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Cincinnati readies for Navy triple-option in AAC clash

(AP Photo/Tony Ding, File)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) Navy and Cincinnati will meet for the first time Saturday since 1956, yet both coaching staffs are quite familiar with each other.

Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell previously served as defensive coordinator at Ohio State and faced Navy twice - in Columbus to open the 2009 season and in Baltimore in 2014.

In each instance, Fickell had the entire preseason to practice for Navy's unique triple-option. Knowing how difficult it is to prepare for the tricky attack, Cincinnati's first-year coach built an option period into practices this August.

Fickell said the Bearcats began the Navy week with a firm grasp on the defensive game-plan.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper can only guess what type of defense Cincinnati will employ. They previously guessed wrong this season when preparing for Florida Atlantic and Tulane, both of which lined up differently than expected.

"They have guys on their staff that have gone against the option," Niumatalolo said. "What are they going to do? I don't know. You have to get ready for all of it."

Here are some things to look for when the Bearcats (2-1) and Midshipmen (2-0) square off in an American Athletic Conference clash at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

LAST WEEK: Navy had an early bye week, taking off after playing just two games. That is not an ideal situation, but Niumatalolo wasn't complaining.

"I try not to make too big of a deal because I don't want it to be an excuse. Whenever that week off comes, we try to use it to the best of our advantage," Niumatalolo said.

Cincinnati is coming off a stunning come-from-behind victory over Miami-Ohio. The Bearcats scored 15 points in the final three minutes to shock the RedHawks 21-17.

"It's an incredible program win," Fickell said afterward. "To put yourself behind the eight-ball a little bit like we did and see the guys continue to fight and scratch and claw, there was no give-up in that."

BACK TO THE BASICS: Navy normally ranks among the national leaders in turnover margin. Through two games this season, the Midshipmen have committed four turnovers and created only two.

"We have to take care of the football," Niumatalolo said. "Ball security is something we pride ourselves on. We're very, very fortunate to be 2-0 right now with all the turnovers we've had."

Quarterback Zach Abey, who leads Navy with 343 rushing yards on 61 attempts, has been responsible for three fumbles, one of which was recovered by Navy.

INJURY REPORT: Navy lost backup fullback Josh Walker (knee) and starting slotback Darryl Bonner (ankle) during the Tulane game. Niumatalolo said Walker will be out for several weeks and listed Bonner as doubtful for Saturday.

Walker had proven to be an ideal change-of-pace to starting fullback Chris High, a powerful and bruising inside runner. A converted slotback, Walker has more speed and showed it while breaking loose for a 48-yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic.

Bonner is Navy's most versatile slotback, a dangerous weapon in both the running and passing game. He had three receptions for 92 yards and a touchdown through two games.

Cincinnati starting running back Mike Boone sat out the Miami-Ohio game with an ankle injury and is questionable for Saturday. Boone leads the Bearcats in rushing with 144 yards on 31 attempts.

Also, Bearcats linebacker Perry Young must sit out the first half while serving a suspension for targeting.

CHANGE IN PHILOSOPHY: Cincinnati employed a wide-open, fast-paced passing offense under previous head coach Tommy Tuberville. The Bearcats are more of a methodical, control-the-clock running team under Fickell.

"As a program, we've got to have a philosophy. We can't just go up-tempo and go 100 snaps a game when that doesn't fit what we do best," Fickell said. "The ability to have balance and mix it up is where we know we want to be."

Quarterback Hayden Moore is attempting to become more of a game manager. Moore, who passed for almost 1,800 yards last season, has been told not to be too aggressive in terms of throwing downfield or into traffic.

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Updated September 22, 2017

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