College football has been the birthplace of all manor of gimmicky offensive wrinkles, but for the Navy football program, the triple option has remained a staple of the service academy's offensive philosophy.
The Midshipmen are kicking off Week 0 of the college football season with their yearly matchup against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, this time taking the matchup overseas to Ireland. While Notre Dame has won 10 of the last 11 matchups, Navy's offense led a spirited comeback that ultimately fell short in last season's 35-32 victory for the Fighting Irish.
"You have to be so disciplined," Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman told WNDU about Navy's offense. "Our guys defensively are used to being able to 'Yeah, do your job,' but finding a way to get to the ball, finding a way to make a play happen at times. When you play triple option, you might not ever make a tackle with a guy and a ball. But you have to do your job, and it's something that is extremely difficult."
While Navy is expecting to add some wrinkles to their offense for the 2023 season under new head coach Brian Newberry, the Midshipmen are planning to continue rolling out the triple option offense, something that has been engrained in the program's DNA for decades.
The Origin of Navy's Triple Option Offense
Like any innovation in football, Navy's decision to completely alter its offense came out of desperation.
The Midshipmen were at rock bottom in the early 2000s. After years of below average seasons, Navy fell apart during the 2000 and 2001 seasons, going a combined 1-20 over that span. The program decided to part ways with their head coach in favor of a new face out of Georgia Southern in head coach Paul Johnson.
A former offensive coordinator for Navy, Johnson took over in 2002 and ushered in a triple option offense for the Midshipmen. While they went just 2-10 in Johnson's first season as head coach, the triple option came to life in the team's rivalry game against Army, dominating in a 58-12 victory. Navy's quarterback Craig Candeto attempted just five passes all game, but ran for 103 yards and six touchdowns on 18 carries.
That was the spark that Navy needed to buy into their new offense. Johnson would go on to win at least eight games in every season as Navy's head coach, going 45-29 over six seasons including a 10-2 record in 2004 that included an Emerald Bowl win over New Mexico.
Johnson left the Navy program in 2007, bringing his triple option offense with him to Georgia Tech, where he continued to find success. The Midshipmen continued to run the offense under Ken Niumatalolo, who has remained the head coach ever since.
A former quarterback for Hawaii, Niumatalolo started coaching as a graduate assistant for his alma mater before hopping into Navy's staff in 1995. After a three-year stop at UNLV, Niumatalolo returned to Navy in 2002 as an assistant head coach before taking over for Johnson in 2007. Since taking over, he has gone 109-83 as head coach with multiple 10-win seasons, even finishing the 2015 and 2019 seasons ranked in the Top 25 of the AP and Coaches polls.
The triple option has remained a staple throughout the past two decades in Annapolis, leading them to a 14-game win streak over Army from 2002 through 2015. The Black Knights eventually adopted their own triple option offense, but the Midshipmen's run and success despite not being a top-tier program has been a testament to the power of the offensive scheme when used by a hyper-disciplined group of athletes.
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