There will be no better ball hawk on the field in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Monday than Middle Tennessee safety Kevin Byard.
But the sophomore admits he does not envision padding his eye-catching season totals for interceptions (five) or interception returns for touchdowns (two) when the Blue Raiders meet Navy in Amon G. Carter Stadium (10:45 a.m., ESPN).
Instead, Byard expects to be involved early and often in run support when two of the nation’s top 24 teams in rushing offense collide in Fort Worth.
Navy (8-4) ranks second nationally in rushing offense, at 322 yards per game, and has more rushing touchdowns than any FBS school (47).
Middle Tennessee (8-4) averages 208.3 rushing yards per game.
But that figure has jumped to 273.2 yards per game during the Blue Raiders’ current five-game winning streak, triggered by the return from injury of multiple key offensive linemen and running backs.
So this one should boil down to a battle of willpower between a pair of ground-and-pound offenses eager to rule the line of scrimmage.
It will be Navy’s triple-option attack against Middle Tennessee’s running back rotation that has seen five players top the 100-yard rushing mark in at least one game.
“I know I’m not going to get too many opportunities to catch an interception,” said Byard, who also ranks second on the team in tackles (92). “But I’ll be involved. We know this game’s going to be about discipline. Raking your own leaves, handling your own responsibility. That’s what we’re going to do.”
To slow Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (1,260 rushing yards, 29 TDs), those are the marching orders for the Middle Tennessee defense.
Navy defenders also will be charged to execute a physical, disciplined game plan, linebacker Cody Peterson said.
“That’s how I see it,” Peterson said. “We’ll have our hands full. We’re going to have to show up and exceed their physical toughness and not get pushed around. That’s our key.”
In other words: Welcome to a day of throwback football in the era of the spread offense.
But the bottom line shows the Blue Raiders are 1-4 this season when held below 200 rushing yards. When it has topped the 200-yard mark, Middle Tennessee is 7-0.
“I think we’re two similar teams, especially statistically,” said Middle Tennessee coach Rick Stockstill, noting that both rank among the national leaders in turnover margin and in fewest penalties. “It’s two disciplined teams. So we’ve got to execute on defense and do our job.”
For Middle Tennessee, that means containing Reynolds, who leads the nation in scoring (14.7 points per game) and would become the first college quarterback with 30 rushing touchdowns in a season if he finds the end zone in Fort Worth.
Veteran defenders draw success from the Blue Raiders’ last encounter against a triple-option attack: a 49-28 victory over Georgia Tech in 2012. Heading into that contest, Middle Tennessee had a bye week to prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ option attack. This time, they’ve had more than two weeks to focus on Navy.
“The thing about the triple option is, it’s always about preparation. As long as you prepare, you’ll be just fine,” defensive tackle Jimmy Staten said. “Our main thing is to contain their quarterback and contain their running backs. If we can do that, we can shut down their offense and have a successful day.”
That projects to be easier said than done. With Reynolds on the field, the Navy offense has committed only six turnovers in 12 games this season (four lost fumbles, two interceptions). Navy has topped the 40-point mark in six games and enters with a four-game winning streak.
“Getting us in the right play, that’s my No. 1 job as a quarterback and something I try to take pride in,” said Reynolds, a sophomore with a 14-6 career mark as Navy’s starting quarterback. “I try to be as close to perfect as I can be in every aspect of the game.”
Bigger option challenge
Byard said Navy’s triple-option attack presents a greater challenge than the one the Blue Raiders stymied in the victory over Georgia Tech, the team’s last encounter with an option team.
“I feel like there’s going to be a little bit of carryover from that game. Maybe a little bit of confidence,” Byard said. “But I feel like Navy is a way better offense than Georgia Tech was. They’re running their option way more crisp and they’re executing at a high level right now.”
Ticket prices range from $20 to $150 per seat for the game. Tickets can be purchased through the bowl website at www.ArmedForcesBowl.com or by calling the bowl office at 817-810-0012.