Since Virginia reached 5-1 on October 14th and bowl eligibility seemed almost inevitable, I’ve had a potential match up with the Navy Midshipmen in the Military Bowl highest on my bowl wish list. Full disclosure, after The University, the Naval Academy is my favorite institute of higher learning. My Dad is an Academy graduate, I was born in Annapolis, baptized in the Naval Academy Chapel, and I like to joke that my first words were “Beat Army.” And since I’ve fallen in love with the Wahoos, this is the first time the two teams will meet on the gridiron. So while I’ll be hands-down rooting for the Hoos, I’m just excited to see these two teams play. As far as the game is concerned, I like the Wahoos’ chances. They match up as well as any other team in the country against the option going back to Coach Mendenhall’s days at BYU and the last two years against Georgia Tech. For the sake of avoiding being a broken record, my keys to the game from the Georgia Tech game still apply, but here’s a couple more things that I am looking for.
- Own the line of scrimmage - Option teams are an oddity in their use of the fullback. The dive play is perhaps the most critical play in the entire playbook. Getting 2-3 yards on first and second down opens up the play-calls allowing for long drives and an in-rhythm offense. That 2-3 yards starts with the fullback. While the quarterback in most critical for Navy, in the last 15 years, a running back has only led the Midshipmen in rushing once. But four times, a fullback has led the Middies, including Kyle Eckel who did it twice before having a successful NFL career. That’s unheard of in the college game. This season, after quarterback Zach Abey and dual-threat slot back Malcolm Perry, Navy fullbacks Chris High and Anthony Gargiulo are 3rd and 4th on the Navy list of top rushers. For Virginia to have success, stopping the dive play will be critical. The Silverbacks will be busy on Thursday with Eli Hanback, Andrew Brown, Juwan Moye, and Mandy Alonso figuring to factor into the game. In fact, it’s no coincidence that Hanback and Brown each tallied their season high in tackles in the game earlier this year against Georgia Tech.
- Kiser’s last game - Going into the Georgia Tech game, I thought that fellow All-American, senior tackle machine, Quin Blanding would play a prominent role in stopping the run, but it was Micah Kiser who dominated. The senior notched 18 tackles en route to winning ACC Linebacker of the Week honors. While the spotlight has been on Kiser off the field since the season ended, he’ll have a tremendous opportunity to put an exclamation point on a fantastic career and springboard his prep for the NFL Draft. The Navy offense will provide Kiser opportunities to make plays both inside and outside and pile on his already ridiculous tackle stats.
- Make the most of chances - While the focus of the game plan against Navy usually centers on stopping the option rush attack, the Virginia offense will be critical. The Midshipmen make a living grinding out long drives protecting their defense by keeping them off the field. To beat the Middies, the Hoos can’t waste possessions. If Navy has the ball, Virginia is unlikely to score and the game can be ground to a halt. Virginia needs to maintain drives of their own, hold onto the football, and convert red zone chances into scores. Luckily, Navy will let the Hoos check that final box as they rank 111th among FBS teams in red zone scoring by opponent. Kurt Benkert and the Cavaliers will have to be better than they were in the regular season as they only converted on 78% of their red zone opportunities, ranking them 101st in the country. Expect Virginia to be able to move the ball against the Naval Academy’s middle-of-the-pack defense, but the Hoos’ ability to score when they have opportunities will be the difference in this game.
Kickoff is at 1:30 on Thursday December 28th from Navy-Marine Corps Stadium in Annapolis. The game will be televised on ESPN. Stick with Streaking the Lawn for all your Military Bowl coverage and as always Go Hoos!