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BALTIMORE -- Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo found the routine of watching film of fifth-ranked Ohio State to be cause for consternation as Saturday's season opener drew closer.
"It seems like every time I turn on the tape that team gets better," Niumatalolo said. "Ohio State has always gotten great players, but Coach (Urban) Meyer has taken their recruiting to another level since he got there. There are phenomenal athletes at every position on the field."
Navy, in contrast, has only has a handful of players that were offered scholarships by other Football Bowl Subdvision schools. That explains in part why the Midshipmen are two-touchdown underdogs.
The Buckeyes have won 24 straight regular-season games and have national championship aspirations despite losing starting quarterback Braxton Miller to a season-ending shoulder injury.
Niumatalolo has said several times that this is the most talented team he's seen during his 17 years at Navy. The Midshipmen had the Buckeyes on the ropes when the schools met in the opener of this two-game series in 2009.
A two-point conversion pass that would have tied the game with 2:23 remaining was intercepted and returned to the opposite end zone to give the Buckeyes a 31-27 victory.
But Navy, despite closing the 2013 season with a five-game winning streak, has not beaten a team ranked in the top five since upsetting No. 2 South Carolina in November 1984.
QUARTERBACK MATCHUP: Navy's best hope for an upset may rest with the vast difference in experience between the quarterbacks. Junior Keenan Reynolds is beginning his third season as a starter and owns a 15-6 record as the trigger man of the Midshipmen's patented triple-option offense. Ohio State redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has not played in a game since sustaining a season-ending leg injury early in his senior season at Rider High in Wichita Falls, Texas. Reynolds, on the other hand, set an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 31 in 2013.
BLOCKING WILL BE KEY: Opponents with strong defensive lines have given Navy trouble in the past and Ohio State has one of the nation's best. Senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett, who has 17 1/2 career tackles for loss, anchors the unit. Junior Noah Spence was named first team All-Big Ten last season and Joey Bosa returns after a solid freshman season. "Everything starts up front for us and we're going against one of the best defensive lines, if not the best, in the country. We better come ready to play or it could get ugly," Niumatalolo said.
CONTAINING THE TRIPLE: This will be the first time any member of Ohio State's defense has gone against a true triple-option opponent, and it will no doubt take time to adjust to the speed at which Navy executes. A year ago, the Midshipmen ranked second nationally in rushing average with 325.4 yards per game. "They're very, very good at what they do," said former Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, who watched Navy amass 342 total yards in the 2009 meeting. "They've run it for a long time and they're probably not going to make a mistake. The key for the defense is to not make any mistakes."
PHYSICAL TEST: Most college football fans associate spread offense with finesse teams that rely on a short to intermediate passing plays. Niumatalolo has told anyone who will listen that Ohio State is an extremely physical club that plays smash-mouth football. Ohio State left tackle Tayler Decker, who is 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds, will be going up against Navy defensive end Will Anthony (6-1, 246). Ezekiel Elliott (6-0, 225), who is expected to start at tailback for the Buckeyes, is bigger than most of the Midshipmen's linebackers. "There are all sorts of different variations of the spread. Some guys get in the gun and throw the ball around. These guys will hit you in the mouth. That's always been Urban Meyer's mentality," Niumatalolo said. "They're going to come off the football and punch you in the mouth, they're going to mash you."