A lot has changed since the last time UConn and Navy squared off.
In 2016, the Huskies were fresh off a bowl appearance and looking for a 2-0 start at Navy after an FCS win in the season opener. With a just few minutes left, the Huskies answered a late Navy touchdown with a drive of their own, getting to the Midshipmen 1-yard line with 17 seconds left.
It looked as if UConn would score, go up 30-28 and get to 2-0 on the season. Instead, it was the beginning of the end of the Bob Diaco era. Diaco used the team’s last timeout with 17 seconds left, and called a run play that was subsequently stuffed. The Huskies couldn’t get another play off and suffered a brutal 28-24 loss.
It was the last time UConn’s football team was even remotely competitive, as Randy Edsall has struggled to gain traction in his turnaround efforts.
Navy, a top-25 program for most of this decade, has faltered as of late as well. After joining the American Athletic Conference with a bang, the Midshipmen won just three games last season and have not beat its chief rival Army since 2015.
Nonetheless, Ken Niumatalolo and his triple-option offense still are still a bear to contain, and UConn is in no place to be overlooking any opponent.
2018 in Review
While the Mids’ option offense is extremely run heavy like any other option team, it still needs an accurate passer to rip off just enough passes to keep the defense honest. Last year, none of the quarterbacks could do that effectively. While Malcom Perry was great on the ground, he couldn’t throw the ball well enough, completing just 36 percent of his passes. He finished out the season at slot back while Garret Lewis and Zach Abey took over under center, leading the offense to an offensive S&P+ rank of 82, the worst of Niumatalolo’s Navy career.
Defensively, Navy’s defense was bad, especially through the air. If it wasn’t for UConn, the Midshipmen’s defensive S&P+ rank of 114 would have been the worst in the American, and much like the Huskies, frequently got burned and almost never pressured the quarterback. This is a recipe for a defensive disaster, and led to longtime coordinator Dale Pehrson retiring at the end of the season.
Offensively, it looks like Niumatalolo will give Perry another chance at running the option offense in 2019. While Perry had the explosiveness on the ground and through the air, the completion percentage was a major problem. According to Bill Connelly, a completion rate of around 50 percent from any and all of Navy’s quarterbacks could be enough to reignite the offense that was a truly juggernaut under quarterbacks like Keenan Reynolds and Will Worth.
Perry joins fullback Nelson Smith (5.3 yards per carry, three touchdowns in 2018) as an impact player on the offensive side. Overall though, returning contributors are hard to come by for Navy. Only four other schools return less than the Mids’ 44 percent total production, and three of those four (UAB, UMass and Buffalo) aren’t projected to do so hot this year. Navy likely won’t be any different.
With Pehrson gone on defense, Niumatalolo brought in Brian Newberry from FCS school Kennesaw State. Kennesaw State also runs a version of the option seen at Navy, so Newberry should understand the nuances of the offense and what his unit will need to do to help feed off of that.
Newberry has plenty of young minds to mold on defense after losing the top three players at essentially every major defensive unit. He still has some talent to work with though in Nizaire Cromartie (58 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Jackson Pittman, who racked up 35 tackles last season.
With so much turnover and a new coordinator on defense going on the road to East Hartford, Navy is UConn’s most winnable FBS game of 2019 according to S&P+ preseason projections at 37 percent.
In reality, with both teams’ defenses likely still struggling, this game will boil down to how much the Huskies’ defense has improved over the course of the season. A Navy offense is all but impossible to slow down, but if the Huskies can prevent enough long, time and energy consuming scoring drives, they might just be able to pull out a win. But given how things look right now, a win at UMass seems more probable.
Prediction: Navy 31, UConn 24