When USF last played Navy in Annapolis, Maryland in 2015, the Midshipmen used a fourth-quarter comeback and an eye-popping 428 rushing yards to beat the Bulls 29-17.
This time around, No. 22 Navy will likely lean on the run once again as it has throughout the 2016 season, especially after USF allowed over 300 yards and four scores on the ground in a 46-30 loss against Temple on Friday.
“When you have a lot of energy and you’re flying to the ball, and you miss a tackle, you’ve got five or six other guys running to the ball,” junior linebacker Auggie Sanchez said. “But when you don’t have energy and guys aren’t going to run to the ball and do the little things they’re used to, you have one or two guys running to the ball and if they miss, then they’re out the gate and I think we saw that against Temple.”
Following a performance in which the Bulls struggled to contain the Owls’ rushing attack, encountering an unrelenting Navy rushing attack that is averaging 293 rushing yards a game — good for fourth-best in the nation — will once again present a unique challenge for USF, as it did in 2015.
Despite not having former quarterback Keenan Reynolds this season, Navy’s offense hasn’t missed a beat with senior quarterback Will Worth at the helm.
After starting quarterback Tago Smith tore his right ACL in the second quarter of Navy’s 52-16 win over Fordham in its season opener, Worth has led the team to a 5-1 start, including a 46-40 win over No. 6 Houston.
Through six games, the 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior has rushed for 489 yards and nine touchdowns while passing for 688 yards and five scores.
“He keeps going and gets right back up, it’s like ‘Geez, you want your players to hit the quarterback, but it don’t matter with him.’” Coach Willie Taggart said. “But he’s a winner, he’s a competitor, he’s tough. He has a great understanding of what they’re doing offensively.”
While Taggart said this week he won’t take play-calling duties away from defensive coordinator Raymond Woodie after the loss to Temple, he acknowledged improvements must be made to what has been the 100th-best rushing defense out of 128 FBS schools.
USF will have likely have every opportunity to show that improvement Friday against an offense that has ran the ball 333 times compared to 64 pass attempts this season.
“It’s one of those games where you have to be mentally disciplined of doing the same boring thing over and over again,” Taggart said. “That’s where they get you where they lull you to sleep and then you don’t do your job that one time and they make you pay for it. You can do your job the whole entire game, but if you don’t do your job for one play, they make you pay. That’s how that offense operates and you can’t (let them) do that.”
Even though Worth has only dropped back to pass nine times in the past two games, the quarterback has connected for six passes for 161 yards and four touchdowns in those limited opportunities.
Aside from using Worth in the running game, Navy has leaned on a deep backfield of five players who have combined for 1,042 yards in 2016. The group of backs is led by the 6-foot, 224-pound full back Chris High, who has rushed for 392 yards and four scores.
After giving up first place in the AAC East to Temple last week, USF (6-2, 3-1) will have to quickly adjust to thwart the run-heavy Midshipmen when the two teams meet at Raymond James Stadium on Friday at 7 p.m.