San Diego The Poinsettia Bowl between Navy and Utah tonight could come down to whoever can play keep-away the best.
Already beaten once this year by a service academy and its perplexing offense, Utah knows it will have its hands full trying to stop Navy's potent triple-option that's run by a quarterback with double hyphens, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.
Ditto for Navy, which will try to stop Utah's spread option with a defense that came close to blowing out scoreboards around the country by allowing at least 30 points a whopping eight times this season. In the span of three games, the Midshipmen lost 59-52 to Delaware, beat Notre Dame 46-44 in three overtimes - their first win against the Fighting Irish in 44 years - and won 74-62 at North Texas in the highest-scoring game in major-college history.
Utah is favored in the matchup of teams that finished 8-4. Navy's Ken Niumatalolo will be making his head coaching debut, having been promoted from assistant head coach and offensive line coach after Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech.
"Navy's been involved in a lot of shootouts this year. Most of their games have been tremendous scores," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The best way to defend their offense is to keep it on the sideline, keep our offense moving the chains and not turn it over. The best defense against a team like this is to keep that option offense grounded on the sideline."
Utah faces the option every year when it plays Mountain West Conference rival Air Force. But the Utes lost to Air Force this year, allowing 334 rushing yards, and Whittingham said it's tough trying to emulate the option in practice.
"Anytime you have the quarterback run game as the viable option, which obviously the triple option they employ has available, you've got to play what we call 1-11 defense," he said. "All 11 guys have their one job to do. It's assignment football. Any breakdown in those assignments and the ball's out of the gate for a big gain."
Navy leads the nation in rushing at 351.5 yards per game and is eighth in scoring offense at 39.9 points.
Seven Midshipmen have rushed for more than 450 yards, led by Kaheaku-Enhada with 782 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also thrown for six touchdowns.