HUNTINGTON — Marshall defensive lineman Koby Cumberlander has had his eyes on the Thundering Herd’s 2021 season opener against Navy for quite some time.
Now that Saturday is nearly upon Cumberlander and his teammates, the focus shifts to having their eyes in the right place as they go up against the triple-option attack of the Midshipmen — something with which many teams struggle when facing it for the first time.
Cumberlander said Navy’s system of attack is impressive to watch on film and one for which the Herd must be focused when the teams meet at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
“It’s always discipline and keeping your eyes in the right place in order to make those plays on defense,” Cumberlander said. “It’s crazy watching them on film. They move pretty fast. Those linemen are weighing like 280 pounds, so they are coming off the ball quick.”
After watching film, Cumberlander said there is also another key component to success for Marshall on Saturday. The Herd must take down Navy’s choppers on the offensive line.
“The D-line especially, they are going to have a big, big job, especially playing off the chop,” Cumberlander said. “That’s another thing. You’ve got to rely on not getting cut. Just hold them at the line of scrimmage and I’m pretty sure your linebackers and outside linebackers can fit in all those dives and the QB options.”
Navy is known for the triple-option attack that typically is among the nation’s leaders in rushing yardage. Such was not the case last season as the Midshipmen struggled offensively and rushed for just 177.6 yards per game.
To put it in perspective, Navy finished No. 52 in rushing last season, even falling behind Marshall, which was No. 50 at 178.3 rushing yards per game.
2020 was the first time Navy has been under 200 rushing yards per game since the 2001 season.
On the other side, Marshall returns many pieces from a rushing defense that finished No. 4 nationally, allowing just 95.5 yards rushing per game in 2020.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said the growth of his offensive line will be tested immediately against the Herd.
“They’re really good on defense and have a lot of guys up front returning, really stout against the run, but that’s also what we do: we run the football,” Niumatalolo said. “So, it’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’re looking forward to it, but we recognize athletically, the guys that they’ve got up front, it’s going to be a great challenge because they’re big and athletic.”
Niumatalolo added that Marshall’s athleticism means his quarterback and offensive line have to be on their cues to get all the gaps taken care of if the Midshipmen are to see success.
When Navy is executing well, its blocking scheme usually leaves ball carriers in a one-on-one scenario with a tackler in a gap, which is something Marshall is hoping to avoid.
Cumberlander said Marshall’s defensive front, which can go eight to 10 players deep, has worked on getting multiple players to the football since spring.
“We have to play like a pack of wolves — gather around the ball, rally around the ball, make those stops and force them to three-and-out,” Cumberlander said. “If you aren’t doing that in this game, then obviously they are going to get downfield and they are going to score.
Marshall head coach Charles Huff said the Herd defense has to be consistent against Navy because the Midshipmen and Niumatalolo are not going to go away from what they do well.
“They believe at some point their plays are going to work and they stay committed and true to that, and that’s what we try to get our guys to understand,” Huff said. “You may stop the play the very first time for a negative run or minus-2 yards, but that’s not going to get them off that play. It’s not going to get them off that system.”
That means Saturday’s game will come down to the team that is most consistent at the line of scrimmage for 60 minutes, which is a tough battle for each.
For Marshall, the team must stay consistent throughout the contest and be disciplined in its first game under new defensive coordinator Lance Guidry.
For Navy, the Midshipmen have to overcome one of 2020’s top rush defenses while staying on blocks better than last season.
It is a battle that tests composure, strength, strategy and execution — everything the Naval Academy is built on.