When the Michigan football team takes the field against Army, it won’t be the first time defensive line coach Shaun Nua has patrolled the sideline across from the Black Knights.
Prior to a one-year stint at Arizona State in 2018, Nua spent six seasons in the same capacity at Navy. His Midshipmen defended their rivalry crown in his first four years, but it was never easy. Three of those wins were one-possession games in which the winner scored three touchdowns or fewer.
As Army improved — eventually even receiving AP votes — the rivalry’s tables turned. Nua lost his final two games to the Black Knights by a combined five points, leaving him with a sour taste in his mouth when he made the jump to the Sun Devils.
On Saturday afternoon, Nua has the chance to rid himself of that sour taste. Fittingly, much of that opportunity will ride on the performance of his own unit. If the Wolverines’ defensive line can make the plays necessary to keep Army in unfavorable down and distance situations, they’ll prevent the Black Knights from marching down the field with long, disciplined drives.
Much of Army’s strategy depends on exactly that. By keeping the ball on the ground, the Black Knights ensure opposing offenses stay on the sidelines as they tire out opposing defenses.
“We all know this offense — three yards is a win to them,” Nua said. “A first down is a win to them. There’s no secret in it. They know it, we know it. We’ve just got to get them off the field as fast as we can and get the ball to our offense.”
Michigan’s coaching staff has been preparing the defense to face such a game plan since the spring. The unconventional flexbone system has been a staple of Army for years, but only recently has the program developed the talent needed to succeed at the national level.
That talent has come in the form of productive running backs and quarterback Kelvin Hopkins Jr., who became the only player in school history to both rush and pass for over 1,000 in a single season last year.
“It’s a unique offense, something we don’t see every day,” Nua said. “It’s such a spread offensive world now, when you see the triple-option, it’s different. But other than that, it’s still football. You’ve got to get your 11 guys to do their assignments and get to the ball as hard as they can. … You still just want to win the down-and-distance situation. Slow or fast, that’s still the mission. Get them into third-and-long or fourth-and-long situations to get them off the field.”
Regardless of how well-prepared the Wolverines are for the run game, the Black Knights are still going to stick to their identity. In last week’s 14-7 win over Rice, they rushed 56 times while attempting just eight passes — even going for it on fourth-and-one at their own 25 yard line at one point.
While Saturday will be a Military Appreciation Game in Ann Arbor, a concept Nua is familiar with from his six years at Navy, he still knows there’s a task at hand — one that will feel all too familiar once he sees Army lining the opposite sideline.
“Any service academy, and time you have a young man there that’s ready to go and serve our country in the military, you always appreciate that,” Nua said. “But this is still the game of football. We’re trying to win.”