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SAN DIEGO (AP) - The Poinsettia Bowl between Navy and Utah on Thursday night could come down to whoever can play keep-away the best.
Already beaten once this year by a service academy and its perplexing offense, Utah knows it will have its hands full trying to stop Navy's potent triple-option that's run by a quarterback with double hyphens, Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada.
Ditto for Navy, which will try to stop Utah's spread option with a defense that came close to blowing out scoreboards around the country by allowing at least 30 points a whopping eight times this season. In the span of three games, the Midshipmen lost 59-52 to Delaware, beat Notre Dame 46-44 in three overtimes — their first win against the Fighting Irish in 44 years — and won 74-62 at North Texas in the highest-scoring game in major-college history.
Utah is favored in the matchup of teams that finished 8-4. Navy's Ken Niumatalolo will be making his head coaching debut, having been promoted from assistant head coach and offensive line coach after Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech.
"Navy's been involved in a lot of shootouts this year. Most of their games have been tremendous scores," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. "The best way to defend their offense is to keep it on the sideline, keep our offense moving the chains and not turn it over. The best defense against a team like this is to keep that option offense grounded on the sideline."
Utah faces the option every year when it plays Mountain West Conference rival Air Force. But the Utes lost to Air Force this year, allowing 334 rushing yards, and Whittingham said it's tough trying to emulate the option in practice.
"Anytime you have the quarterback run game as the viable option, which obviously the triple option they employ has available, you've got to play what we call 1-11 defense," he said. "All 11 guys have their one job to do. It's assignment football. Any breakdown in those assignments and the ball's out of the gate for a big gain."
Navy leads the nation in rushing at 351.5 yards per game and is eighth in scoring offense at 39.9 points.
Seven Midshipmen have rushed for more than 450 yards, led by Kaheaku-Enhada with 782 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also thrown for six touchdowns.
What makes the Middies so efficient, Whittingham said, is their discipline and execution.
"The biggest problem we have is duplicating that in practice. We can duplicate schemes, who's got the pitch, who's got the dive, but the speed at which we see it in practice is nowhere near the speed we're going to see it tomorrow night. So that's going to be an adjustment period for our defense, particularly in the first couple of series trying to get used to the speed that that thing's coming at us."
That's precisely the kind of headache Navy tries to give an opponent.
"We always go with that mentality," Niumatalolo said. "If we can jump out on people early before they pick up on the speed of it, hopefully we'll have a lead and we can kind of minimize their possessions.
"A lot of what we do is we try to keep the ball away from their offense. We're patient in what we do. We don't care. Three yards for us is good. Four yards for us is good. We'll continue to eat the clock and hopefully have a time of possession advantage so that Brian Johnson isn't on the field and they aren't giving the ball to Darrell Mack and we can keep the ball in our hands."
Johnson has thrown for 1,621 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Mack, who grew up in the San Diego area, has rushed for 1,128 yards and 10 TDs.
Utah is making its fifth straight bowl appearance and has won its last six bowl games dating to 1999, the second-longest streak in the country.
The Utes have held five of their last seven opponents to less than 100 yards rushing, allowing just 84.3 yards per game.
Navy is also making its fifth straight bowl appearance. It won the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl in 2005, beating Colorado State 51-30.
Navy beat Notre Dame on Nov. 3. The Midshipmen routed Army 38-3 on Saturday, their unprecedented sixth straight win in the big rivalry.
"We've got some confidence, "Niumatalolo said. "Hopefully, we can carry it on to this bowl game."
The Poinsettia Bowl is sponsored by the San Diego County Credit Union.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)