DURHAM — On paper, Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike explains, the Navy triple option offense he’ll face Saturday is easy to break down.
“It’s not very complicated; it’s really just assignment football and everyone just knowing who they have,” Anunike said. “If you have pitch, take pitch. If you have the quarterback, take the quarterback. If you have alley, take the alley.”
But on the field, Anunike continues, it’s not as simple.
“Where they get you is one guy being out of place,” he said. “It’s a numbers game, and that’s how they run that offense. That’s what they’re looking for because they want to catch you off guard. That’s when they score a lot of points and get big yards.”
Duke hosts Navy (3-1) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium and will have its hands full with a scheme Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has called, “A great equalizer.”
Duke (3-2, 0-2) has seen the scheme before. Georgia Tech, which runs a variation of the option, beat Duke 38-14 earlier in the season. Georgia Tech ran for 344 yards, and Vad Lee provided the element of surprise by throwing four touchdown passes. The Blue Devils struggled in the first half, allowing 24 points, but seemed to settle down in the second half, allowing a lone touchdown in both the third and fourth quarters.
Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson brought that offense with him from Navy, where he was head coach and Niumatalolo was his offensive coordinator from 2002-07.
“It’s slightly different,” defensive end Justin Foxx said when asked to compare the two offenses. “Georgia Tech has added some new wrinkles this year. With Navy, they’re going to try to keep the ball in their quarterback’s hands and try to let him be a playmaker. So we know we have to be ready to defend that.”
The quarterback is key to both attacks. Duke couldn’t contain Lee, who also ran for 76 yards and a score in addition to the career-best four TD passes. Navy’s Keenan Reynolds, a sophomore, hasn’t shown that type of passing prowess – just two touchdown passes and 31 total attempts in four games this season – but he leads Navy in rushing attempts (81), yards (385) and touchdowns (7). He ran for 127 yards and scored three touchdowns in a 41-35 win at Indiana, which last week knocked off Penn State.
Reynolds has rushed for 100 or more yards in each game this season with the exception of the Midshipmen’s lone loss to Western Kentucky, when he left with a concussion.
“He’s a really good football player,” coach David Cutcliffe said. “It all does go through him. He leads their team in carries, rushing and he certainly is a good passer. He’s very difficult to tackle, he’s strong and he’s got excellent speed.
“What you’ve got is an athlete touching the ball in that offense on every play. He can run it or throw it, and he’s smart so he can read you. … He’s that triple option quarterback everyone is looking for with an arm.”
Four other players who have carried at least five times are averaging at least 10 yards per carry.
While the option has a profound effect on the defense, it also changes Duke’s offensive mindset. The methodical drives that Navy and other option offenses tend to put together can add pressure to the opposing offense to execute and give its defense time to rest.
“You want to capitalize on every opportunity that you get,” offensive lineman Dave Harding said. “We’re expected to execute on every drive … and whether you have a bunch of series or just a few series, you’re trying to score on every one.”
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