The play clock is ticking down to zero and Trey Miller is preparing to receive the snap. Fans, opposing coaches, and defenders all anticipate how the quarterback will execute the upcoming play.
Most quarterbacks know exactly where the play is intended to go.
But, in this case, not even Miller knows — at least not yet.
As the leader of Navy’s triple option, Miller is responsible for deciding how to best run its offense on the fly, after reading the defensive pressure. A third running back is thrown into the mix for the triple option, as opposed to the traditional option play between just the quarterback and the running back.
In the heat of almost every play, head coach Ken Niumatalolo said Miller, his junior quarterback, decides whether he should hand the ball off to the full back, pitch it to the running back, or hold on to the ball and carry it himself.
“It’s all him. We’re a true read, triple option team,” Niumatalolo said. “We don’t predetermine stuff. We’re going to read everything.”
Navy and the complex offensive scheme have become synonymous with one another. The program has run the triple option for more than 10 seasons.
“It’s our identity,” said Ivin Jasper, Navy’s offensive coordinator. “It’s our calling card. It’s what Navy football is known for.”
As a service academy, Navy is often at a disadvantage in recruiting, leading to a squad comprised of smaller, less refined players.
The Navy coaching staff said the team continues to run the triple option in order to level the playing field against some of their more talented opponents.
“It helps us just be able to compete, because people are better than us, athletically and things of that nature,” Jasper said.
Niumatalolo said having to block every one of Penn State’s defenders Saturday would be impossible.
“But running the option, you get to read guys so it at least gives you a chance to be successful,” Niumatalolo said. “And because you don’t have to block everybody, you can use different guys and try to get combination blocks and have some two-on-one blocking schemes.”
Penn State will have to prepare for a Navy offense featuring several players who will be running the ball, including senior running back Gee Gee Greene and sophomore fullback Noah Copeland, in addition to Miller.
Yet, Jasper said there isn’t any one particular player the team depends on to take over the game.
“It’s every kid here. It’s not so much one particular player,” Jasper said. “They all understand their role. They have to play hard. They have to play 110 mph every single snap and that’s what the guys do.”
Copeland said the team came up with the motto, ‘INAM’, during the summer. He said the phrase, standing for “It’s not about me”, exemplifies what the team stands for.
“We’re not worried about personal stats,” Copeland said. “We’re just worried about making sure that we make our blocks for the person that’s running the ball.”
And despite being one of only four schools in the country still consistently running the triple option — three of which are service academies — Jasper said he doesn’t see Navy switching gears any time soon.
“All these kids have pride in what we do and they believe in it,” Jasper said.
“We’re not going to change. We’re going to go into every game to try to establish what we do on offense, not let people dictate what we do.”
The stats back up Jasper’s point, too.
Last season, Navy averaged the fourth-most rushing attempts in the country, a whopping 57.8 per game.
Miller said the offense will throw when it needs to — the quarterback had 19 pass attempts in the team’s 50-10 thrashing of a loss in the season opener against Notre Dame — but prefers to stick to the running game at all costs.
“If we have to pass, then we will,” Miller said. “But we don’t go into a game saying we’re going to pass. We just wait for it to open up.”
Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said the Midshipmen’s triple option is successful because they test their opponent’s discipline.
“We have a tough defense, but what we’ve got to do defensively is we’ve got to play responsible football,” O’Brien said.
The Penn State coach said his team used the “dirty show” offense in practice even more than usual in order to simulate the Navy offensive scheme, one that he said is very difficult to prepare for.
“I didn’t schedule Navy,” O’Brien joked.
Junior linebacker Glenn Carson said the team will be running a brand new “shell” of defense to combat for the triple option.
With this in mind, O’Brien echoed Jasper’s remarks about Navy’s triple option being an equalizer against favored opponents.
O’Brien said Navy has always been the type of team to play as many high quality opponents as it can.
“I just think that the Naval Academy is the type of place that really doesn’t care who they play,” O’Brien said.
However, Jasper said his team will need to play at an extremely high level in order for Navy to give Penn State a run for its money on Saturday.
“For us to have a chance to compete in the game, we’re going to have to be perfect,” Jasper said.
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