A year after finishing 2-10, the Virginia Cavaliers are in a bowl game for the first time since 2011. The Cavaliers are trying to win their first bowl game since 2005 when they go up against the Navy Midshipmen in the Military Bowl. The game will be played on the service academy’s home field, Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Maryland.
Navy (6-6) is coming off a disappointing finish to its regular season as the Midshipmen lost their last three games – Notre Dame, Houston and Army. Of course it’s the loss to the Black Knights that strings the most as it was their second in as many years. On the positive side, Navy has been to a bowl game in 13 of the last 14 seasons.
That’s not the case for Virginia (6-6), who is in the postseason for the first time in five years. The Cavaliers jumped out to a 5-1 start, including a road victory over Boise State before stumbling down the stretch. Virginia lost five of its last six games, including three in a row to Louisville, Miami and were shut out 10-0 by archrival Virginia Tech in Charlottesville.
This will be the 39th meeting between these two teams. Virginia has won the last five games, but hasn’t played Navy since 1994.
Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman: Virginia at Navy
Kickoff: Thursday, Dec. 28 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (Annapolis, Md.)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Navy -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Kurt Benkert
Benkert has put together a strong senior season. Through 12 games, he has thrown for 3,062 yards, 25 touchdowns and just eight interceptions. He is tied with three others for first in the ACC with those 25 TD tosses. Benkert was the x-factor in stunning road upset of Boise State and helping the Cavaliers beat North Carolina, Duke and Georgia Tech in conference play. He also single-handedly kept UVA in the game down in Miami in late November, in which he threw for 384 yards and a season-best four touchdowns.
Navy enters this game ranked near the middle of the pack in the FBS in both total defense (386.6 ypg, 59th) and passing defense (221.7 ypg, 61st). Barring a bunch of mistakes, Benkert should be able to move the ball and score some points against the Midshipmen.
2. Navy offense
The Midshipmen’s unique offensive system is well known across the college football landscape, but that doesn’t help teams prepare to play against it. And even those teams that do face Navy on a regular basis have trouble slowing down the Midshipmen’s productive triple-option attack.
Through 12 games, Navy has averaged 426.8 yards per game, good for 42nd in the nation. Of course, its strength is running the football, something the Midshipmen have done better than all but one FBS team this season. Ironically enough, Army is the only team that has run for more yards than Navy, who is averaging a robust 343 on the ground per game.
What may help Virginia is that ACC Coastal Division rival Georgia Tech runs a similar style of offense. However, it doesn’t change the fact that the Cavaliers have actually fared worse than the Midshipmen against the run this season, giving up 178.3 yards per game on the ground (Navy’s at 164.9). That includes the 220 rushing yards (and three TDs) Virginia surrendered to the Yellow Jackets in a 40-36 win in early November.
3. Virginia’s star power on defense
Despite the Cavaliers’ issues on defense, that side of the ball still features two of the most underrated players in the nation.
Middle linebacker Micah Kiser and safety Quin Blanding both were named first-team All-ACC and are currently first and second in the conference in tackles. Kiser’s 134 tackles place him seventh in the country, while Blanding’s 121 helped him surpass Jamie Sharper as Virginia’s all-time tackler.
Kiser also has 9.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and two fumble recoveries to his credit, while Blanding has recorded four interceptions thus far. If the Cavaliers are going to have any success in slowing down Navy’s prolific ground attack, those efforts will start and likely end with Kiser and Blanding.
Both Virginia and Navy would love to finish with a winning record and end their seasons on a high note. The Cavaliers’ experience against the Yellow Jackets from earlier this season should help them against the Midshipmen’s triple-option offense.
Kurt Benkert gives Virginia a sizeable edge at quarterback and could be the difference-maker, but his offensive line will need to give him enough time to throw the ball. Navy’s defense didn’t exactly shut opponents down, but it often didn’t have to because of its offense.
The Cavaliers have struggled to run the ball consistently as they rank 125th out of 129 FBS teams in rushing offense (67.8 ypg). However, expect them to test the Midshipmen defense and use the run to set up Benkert and the passing game.
While this should be a close game, look for Virginia to make enough stops on defense to come out victorious on Navy’s home field.
Prediction: Virginia 31, Navy 23
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, the Miami Herald and the Palm Beach Post and is a reporter for Pro Player Insiders. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.