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Navy Midshipmen look to hit ground running against Marshall Thundering Herd

Nov 28, 2020; Annapolis, Maryland, USA; Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo looks on during the second half of the game against the Navy Midshipmen at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 28, 2020; Annapolis, Maryland, USA; Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo looks on during the second half of the game against the Navy Midshipmen at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Navy hopes a revitalized rushing attack will get things moving in the right direction against visiting Marshall in a nonconference game on Saturday in Annapolis, Md.

The Midshipmen, whose success has long been rooted in running the ball in its triple-option attack, were slowed last year. Navy averaged just 177.7 yards on the ground, its lowest output since 1994.

Navy finished 52nd nationally in rushing, marking the first time in coach Ken Niumatalolo’s 13 seasons it didn’t finish in the top six. Navy averaged just 275.1 yards and 16.6 points per game, which both ranked among the bottom 10 in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

The Midshipmen’s inability to run the ball led to a 3-7 record, just their third losing season in the past 18 years.

Navy’s struggles to run the ball stemmed from inconsistent play at quarterback, a position that is still a work in progress with sophomores Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai fighting for the spot. Arline made three starts and threw a dozen total passes as a freshman and became just the fifth freshman in program history to start against Army. Lavatai spent last year on the scout team.

“I think the competition has been good,” Niumatalolo told reporters. “It allows guys to — don’t settle, don’t get complacent.”

Navy returns 23 players — 10 on offense, 13 on defense — who started multiple games in 2020, which should help make last season’s losing record an anomaly. The defense, led by returning linebacker Diego Fagot, got better as the season progressed.

In its final three games of the season, all losses, Navy yielded 205 yards to Memphis, 296 to Tulsa and 162 to Army, marking the first time the Midshipmen held their opponents to under 300 yards total offense in three straight games since 1997.

Marshall was ranked as high as 15th nationally last year after starting 7-0 before ending the season on a three-game losing streak capped by dropping the Camellia Bowl to Buffalo, 17-10. But the Thundering Herd have reason to be optimistic this season.

Charles Huff will make his head coaching debut for Marshall on Saturday after spending the past two seasons as the running backs coach at Alabama.

Quarterback Grant Wells returns after a terrific freshman year in which he threw for 2,091 yards with 18 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. He’s among nine returning starters on offense, which includes wide receiver Corey Gammage and All-Conference USA tight end Xavier Gaines.

The Thundering Herd return eight starters — led by linebackers Abraham Beauplan and Eli Neal — from a unit that led the nation in scoring defense (13.0 points per game) and was second in total defense (279.4 yards per game) a year ago. Marshall allowed more than 17 points just once last season — in a 22-13 loss to Alabama-Birmingham in the Conference USA title game.

Still, Huff is focused on playing disciplined against the Midshipmen, whose triple-option is hard to prepare for since few run it.

“You’re going to give the other team 75, 80, 100 yards, it’s going to be hard to win,” Huff told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “I don’t care if you’re the ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ from back in the ’90s, you’ve got no shot.”

–Field Level Media