DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Duke will try to beat Navy at its own game.
It’s no secret that the Midshipmen prefer to run the ball, but the Blue Devils have made their ground game a priority, too.
So the team that can control the ball — and the tempo — will have the advantage when Duke plays host to the Midshipmen today.
Duke’s running game hasn’t been this productive in more than three decades.
The Blue Devils (3-2) average 193 yards on the ground — their best since 1977 — out of an offense that puts a premium on playing at a fast pace.
That’s a striking contrast to the more deliberate option system run by Navy (3-1) that averages 294 yards.
“I want to control the ball and certainly keep their offense off the field,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “That is one of the fastest or best ways to try to win a ball game against an option offense.”
Duke is sure to get a test from a Navy defense that has been tough to score against. The Midshipmen haven’t held their last three opponents to fewer than 20 points after giving up 35 in a season-opening win over Indiana.
Navy ranks just 84th nationally against the run, allowing 181 yards per game, but is giving up only 205 through the air.
“This isn’t the time to start patting people on the back and start handing out trophies,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We (are) playing pretty well right now and we need to just keep grinding. But yes, we are doing some great thing on defense. We’re playing with great composure, we’re running to the ball.
“I like our mindset. It’s a bunch of guys who keep their mouths shut and just play.”
Five things to watch when Navy plays at Duke:
BOWL ON THE LINE?: This game appears critical for a Duke program looking for the first back-to-back bowls in school history. Beating Navy for the third straight would put the Blue Devils in good shape to reach six wins, but a loss would make it tough to get there with games ahead against No. 24 Virginia Tech, No. 13 Miami and revenge-minded rival North Carolina.
BOONE’S COLLARBONE: Nobody knows yet if Duke QB Anthony Boone will be back after he missed three games with a broken collarbone suffered against Memphis in Week 2. He’s listed as questionable on the injury report, and Cutcliffe says Boone is back at practice and is “certainly on a faster track than I thought he would be.” Boone’s return would allow the Blue Devils to move fill-in starter Brandon Connette back to a jack-of-all-trades role that makes them that much tougher to defend.
NO HOT AIR: Navy should have an easier time handling the conditions at Duke this time, with the forecast calling for a cloudy, 70-degree day with 10-to-15 mph winds. On their last trip here in 2008, Niumatalolo said six players needed IVs after suffering from heat exhaustion. “The last time we were down there,” Niumatalolo said, “they really got after us.” Niumatalolo says he’s making sure the team buses crank up the air conditioning in case the team needs to cool off during halftime.
THE FAMILIARITY FACTOR: Navy’s option offense won’t be as unfamiliar to the Blue Devils as it is for many teams because Duke has already played Georgia Tech — which is coached by ex-Navy coach Paul Johnson. Plus, this will be Duke’s seventh game against the Midshipmen since 2004 and Cutcliffe is 2-0 against them while coaching the Blue Devils. Cutcliffe says it’s “hard to mimic … the quality which they run” the offense and that the challenge is “to get out there, get your feet wet, and try to get a rhythm of the tempo as quickly as you can before you get too much damage done.”
THE RAP ON REYNOLDS: Sophomore QB Keenan Reynolds makes the Midshipmen go. He averages 93 yards rushing — more than all but three quarterbacks in the Bowl Subdivision — and has a pair of three-touchdown games, including one last week against Air Force. In the rare instances in which he tries to throw, he completes nearly 65 percent of his attempts, has a pair of touchdowns and has yet to throw an interception. In his last game in the state of North Carolina, Reynolds rushed for three TDs and threw for two more in a 56-28 rout of East Carolina last October.