GREENVILLE, N.C. — Don't think for a moment Navy's 76-35 victory over East Carolina on Saturday had everything to do with offense.
Certainly the Midshipmen rang up points and yards at a dizzying rate, but this convincing win that made them bowl eligible came largely courtesy of an opportunistic defense that forced three turnovers in four plays in the second half. Thus the offense often had short distances to travel, and with the triple option humming along, the Pirates thereafter never stood a chance.
Navy (6-3) compiled its most points in modern history, ran for a season-high 521 yards, the most ever at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, and quarterback Ricky Dobbs and fullback Alexander Teich combined for 257 of that total. While those benchmarks are a testament to just how effective the triple option can be when functioning at its peak, coach Ken Niumatalolo was quick to credit the defense following the win before 50,191.
"It's huge. It just changed the game," he said. "Great team win. A lot of good things happening. I'm kind of worn out because I know our kids laid everything on the line."
The triumph comes on the heels of a perplexing loss to Duke, then 1-6, last week and ensures Navy will play in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23 in San Diego against a Mountain West Conference team to be decided. That reward in part eased the displeasure of a day in which it became official Navy will have to relinquish the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to Air Force after the Falcons beat Army, 42-22. The Midshipmen lost to Air Force, 14-6, on Oct. 2, but since that misstep have won four of five.
"Last week was devastating for us, especially the first half we played," defensive end Jabaree Tuani said of the 34-31 loss in which Navy trailed 24-0 at intermission. "We didn't execute. It was kind of the same thing today. We didn't come out executing, but we made some adjustments at halftime, and we got the job done."
Among those modifications was more attention in getting hands on the ball, consequently creating more opportunities for turnovers. It didn't take long for the tactic to produce results.
The turnover barrage began early in the third quarter, when Tuani jarred the ball from running back Jonathan Williams and nose guard Shane Bothel recovered. Leading by a touchdown, Navy took over at the East Carolina 42 and wound up getting a career-long 38-yard field goal from Jon Teague, whose 10 extra points set a modern day school record.
On the Pirates' second play from scrimmage on their next possession, Williams lost the ball gain, this time failing to gain control of the handoff from quarterback Dominique Davis. Sophomore safety Tra'ves Bush recovered at the 29, and slotback Aaron Santiago caught Dobbs's scoring throw on first down for a 38-21 margin.
The Midshipmen all but sealed the outcome following another inspired defensive stand. This time, defensive end Billy Yarborough batted Davis's pass, and although the quarterback caught the ball off the deflection, Tuani pried the ball loose, and linebacker Tyler Simmons recovered at the East Carolina 21.
Facing fourth and one at the 12, the Midshipmen then landed a roundhouse blow when slotback Gee Gee Greene took a pitch around the left side into the end zone. At 45-21 with 8 minutes 52 seconds to play in the third quarter, the rout officially was underway.
"That's always our game plan. We got to take care of the ball, and we've got to force turnovers," said Simmons, who had a career-high 17 tackles for a second straight game. "When you do that, you always give yourself a chance. That's what we did, and our offense came out rolling, and they didn't stop all game."
The early portion of the game showcased a pair of offenses capable of scoring at vigorous clips. The Midshipmen got first dibs after winning the toss and in a rare move for them elected to receive, well aware one possession could make a considerable difference. The decision led to a 10-yard touchdown run by senior fullback Vince Murray, playing in his first game since injuring his knee during the first half against Wake Forest on Oct. 9. Murray's run capped a 70-yard drive that used seven plays, all in the no huddle.
Predictably, East Carolina, averaging nearly 37 points per game entering the weekend, promptly responded with a touchdown, going 66 yards in less than three minutes. Those points came on a one-yard completion from Davis to junior wide receiver Michael Byrd.
The teams combined for 35 more points over the next quarter and a half, with Dobbs's five-yard run 14 seconds before halftime providing a 28-21 lead for the Midshipmen. The score also elevated Dobbs, a senior, to first place on Navy's career touchdowns list with 45.
"I would say thus far with everything clicking and rolling, this is the most" complete game offensively, Dobbs said. "Hopefully we can come back and do this again next week."