UM defensive line coach Shaun Nua says the team understands the challenges of facing Army's triple option. Angelique S. Chengelis, The Detroit News
Ann Arbor — Michigan defensive line coach Shaun Nua does not appear to be a guy who minces words much, especially when it comes to his feelings about Army.
The seventh-ranked Wolverines face Army for the first time since 1962 at Michigan Stadium on Saturday, and while the Michigan players and coaches hold the Black Knights in great esteem, Nua can only take that so far.
“I never liked Army,” Nua said smiling — sort of — this week.
Here’s some context. Nua was an assistant coach at Navy from 2012-17, and if you think Michigan-Michigan State and Michigan-Ohio State are heated, Army-Navy has its own special tier in college football rivalries.
“The motivation’s still the same,” Nua said. “You want to give our players and Michigan the best chance to win, not because I hate Army because I was at Navy – that’s a personal thing. We want to win every game the same way.”
It is always tricky for defenses to prepare for the service academy teams. Army will test the Wolverines’ discipline with its triple option, for which Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown has been preparing since the spring. And for good reason. Army coach Jeff Monken has the Black Knights rolling. They were 11-2 last season and ranked No. 19 in the AP and were 10-3 in 2017.
Army led the nation in third-down (122-of-196) and fourth-down (31-of-36) conversions last season — the Black Knights converted a fourth down in 11-of-13 games last season. They finished the 2018 season averaging 312.6 rushing yards a game, second behind Georgia Tech. They attempted 98 passes last year and in the season-opening win against Rice last week was 3-of-8 passing.
“Everybody knows Army is a triple option, they like to run the ball all four downs,” Michigan defensive end Mike Danna said Tuesday. “We’re repping that out every single day for a reason. Everybody stick to their jobs, there’s no reason why we can’t have the same outcome we had last week.”
Nua has attempted to demystify the threat of the triple option this week in practice.
“It’s a unique offense, not something we see every day,” he said. “It’s just different. But other than that, it’s still football. You still got to get 11 guys to do their assignment and get to the ball as hard as they can.”
Just ask Oklahoma how tough it is to play Army. Last season, the No. 4 Sooners needed a 10-yard touchdown pass from Kyler Murray to CeeDee Lamb in overtime to pull off a 28-21 victory over the Black Knights. In the Armed Forces Bowl, Army walloped Houston, 70-14.
Brown has seen plenty of triple option, as has Nua, who said the staff pooled their knowledge in preparation for Army and translated it to the team.
“Really, just understanding your job, understanding where you’re supposed to be, when you’re supposed to be there and who has whoever is on the field,” Danna said, explaining the task at hand. “One guy has the back, one guy has the QB, so it’s just being at the right place at the right time.”
The Wolverines have a level of respect for every opponent, but it gets taken up a notch when they face the service academies. Their players are also training for military service, while juggling school and football.
“You’ve got a lot of respect for everything they do, and all the service academies,” said Michigan backup quarterback Dylan McCaffrey. "I grew up (in Colorado) right around the Air Force Academy. It’s definitely a different lifestyle. My best friend plays there, and I hear everything he says. You respect that. You know how hard those guys work. Definitely come Saturday it’s a football game, but it’s not a hatred by any means. Those guys grind every day, and you’ve got to respect that.
“It’s tough. They’ve got to handle military training, as well as going to one of the best schools in the country and on top of football – that’s a lot. That stresses me out even thinking about it.”
Nua, having coached at Navy, knows the responsibilities of every player. And he also knows that on Saturdays, it’s about the game at hand.
“Any service academy, any time you have a young man that’s getting ready to serve in the military for our country, you always appreciate that,” Nua said. “This is still the game of football. We’re trying to win.”
Michigan vs. Army
Kickoff: Saturday, noon, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
TV/radio: Fox/950 AM
Records: Both teams 1-0
Line: Michigan by 23