Kickoff: Indiana at Navy, 3:30 p.m. Saturday
TV: CBS Sports Network
Online: For more on Indiana athletics, follow Pete DiPrimio via Twitter at pdiprimio.
BLOOMINGTON -- Doug Mallory has a problem. Indiana's co-defensive coordinator also has a solution, the result of impressive preparation six months in the implementing.
Will it be enough on Saturday to stop Navy's flexbone triple-option attack, help snap a four-game losing streak and prove that this defense can, in fact, stop somebody?
It starts with the eyes.
“You have to be disciplined with your eyes,” Mallory says. “You've got to read your keys.”
Navy's offense is unlike any played in the Big Ten, or in most of America. It takes the old wishbone that dominated college football in the 1960s and '70s and upgrades it for the 21st century, if the 21st century wasn't interested in the pass.
Navy runs on running downs. It runs on passing downs. It runs even when the spirit of Woody Hayes screams to throw the darn ball.
The Midshipmen have run on 305 of their 392 plays this season. They average 4.6 yards a run and 231.7 yards a game.
The result is a 3-3 record, a two-game winning streak and growing confidence from a program that has won 78 games in the last 10 years, the 22nd most in the country over that span.
Coach Kevin Wilson was so concerned about Navy's offense he began preparations last spring. He visited the Air Force Academy, which also runs the triple option, to learn how it operates. He talked to coaches who had faced Air Force or Georgia Tech, another triple-option team, to get ideas on how to defend it. Every Monday the Hoosiers spent 15 minutes practicing for it.
“We tried to introduce it so this week wouldn't be as hard, but it's still going to be difficult,” he says.
Navy's offense uses a quarterback, a fullback and two slotbacks. The quarterback can run, hand off to the fullback or pitch it to a slotback running beside him. You also have relatively small offensive linemen (three of the five starters weigh 280 pounds or less) whose mission in life is to cut-block defenders, a nice way of saying they will take your knees out from under you, especially if you take your eyes off your blocker to see who has the ball and where he's going.
“There are some pretty nasty cuts on linebackers' knees,” Mallory says.
Navy is patiently aggressive. It is 25-for-72 on third-down conversions and 11-for-17 on fourth down. By comparison, the Hoosiers are 39-for-103 on third down and 6-for-11 on fourth down.
“Where people get killed is when they don't take the fullback away,” Mallory says. “If our allow the fullback to continue to bleed you, it's going to be a long day.
“If you look at this offense, if they gain 3 yards, it's a positive play for them. If they get past mid-field and get to fourth-and-1, they're going for it. You've got to get them off track and behind target where they aren't getting three yards a clip.”
When Navy does throw, it's likely to connect for big yards. Receivers average 13.3 yards a catch. Again by comparison, IU averages 10.9 yards a catch.
The passing game got a boost from freshman Keenan Reynold. He started for the first time last week against Central Michigan (which beat Iowa earlier in the season) and led the Midshipmen to a 31-13 victory. He was 6-for-11 for 134 yards and three touchdowns. That's 22.3 yards a completion.
Yes, that has got the Hoosiers' attention.
“It's the same offense and plays,” Mallory says, “but he's more effective in throwing.
“Their passing game gets you to over commit against the run. It's critical as a second level player (defensive backs) to know where the keys are. They lull you to sleep and set up the play-action pass off one of their top runs. If your eyes aren't where they should be, they'll run right by you.”
The big key for defensive backs is to read whether receivers are trying to block them or releasing into a pass route. Another key is seeing if the offensive linemen are sitting back more to help pass protect or if they're aggressively going down field to attack linebackers and safeties for run support.
Mallory says every Navy pass play against Central Michigan “had guys open.”
The Midshipmen's defense has turned stingy since opening with a pair of blowout losses against Notre Dame (50-10) and Penn State (34-7). They've allowed just 49 points in the last four games. That's the same number of points Indiana scored last Saturday against Ohio State.
“They fly around, give you different angles, mix the coverages, try to keep everything in front of them,” offensive coordinator Seth Littrell says. “They're very aggressive with their schemes. It's not like they're playing passive. They count on you making mistakes. We have to be sharp and execute. We have to make sure we sustain drives and score touchdowns. We can't have three and outs.”
Mostly, though, the Hoosiers (2-4 with a four-game losing streak) can't afford more losses.
"We've got to start winning," Wilson says.