On the other side of the field will be a more humble assortment of ‘grinders’ -- long characterized more for their heart and drive than for their speed and athleticism. It will be -- or rather, it would seem to be -- the quintessential matchup of David vs. Goliath.
But when it comes to a secret weapon in this gridiron test, the clearly defined underdog won’t have to rely solely on a flimsy slingshot to slay the metaphorical giant of the sixth ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. That’s because the Navy Midshipmen will be taking a different kind of secret weapon into their season opener in Columbus, and for those familiar with the program, it’s really no secret at all – the triple option offense.
Proclaimed dead at the turn of the century, resurrected in one form or another since then, and finally being recognized as a ‘spread’ offense by the great observers of the game today, the triple option has long been a staple of service academy football in one way or another. Often referred to by coaches at the high school and college levels as “the great equalizer,” the triple option as employed by the Naval Academy and head coach Ken Niumatalolo is run out of the flexbone formation. It’s a formation that rivals many spread offenses around the country, but one which features one major difference – a quarterback from under center.
"Our system isn't much different from what everybody else is running," said former Navy coach and current Georgia Tech headman Paul Johnson, who won two Division I-AA National Titles with the offense while at Georgia Southern University. "Pretty much everybody is running what we're running, but they're doing it out of the shotgun. We're just doing it from under center."
Despite its nature as a spread offense – that is to say an offense which emphasizes the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the field to create mismatches against defenses – the flexbone hasn’t caught on as quickly as many of the zone-read schemes employed around the country have. In fact, many analysts still do not recognize the base flexbone formation as a spread offense, despite the fact that its configuration of wide receivers and ‘A’ backs represent the familiar four eligible receiver look most people have grown to associate with the spread. Because of this, Navy’s – and to a lesser extent Georgia Tech’s offense – is still subject to the all-to-common misdiagnosis as an ‘outdated’ system with only limited sustainability for victory at the highest levels of Division I-A football.
According to ESPN.com senior writer Bruce Feldman, the perception of the offense as outdated or ‘gimmicky’ can all change with a Navy upset of Ohio State on September 5th.
“I think [a Navy upset of Ohio State] would be a huge billboard for the virtues of the system,” said Feldman, who has written extensively about the spread offense as employed by PAC-10 teams like Oregon. “Obviously there have been times when flexbone teams have faced some supposed powerhouses before, but any time you have a high-profile opponent, it is a great opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity which Navy fans have been dreaming of since Paul Johnson arrived in Annapolis in 2002, taking a downtrodden team which was coming off of a 0-10 season and turning it into a mid-major powerhouse which has since rolled to six consecutive bowl appearances. Yet if there was ever a knock on Johnson’s offense – which compiled a school record 511 points in his final year at the helm in 2007 – it was that it could only work against mediocre teams. Considering that Navy defeated only one ranked team during Johnson’s tenure at the school (25th ranked Air Force in 2003), it became all too easy for skeptics to dismiss the offense as incapable of living up to its billing as an “equalizer.”
Those familiar with the history of option football aren’t buying into that skepticism, and say that if Navy can have success against Ohio State, it will prove that the offense can bridge the oft-cited gap between the have and have nots of college football. Steve Smith, who runs the website Veersite.com and has coached option football at the high school level for more than a decade, said that while Paul Johnson’s employment of the offense at Georgia Tech has done much to prove the system’s worth, a Navy upset of Ohio State would speak to the ultimate merits of the offense as a talent multiplier.
“I do not believe it to be a referendum, per se, on [FBS] option football,” said Smith when asked if Navy’s game against Ohio State would serve as a ‘referendum’ game on the flexbone offense. “What it may serve to illustrate is that it can be an equalizer between teams with disparity in athletic talent.”
While he acknowledged that a successful Navy showing could potentially vault several Navy assistant coaches into future jobs with other programs, Smith doesn’t think that a Midshipmen upset would lead to the offense becoming more popular within the game at large. Citing college coaches as “creatures of habit,” Smith said programs around the country would be “intrigued” by the offense, but that large scale adoption of the flexbone wouldn’t likely occur.
Added Smith, “If [college coaches] are used to running the revered West Coast offense and winning due to being a better recruiter than the other coaches in the conference, then that is what they will do.”
As for the game representing a potential ‘turning point’ in the history of college football and the study of offensive innovation, Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo isn’t sweating the implications, and he’s not worried about the possible repercussions for members of his staff.
“I’ll leave that for you guys and the experts,” said Niumatalolo when asked if he thought the game could represent a ‘turning point’ in the history of college football. Niumatalolo went on to say that his focus regarding the game remains firmly entrenched in the here and now.
Added the second year head coach, “Hopefully we don’t get overwhelmed from a physical standpoint, and hopefully we’re prepared and play well. That is my biggest fear -- that we don’t play well.”
Navy assistant coach Joe DuPaix, who served as offensive coordinator at Cal Poly prior to coming to coach slotbacks in Annapolis in 2008, said that win or lose, he hopes the offense will be validated against the Buckeyes. Still, warns DuPaix, the challenge of taking down the Buckeyes will be no easy task, and the offense shouldn’t be judged as a failure if Navy is unable to come away with what would be one of the greatest upsets in college football history,
“Let’s face the facts; Ohio State is a very, very good football team, and for us to even have a chance to compete we need to be exactly right with everything that we do. That is from perfect footwork to perfect ball security to perfect decisions…there can be no margin for error, because [Ohio State is] just such a tremendous football team.”
Adam Nettina can be contacted at AdamNettina[at]gmail.com.