy's not a hard team to beat on paper - they're filled with 2-star players and run a gimmicky system that often leaves them one-dimensional - but Maryland sure ain't Notre Dame, and the Middies dispatched of them fairly easily last year.

The entire game could come down to one simple factor. For the most part, Maryland's offensive line and their ability to protect the QB is taken out of the equation; that's not Navy's strength. In fact, Maryland should be able to put up plenty of points on this defense. What will matter will be the defense's ability to stop the triple option. That's probably what it always comes down to when teams play Navy, and yet they're still able to win double-digit games. It's a lot easier said than done.