Looking to avoid its worst start in three seasons, WKU football is set to travel to Annapolis, Maryland for the final game of a four-year home-and-home series with Navy on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
For the second-straight year, the Hilltoppers (1-2) find themselves matched up against a Navy team that runs one of the country’s most lethal rushing attacks. The Midshipmen (2-2) enter the game as the third-ranked rushing offense in the nation at 345 yards per game.
Navy led the nation in rushing yards per game by the time the two met last season with 398 yards per game, but the Hilltopper defense limited the Midshipmen to a lowly 86 yards rushing in the 19-7 win.
WKU defensive coordinator Nick Holt said the Midshipmen will be cognizant of how the Hilltoppers slowed down their triple-option attack last season, and will look to find offensive success in a variety of ways on Saturday in order to combat that.
“I think they’ve studied it, and I think they will not be surprised and will be ready for what they got last year,” Holt said. “By the same token, we have to have a few wrinkles, but we have to do what we do and do what we know. They’ll be ready for us. They’ll give us a lot of different formations and a lot of different looks, and we have to be ready for them. We have to stay on the attack and eliminate the big plays, and make them work.”
Navy is coming off a 31-24 loss to Rutgers this past Saturday that yielded just 171 yards on the ground, but the Midshipmen came into the loss averaging 403 rushing yards per game.
Six Midshipmen have eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau through four games, and three have more than 200 yards, led by senior fullback Noah Copeland and junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds who’ve totaled 241 and 240, respectively. Reynolds leads the team with five rushing touchdowns.
The Hilltoppers suffered a 50-47 triple overtime loss to Middle Tennessee on Sept. 13, but offensive coordinator Tyson Helton said the team is confident as Saturday nears.
“Win or lose, our team’s going to keep its mojo,” Helton said. “The guys have been upbeat. It’s good that we know we can beat them, but every team every year is different — it’s a new year. We just have to go up there and play Hilltopper football.”
WKU’s high-powered offense will have its hands full against a formidable, experienced Navy defense that starts nine upperclassmen. The Midshipmen give up 212 passing yards per game and 211.2 rushing yards per game, respectively.
Redshirt senior quarterback Brandon Doughty leads a Hilltopper passing offense that’s ranked second in the country at 486.3 yards per game, and a ninth-ranked overall offensive attack that averages 608.7 yards per game.
However, crucial turnovers in the team’s two losses have made the Hilltoppers’ chances of winning slim.
Navy is likely to throw different defensive schemes at WKU in order to stop its potent offense, so communication and confidence on Saturday will be as important as ever, Doughty said.
“Our biggest opponent is ourselves,” he said. “We only beat ourselves. We have to have that confidence. Navy is a good team, and they’re going to do anything they can and throw any different coverages they can to make us have to think a little bit more than we have to.”
The WKU defense has allowed 508.7 yards of total offense — 329 through the air and 179.7 on the ground — through three games. The Hilltoppers gave up 541 yards of offense at MTSU, including 323 on the ground.
Holt said the bye week has been instrumental to WKU’s defensive preparation for Navy’s triple-option attack, but it’s also been key in regards to overall fundamentals and growth.
“I think we needed it all the way around,” Holt said. “We needed to get better in all aspects of football as far as our fundamentals, regardless of the option. We needed to get back to some fundamentals and go back and look at what we’re doing. Guys are getting better, we just have a lot of growing pains.”