The first full weekend of September just wouldn’t feel right without a Labor Day night college football game to wrap it up. Thankfully, we have one, and it could prove to be the best matchup on the abbreviated opening-week slate as Navy hosts BYU (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Navy was originally set to begin the campaign with its annual showdown against Notre Dame; the two have squared off every year since 1927. But the Fighting Irish’s temporary affiliation with the ACC meant that due to the league’s scheduling policy this season, the series with the Midshipmen had to be interrupted.
BYU, also an FBS independent that needed to revamp its schedule, was a natural addition for Navy. Though the programs have only met twice before, most recently in 1989, there are still plenty of connections. Most notably, Mids coach Ken Niumatalolo and Cougars coach Kalani Sitake grew up in the same hometown of Lai’e, Hawaii, and are the only two current FBS head coaches of Polynesian descent.
As you settle in to enjoy this one after your holiday BBQ, here are three things to watch.
The graduation of the dynamic Malcolm Perry leaves Navy with no starting experience at quarterback. The good news for Dalen Morris in his debut is he can depend on the proven fullback duo of Jamale Carothers and Nelson Smith to take the ball into the middle. But they’ll be pitted against a solid linebacking crew that should be the strength of the Cougars’ defense, featuring Kavika Fonua and Isaiah Kaufusi. They’ll need to keep those interior yards to a minimum to slow the Navy ground attack.
The air up there
BYU’s passing game isn’t quite what it was back in the day when the likes of Ty Detmer and Steve Young were slinging it around. But it will still be the Cougars’ primary method of transportation. Unfortunately, the unit already took a huge injury hit when go-to tight end Matt Bushman went down in a non-contact drill in the preseason. QB Zach Wilson is a veteran, but he doesn’t have many other experienced receivers in his arsenal, so at least one of the youngsters must emerge quickly.
Time of possession isn’t always a meaningful stat, especially if your offense is built for quick strikes (think Oklahoma, for example). But for option teams like Navy, it is absolutely pivotal. Academy rival Army, coincidentally BYU’s next opponent, put on a clinic in that area on Saturday, blanking Middle Tennessee 42-0 while holding an 11-minute advantage in possession time. Hand-in-hand with that, of course, is third-down efficiency. Whichever defense does a better job of getting itself off the field on third down should prevail. For Navy, that will mean its youthful secondary must answer the bell. For the Cougars, it will mean forcing long-yardage situations by allowing minimal gains on first and second down.