First-year Florida Atlantic coach Carl Pelinia views Navy's football program as a model for what he wants to build in Boca Raton.
"Navy embodies so much of what I believe in," Pelini said. "The discipline, structure, character, leadership — those all the type of traits I am trying to instill in our players."
Pelini and the Owls will get a firsthand look at the Midshipmen on Saturday when the teams meet for the first time. Navy (5-3) has won four in a row and can become bowl eligible with a win over Florida Atlantic (2-6).
Pelini wants to turn Florida Atlantic's program around the way Navy has been able to do.
Navy underwent a culture change in 2002.
Paul Johnson took over as head coach of a program that had compiled a 1-20 record the previous two seasons. One year later, the Midshipmen went 8-5 and made their first bowl appearance since 1996. That began a string of eight straight winning seasons capped by bowl berths.
Johnson left Navy for Georgia Tech and turned the head coaching reins over to top assistant Ken Niumatalolo, who directed the Midshipmen to three winning seasons before the streak ended last year.
"I have a lot of respect for what Navy has been able to accomplish. That has been one of the most consistent programs in the country," said Pelini, who came to Florida Atlantic after serving as defensive coordinator at Nebraska under younger brother Bo Pelini.
To pull off an upset, Florida Atlantic must stop Navy's triple-option offense. Freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been outstanding since taking control of an attack that ranks sixth nationally in rushing offense (271.1 yards per game).
Senior slotback Gee Gee Greene has been the most dangerous weapon for Navy with team-highs of 511 yards rushing and 203 yards receiving. Reynolds, who can become the first Navy quarterback since Bob Powers (1979) to win his first four career starts, has completed 64 percent of passes for 413 yards and six touchdowns.
"This is a huge litmus test for our defense. Do we have the discipline and focus to face an offense like this for down after down," Pelini said. "It's a unique challenge for us because you need to have your eyes in the right place, read your keys and play your assignment. Those are all things, quite frankly, that we've been struggling with this season."
Stopping opponents has been an issue for Florida Atlantic, which is allowing an average of 31.1 points and 413 total yards. The Owls haven't been much better on the other side of the ball, ranking 103rd out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total offense (325.1 yards) and 111th in scoring offense (18.4 points).
Graham Wilbert has thrown for 1,570 yards and 12 touchdowns to lead Florida Atlantic, which usually operates out of a shotgun formation with one setback and either three wide receivers or two tight ends.
"They do a good job of using a lot of formations and spreading you out," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "The quarterback has good size, a strong arm and can really throw the ball. Their wide receivers have beaten everybody deep, but what has really impressed me is that they have big tight ends that can really run. They are like oversized wide receivers that get downfield and can make tough catches."
Niumatalolo is tied with predecessor Paul Johnson for most wins in the first five seasons as head coach at Navy. A victory Saturday would be No. 38 for Niumatalolo, who would move into a fourth place tie with Wayne Hardin (1959-1964) on the school's career list. Niumatalolo is more concerned with the Midshipmen earning their sixth win to earn a berth in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 29.
"Obviously, that would be monumental for us. That would enable us to accomplish one of our goals," Niumatalolo said. "Two of our main goals are capturing the Commander-in-Chief and winning a bowl game."