During his tenure as Bowling Green's head coach, Gary Blackney won two of three games against Navy teams whose rosters were typically gritty and disciplined. But when he began preparing for Maryland's season opener against the Midshipmen, Blackney, the Terrapins' defensive coordinator, discovered those same qualities plus what he called "another dimension on top of that": one of the country's most effective offenses.
In Paul Johnson's three years at Navy, his complex option attack has generated 295.3 rushing yards per game, more than any other team in the country. In that span, Navy has finished third, first and third in the nation in rushing; only Air Force, which uses a similar offense, has also been in the top five three straight years. In Navy's last game -- an Emerald Bowl victory over New Mexico -- the Midshipmen mounted an absurdly long 25-play drive that lasted more than 14 minutes and included 22 rushing plays.
"This is a totally different mind-set," said Blackney, who said he has looked at "umpteen" hours of Navy film since April. "These guys think they can play the New York Giants with that offense."
If they did, the Midshipmen would be at a severe size disadvantage. As it is, they have what Navy officials said is the smallest starting lineup in the country. Starting quarterback Lamar Owens, both slotbacks and starting fullback Matt Hall are all 5 feet 9 or shorter. The team's right guard, 249-pound Antron Harper, is the lightest starting offensive lineman in the country. Does this matter?
"That's the last thing I'm worried about," Johnson said. "I would love to have five Antron Harpers. If we did, we would be better."
Blackney said much the same: that Navy's scheme, which favors low blocking, constant adjustments, misdirection, last-second decisions and team speed, neutralizes Maryland's considerable size advantage.
"We really haven't seen this offense that well coached, that well run," Blackney said. "I haven't seen that in a long, long time."
To prepare for Navy, Maryland put wide receiver Terrell Skinner -- an option quarterback in high school with blazing speed -- behind center on the scout team, although Coach Ralph Friedgen still lamented that "you can't simulate the speed" of Navy's option.
Coaches also dusted off the standard sermon used when preparing for option opponents: play your assignments. Remember your responsibilities. Take the proper angles. Swarm the ballcarrier. Don't get nosy expecting the ball to be pitched, because that's when Owens will keep the ball and cut up the field. And don't get complacent as long drives drone on, because the play-action deep ball lurks in the background.
"You can't be flying around trying to make the big play all the time, you've got to stay home against this offense, because the time that you do jump it and try to make a big play and not play your responsibility, it's a touchdown," said Maryland free safety Christian Varner, who, along with strong safety Milton Harris and the team's linebackers will be most responsible for stopping the option. "A lot of teams that we play don't have the patience that they have. They run the same plays, play after play after play, try to lull you to sleep. And then they'll just try to sneak one over your head."
In some ways the Terps seem ideally suited to face an option team. Their linebackers -- including returning starters D'Qwell Jackson, William Kershaw and David Holloway -- are quick and experienced; that unit is clearly the team's strength. Furthermore, Blackney's zone blitzing scheme relies on multiple fronts and disguised alignments that will be used to try to discombobulate Owens, but that hardly matters to Johnson.
"I don't know how they are going to line up on defense and I don't really care," he said. "I will adjust when the game starts. We have an idea, but if they don't line up that way, it's not the end of the world. That's the beauty of what we do."
Navy's offense does have some similarities to that of Wake Forest, and Maryland has beaten the Demon Deacons four times in Blackney's four years at Maryland (although the Midshipmen are exclusively an option team while Wake Forest is not). So has the defensive coordinator had a touch of fun preparing for something this unusual in an era of West Coast offenses and four-receiver sets?
"I'd say it's more of a challenge," he said. "Fun is when you win."