Shaun Nua remembers the last time he beat Army. That December day in Philadelphia four years ago, Nua was on the sidelines, coaching defensive line at Navy — the Black Knights’ fiercest rival. The Midshipmen finished with eight tackles for loss and three sacks in rivalry win number four for Nua, now Michigan’s defensive line coach. Together, those four victories were Nua’s favorite rivalry moments.
But Army won the next two years — Nua’s last two. His final taste of the rivalry was a heartbreaking, 14-13 loss in 2017 when, with snow swirling all around, Navy’s kicker missed a field goal on the last play.
Nua left the next year for Arizona State, but it would only be two years before he got another shot at the Black Knights, albeit with the Wolverines. With him, Nua brings years of experience teaching players how to defend the triple option — the unique offense that is Army’s calling card.
Addressing reporters Wednesday, Nua was careful to point out that he’s far from the only one on Michigan’s staff who has experience with the triple option. Offensive line coach Ed Warinner spent 12 years with the Black Knights, including two years as their offensive coordinator in 1998-99. Defensive coordinator Don Brown has seen it plenty of times, including in 2017, when he coached the Wolverines to an easy win over Air Force.
A few defensive players still remain who started that game — safety Josh Metellus, viper Khaleke Hudson and defensive back Lavert Hill — with several others playing at some point. All the experience, from the staff down to the backfield, only helps.
“We’ve definitely been working on Army since the spring,” said junior safety Brad Hawkins, who also saw the field during the 2017 game. “Definitely started doing it more during camp as well, but we’re definitely gonna be prepared for Army. … (It’s) gonna give us a challenge. But if we play Michigan defense, we run to the ball, we tackle well, we should be perfectly fine.”
When asked his main key, Nua preferred to keep it simple.
“Don’t let them run the ball,” he said.
That’s a near impossibility for a team with an offense that’s designed to always run the ball. But there are ways to keep a team like that contained: hold them to short yardage and force them into third- and fourth-and-longs.
Against the triple option, you must prepare to play four downs instead of three. Nua pointed out that the Black Knights went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 25 against Rice — a notion so ridiculous for any other team that it elicited laughs from the reporters in attendance. But without the threat of a downfield shot, Nua and the players alike noted that if they stay disciplined, they should be just fine. After all, this has been one of the most elite defenses in the country for the past four years, and that goes the same against any type of offense.
“It’s a unique offense, it’s something that we don’t see every day,” Nua said. “It’s such a spread offensive world that you see the triple option, it’s just different, but other than that, it's still football. You still gotta get 11 guys to do their assignment and get to the ball as hard as they can.”
In an era when most Power Five teams do everything they can to avoid scheduling service academies due to their unique style and discipline, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh likes to play them just for the fun of it.
But with experienced players and coaches and Nua’s requisite distaste for an old rival, it’s a challenge the Wolverines believe they are well equipped to handle.
“I never liked Army, but the motivation’s still the same,” Nua said. “You want to give our players and Michigan the best chance to win, not because I hate Army because I was at Navy, that’s a personal thing, but you want to win every game the same way.”