As season openers go, a road game at Indiana on Saturday doesn't seem as daunting for Navy as going to Dublin, Ireland, to play Notre Dame last year.
It might be just as tough, however, given Navy's problems against the Hoosiers for more than a half last season in Annapolis, as well as what Indiana did against Indiana State last week.
A year after surviving a 31-30 shootout at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Navy (0-0) will face much-improved Indiana (1-0) in Bloomington, Ind., at 6 p.m. Saturday.
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"We know we're playing the best offense in the Big Ten a year ago — the best," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said earlier this week. "They put 56 [points] up on Ohio State [last season]. They put 73 up the other night. Everybody's back, all the weapons at every position … They can run it, they can throw it, they can beat you on the deep ball. We've got to be perfect on defense to have a chance."
The best way to keep the Hoosiers out of the end zone might be to keep them off the field. Though the Midshipmen have spent a good chunk of practice time in the preseason running their version of the spread or read-option on offense, Navy will likely stick more to its run-first trademark triple-option out of design, as well as necessity.
The biggest question mark going into the opener is the condition of sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds' right arm. Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper planned to open up the playbook to take advantage of Reynolds' ability as a passer after what he did as a freshman.
But that was before Reynolds sustained an injury that has limited his ability to practice. Reynolds was held out for more than a week before finally getting some reps in practice Wednesday and Thursday. The quarterback position is one of the few in which the Midshipmen see a huge dropoff between first- and second-string players.
"You're always concerned when a guy doesn't get reps," Niumatalolo said Tuesday. "With most guys I've coached, I'd be super concerned. This kid's different. Mentally he has a way to concentrate. Hopefully that asset and that trait helps him. Normally at this point, if a guy is taking this long, we'd move to the next guy. If John [Hendrick, the backup] has to go, he'll go."
Indiana coach Kevin Wilson said during his news conference this week that he is preparing for the triple-option, but is fully aware of Navy's ability to throw the ball. Reynolds led the Midshipmen back from a nine-point deficit in the last 5 1/2 minutes a year ago, leading drives of 72 and 74 yards. He hit wide receiver Matt Aiken on third-and-goal from the 4-yard line with 2:46 to go after the Hoosiers blitzed.
"Defensively, the more you think, the harder it is," Wilson told reporters earlier in the week. "That's why, in my opinion, this is the most difficult team we play. For this week, you put everything you do defensively on the shelf. This is an option team that's going to have some movement and some [shotgun] passes. It's going to be a tremendous challenge.
"It's going to be a game where we're going to have to do some adjusting and see if we're smart enough as coaches and players to understand what happened and get lined up because we might get caught once or twice where you don't want to be."
While the Hoosiers are more straightforward in their offensive approach, Navy could still have a hard time containing Indiana. The painful memory of last year's 62-28 demolition by Arizona State in the Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco's AT&T Park is still fresh.
Navy will also go into the game missing starting cornerback Kwazel Bertrand, who is out with a knee injury. Niumatalolo said true freshman Brendon Clements — who wasn't even on the depth chart heading into the preseason — will start against the Hoosiers.
"In some sense, he kind of reminds me of Keenan, just way ahead of his game mentally," Niumatalolo said about Clements.
Junior linebacker Jordan Drake, whose 24-yard interception return for a touchdown against Indiana late in the first half was the first time he had ever scored a touchdown on any level, said he watched tape of the Hoosiers from both last year's game against the Midshipmen and last week's rout of Indiana State.
"We're going to have to play our 'A' game to keep up with those guys," Drake said.
NOTE: Niumatalolo’s mother, Lamala, died Thursday night in Hawaii. In her memory, the Midshipmen will wear a sticker with her initials on their shoulder pads Saturday.
Midshipmen at a glance
Navy (0-0) at Indiana (1-0)