No. 22 Navy can edge closer to a spot in the American Athletic Conference title game with a win against South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on Friday.
The Midshipmen (5-1, 4-0) are the only remaining undefeated team in AAC play and sit atop the West Division with four league games remaining. South Florida suffered its first league setback last week against Temple and dropped to second place behind the Owls in the East Division.
Navy has been dominant with its triple-option attack, led by senior quarterback Will Worth. However, Midshipmen coach Ken Niumatalolo is wary of the Bulls, who are scoring a league-best 42.4 points per game.
"It's another highly explosive offense, another tough challenge for our defense," Niumatalolo said. "They spread you out with a lot of different formations and stretch you vertically and horizontally."
South Florida (6-2, 3-1) is looking to bounce back from the disappointing 46-30 loss to Temple. The setback not only knocked the Bulls from first-place, it also ended a nine-game winning streak against their AAC division opponents.
Navy and its high-powered offense could pose an even bigger challenge.
"We really didn't do much of anything right. In every aspect, we did something wrong," Bulls coach Willie Taggart said about the loss to Temple. "You just can't play that way against a good team on the road and expect to win."
The Bulls do have enough talent on offense to get into a shootout with Navy. South Florida quarterback Quinton Flowers has been one of the most dominant players in the AAC and has completed 117 of his 200 pass attempts for 1,722 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. He is also the team's leading rusher with 745 yards and eight touchdowns on 108 carries.
Navy has spent time at practice this week preparing for the multi-faceted Flowers.
"Flowers is a bigger kid and maybe a more powerful runner, but they are very similar," Niumatalolo said. "Whenever the quarterback is able to carry the football it presents some problems. He has great running ability and a strong arm. He throws a really good deep ball."
South Florida wide receiver Rodney Adams is one of Flowers' favorite targets and he has 34 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns. Adams also has had some success against Navy, returning a kickoff for a touchdown in the Bulls' 29-17 loss in Annapolis last year.
Flowers also likes to throw to D'Ernest Johnson, who has 18 catches for 171 yards and four touchdowns, while rushing for 321 yards and four touchdowns on 59 carries. Marlon Mack is the primary running back for the Bulls with 659 yards rushing on 97 carries with 10 touchdowns.
The Bulls will face a stern challenge from the Navy defense, which has forced at least one turnover in 24 of the last 26 games, including in five of six games this year. The Midshipmen are 5-0 when the defense creates a turnover.
On offense, Navy will look to run the ball against the Bulls, who have given up huge chunks of yards in their two losses. In the loss to Temple, South Florida allowed 319 rushing yards. Florida State ran for 478 yards in its 55-35 victory over the Bulls on Sept. 24.
"In both losses we didn't stop the run and couldn't get off the field," Taggart said. "We have a ranked Navy team coming in here that is going to run the ball so we have another tough challenge ahead of us."
Navy averages 293.2 rushing yards per game. Last week in a 42-28 victory over Memphis, the Midshipmen had 447 rushing yards. Worth ran for a career-high 201 yards and three touchdowns on 31 carries. He also completed three of his four pass attempts for 85 yards with two touchdowns and was named the AAC Offensive Player of the Week.
Worth has now scored a touchdown in every game this year and leads the Midshipmen with nine rushing scores on the season. Not bad for a quarterback who is only starting because of a season-ending knee injury to Tago Smith.
"I thought Will could run our offense, but he's playing a lot better than I thought he would," Niumatalolo said.