8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: BYU -1, Over/Under: 48.5
College Football caps off it’s Opening Weekend with a pair of teams looking to carry over the momentum from the previous campaign, as the Brigham Young Cougars and Navy Midshipmen battle at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland. Though some programs chose to affiliate with a conference due to the chaos wrecked upon the sport by the Covid-19 Pandemic, Brigham Young (7-6 in 2019) ultimately chose to stand pat as an Independent (as they have since 2011), confident in completing was is essentially a Regular Season consisting of just seven games. Last was a disappointing one for the Cougars, who overcame a dismal 2-3 start to win five straight contests en route to Bowl Eligibility for the fourteenth time in fifteen years. However, the term did not end well; BYU lost their Season Finale 13-3 at San Diego State before falling short in the Hawaii Bowl against Hawaii, 38-34. Now in his fifth year stalking the sidelines in Provo, Kalani Sitake must start showing more positive results, for after going 9-4 in his first season with the school, his charges have mustered a mediocre 18-21 record (.461) in the three years since.
There is however, optimism within the program that the Head Coach can indeed make the most of this most unusual campaign, and that’s due to the (hopefully) healthy return of Junior Quarterback, Zach Wilson (62.4%, 2,382 YDS, 7.5 Y/A, 11 TD, 9 INT, 130.8 RATE in 2019), who has had plenty of experience over the previous two terms. Wilson started nine games apiece between his Freshman an Sophomore seasons, though injuries kept him from truly finding a rhythm within the Offense. In eighteen career appearances, he has completed 63.7% of his Passes for 3,960 Yards, Twenty-Three Touchdowns and Twelve Interceptions, while rushing for another 388 Yards and Five Scores on 142 Carries. Upon returning from injury in 2019, he looked like a much-improved Signal-Caller, completing 64.4% of his Attempts for 796 Yards, Six Touchdowns and Three Interceptions, but struggled mightily in the Hawaii Bowl in which he completed a meager 24-of-40 Passes (60.0%) for 274 Yards and a pair of Interceptions. He did however, keep the Cougars in contention with his legs, rushing for a career-high Seventy-Two Yards and Two Touchdowns in defeat. The train of thought is that he will continue to show improvement, for a Quarterback’s third season is generally where they exhibit the most growth. Sitake has echoed that sentiment.
I think he had a great offseason not having to rehab or anything like that… He was able to master his craft a little bit more and improve his game. He worked really hard in the offseason. This was his third fall camp, so he felt a lot more comfortable. Instead of trying to establish himself as a player, now he is trying to compete and solidify his spot.Kalani Sitake, BYU Head Coach
Helping to facilitate that growth is a veteran-laden Offensive Line, featuring Juniors such as Left Tackle, Brady Christensen, and Center, James Empey, who headlined a unit that helped churn out 160.2 Rushing Yards per Game on a healthy 4.5 Yards per Carry. Brigham Young was very run-heavy in 2019, with nine different players rushing for over 100 Yards, led by Tailbacks Lopini Katoa (85 REC, 358 YDS, 4.2 Y/C, 4 TD in 2019) and Sione Finau (59 CAR, 359 YDS, 6.1 Y/C, 2 TD in 2019), though the latter’s status for tonight’s contest is up in the air with the Redshirt Sophomore rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered last season. It’s unfortunate, for Finau really appeared to have hit his stride, rushing for 359 Yards on an explosive 6.1 Yards per Rush in his first five games of the term. Sitake would like to say that those aforementioned injury woes that plagued his side in 2019 are behind them, but unfortunately that simply has been the case. BYU lost Tight End, Matt Bushman (47 REC, 688 YDS, 14.6 Y/R, 4 TD in 2019), for the season after the All-American candidate ruptured his Achilles in practice. Bushman led the Cougars with 688 Receiving Yards last year, and over the course of his career in Provo has racked up 125 Receptions, 1,719 Yards, and Nine Touchdowns. To say that this is a big loss for the Offense is an understatement, for they struggled mightily in the Red Zone (ranked 120th out of 130 teams), and that was with the Junior on the field.
Meanwhile, my oh my what a difference a year has made for Navy (11-2, 7-1 in AAC), who in 2019 bounced back from a dismal 3-10 nightmare, to win eleven games, a record for the football program. In his fourteen years in Annapolis, Ken Niumatalolo has endured just two losing seasons, though has managed to win ten or more games on three occasions, running his record with the service academy to a solid 98-60 (.620) since arriving in 2007. His Midshipmen finished the campaign strong with four consecutive victories, including a 20-17 win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. In utilizing their vaunted Triple-Option attack, his charges were both prolific and explosive, averaging 37.2 Points per Game (the most during his tenure with the program), while churning out a ridiculous 360.7 Rushing Yards per Game on a whopping 6.1 Yards per Carry. Think about that for a moment, folks, Navy ranked 12th Overall in Scoring Offense, which was higher than a slew of other programs such as Oregon (35.2), Georgia (30.8), and Michigan (31.7). Who says points can only come out of the passing game?
However, with this being College Football, players and come and go, and Navy is no different as they attempt to replace Quarterback, Malcolm Perry (295 CAR, 2,017 YDS, 6.8 Y/C, 21 TD in 2019), who had deftly ran Niumatalolo’s Offense for the past three seasons. Simply put, you would be hard-pressed to have found another Triple-Option Quarterback than Perry, who in his four years with the program rushed for 4,359 Yards and Forty Touchdowns, the former which stands a career record for any player within the relatively young American Athletic Conference. 2019 was indeed a special year for the Midshipmen, and Perry in particular, who was named AAC Offensive Player of the Year on the strength of 2,017 Rushing Yards (2nd Overall) and Twenty-One Touchdowns, while also managing to make plays as a passer when called upon, completing 55.8% of his Attempts for 1,084 Yards, Seven Touchdowns and Three Interceptions. Replacing him will be Dalen Morris, a Senior from Huntsville, Alabama, who over the past two seasons has made only four brief appearances. With that said, a strong Preseason Camp has many within the program feeling very confident in his ability to take the baton left by his predecessor, including his Offensive Coordinator, Irvin Jasper.
Dalen came in with a purpose and took the position,” offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper said in a video call with media. “I’m very excited with where Dalen is now. He just has to keep doing it and carry that confidence over into the season.Irvin Jasper, Navy Offensive Coordinator
Just because there will be anew face under Center doesn’t mean you should expect any radical changes from the Navy Offense, for the Triple-Option remains their proverbial bread and butter, and a real headache for opponents to prepare for. Aiding Morris in his starting campaign are Fullbacks, Jamale Carothers (111 CAR, 734 YDS, 6.6 Y/C, 14 TD in 2019) and Nelson Smith (116 CAR, 571 YDS, 4.9 Y/C, 7 TD in 2019), while Myles Fells (18 CAR, 130 YDS, 7.2 Y/C in 2019) figures to see an expanded role in 2020 as well. Fells, who occupies the role of what Niumatalolo refers to as a Slotback, was easily the most explosive member of the Offense, averaging a robust 7.2 Yards per Carry, and has drawn rave reviews from the Coaching Staff this Offseason. Tonight’s meeting with Brigham Young will mark only the third encounter between the two programs, and the first such meeting since 1989, a 23-16 Navy victory in the Holiday Bowl.