HOUSTON – Navy’s coaching staff goes through the ritual every week.
After each game, head coach Ken Niumatalolo has a member of the video staff send certain clips into the American Athletic Conference office for review. Contained on the tape are plays that did or did not result in penalties, prompting Niumatalolo to seek clarification from the conference office.
Too many times this season, American Coordinator of Officiating Terry McAulay has informed Niumatalolo that certain calls were wrong or that non-calls should have been made. It happened last week and will likely happen again this week. Niumatalolo is sick and tired of the situation and vented his frustration following Friday’s 24-14 loss to Houston.
Niumatalolo was upset that Navy linebacker Taylor Heflin was flagged for targeting during a crucial juncture of the third quarter. Heflin definitely drilled Houston wide receiver Linell Bonner in the upper body and it may have looked like a dangerous blow.
Bonner was shaken up on the play and officials immediately threw a flag. All targeting calls are always subject to replay review and Niumatalolo was certain the initial call would be changed.
“You could see on the big screen that Tyler hit him on the shoulder. I was like ‘Sweet, it’s going to be overturned.’ I mean, it was right up there the size of a billboard to see,” said Niumatalolo, who watched the replay on the giant video scoreboard located in the end zone.
Needless to say, Niumatalolo was shocked when referee Charles Lamertina announced that the ruling on the field had been upheld. In fact, the 10th-year head coach was so incredulous he had to assume the play was not actually reviewed.
“If I’m going to be honest, I don’t think they even looked. I think our league covers itself,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy sent in several plays to the AAC office for review following last Saturday’s loss to Notre Dame. McAulay reported back that Niumatalolo and staff were correct in their assessment about what should or should not have been called on each.
“Terry tells me on Monday that they’re wrong. Last week, I turned in three calls and on all three of them we were right,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m tired of getting the thing on Monday saying we were right. That doesn’t do us any good.”
Last Saturday, Navy coaches felt Notre Dame got away with blocking downfield before a pass was thrown to wide receiver Kevin Stepherson. Niumatalolo said the same official that failed to make that call is the one that tossed the flag on Heflin this week.
“It was the same guy last week against Notre Dame. I told him ‘that’s a penalty’ and he said ‘no it’s not.’ I said I bet it’s a penalty on Monday. I turned it in and sure enough I was right,” Niumatalolo said. “I saw him again out there today and he was the same guy who called targeting. So that’s two calls that he’s killed us.”
Niumatalolo is normally very careful not to criticize the officiating crew in public, knowing it is against the American Athletic Conference rules to do so. However, the Navy head coach could bite his tongue no longer after having another critical decision go against his team.
“I know I’m going to get reprimanded, but I’m tired of this. Nobody holds those guys accountable,” Niumatalolo said.
OFFENSIVE STRUGGLES: Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper predicted that Houston would line up in an even front, and he was right. The Cougars occasionally switched to an odd front, but for the most part had four defenders along the line of scrimmage.
Jasper had deduced the likely Houston alignment from watching tape of games in which Houston defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio had faced option opponents. D’Onofrio schemed against Navy four times while at Temple and defended Georgia Tech five times while at Miami.
So Jasper crafted a game-plan to go against the defensive strategy he anticipated and the Midshipmen were well prepared as a result. Quarterback Zach Abey was on point as Navy marched up and down the field during the first half, amassing 212 total yards.
Unfortunately for the Midshipmen, they only had 14 points to show for it – having come up empty on three different trips into enemy territory. Kicker Bennett Moehring missed a 40-yard field goal attempt while Abey was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-one from the 2-yard line.
One would think D’Onofrio would make some adjustments at halftime, but he didn’t. Houston came out in the second half and played the exact same defense it did before intermission. The Cougars simply performed their assignments better and tackled better in the second half.
“Those guys got after us. We had to earn every yard today. They played sound and weren’t going to give up anything cheap,” Jasper said. “We had some chances to execute and didn’t get it done. Obviously, we would have loved to have played better. I didn’t do a good job today.”
Navy did nothing on offense during the second half, picking up just six first downs and gaining only 79 yards in being shut out. The Midshipmen were forced to punt on four straight possessions then had their fifth and final possession end with an interception.
Sophomore slotback Malcolm Perry, who led Navy in rushing with 82 yards on 15 carries, said Houston played the exact type of defense the coaching staff expected.
“It was really nothing we hadn’t seen all week. It was what we practiced for all week. We just had to come out and execute and we didn’t do that,” Perry said. “We made some plays in the first half and didn’t put enough points on the board. In the second half, we just didn’t execute.”
Navy has become accustomed to moving the ball effectively against any defense. The Midshipmen are famous for making adjustments over a course of a game to counteract whatever the opposition is doing.
That is what made the second half of Friday’s loss so surprising. An offense that normally gets stronger as the game goes along just fizzled.
“It’s definitely hard to stomach. That’s not Navy football. That’s not our culture, that’s now how we play, that’s not how we win,” Perry said. “We have to go back to the drawing board and fix it.”
Navy’s opening drive of the third quarter was derailed by three straight negative plays. Fullback Chris High was thrown for a 1-yard loss on first down as Abey may have made a bad read. Slotback John Brown III also lost a yard on second down off a pitch play that was blown up. Abey was then sacked as the Cougars blitzed on third-and-12.
It was a similar story on the second possession as Abey lost a yard on an option keeper then was sacked to set up third-and-13. A rollout play did not work as Abey’s pass was tipped and fell way short of intended receiver Tyler Carmona.
The Mids faced third-and-three on its third possession and Abey was stopped for no gain on an option keeper. Navy could not convert when it counted on its fourth possession as well with Houston sniffing out a reverse and dropping wide receiver Craig Scott for a loss of five.
“You want to stay on schedule down and distance wise. Second and nine is not where we want to be. We don’t want negative plays,” Jasper said. “When those happen, it’s on me. I have to call plays in which we’re going forward, not lateral or backward.”
Not many opponents have shut down Navy’s patented triple-option offense for the better part of the past 15 years. It has happened more often than usual this season because of a combination of sound defensive strategies and self-inflicted wounds by the Mids.
Navy’s offense hurt itself with penalties again in this game as a chop block short-circuited a first half drive into Houston territory while a pair of false starts marred second half possessions.
“I just didn’t do a good job. In the overall scheme of things, I’m just not preparing these guys the way I need to,” Jasper said. “I’ve looked at a lot of things to figure out what we’re doing wrong in these losses. Something’s not right and it falls back to me. Play-calling is not as smooth as it needs to be. I’m just not calling the right plays. That’s what it comes down to.”
INJURY REPORT: Navy did not announce its starting quarterback this week with Niumatalolo stating it would be a game-time decision.
It turns out that injuries played a part in the direction the coaching staff elected to go. Zach Abey got the start, largely because Malcolm Perry was needed more at slotback. Freshman Keoni-Kordell Makekau did not dress for the game due to a concussion suffered against Notre Dame. Meanwhile, starter Josh Brown was questionable after also getting hurt last Saturday.
Starting outside linebacker Jerry Thompson sustained a season-ending injury against Notre Dame, undergoing surgery to repair a broken arm this past week. Backup cornerback Micah Farrar sat out the Houston contest with an undisclosed ailment.
Justin Norton started in place of Thompson at the outside linebacker position known as striker. Sophomore Elan Nash served as the backup at that spot and had a solid game with four tackles.
Navy lost both starting cornerbacks in short order during the second half of Friday’s game. Tyris Wooten went down midway through the third quarter after being shaken up on a pass play. Elijah Merchant was lost one possession later after absorbing a hard body blow while making a tackle.
Junior Khaylan Williams replaced Wooten while sophomore Noruwa Obanor filled in for Merchant. Junior Elijah Jones also saw time on the outside. Houston hit several big pass plays in the second half as its wide receivers were working against the backups.
“Losing our top corners definitely did not help us, especially against those guys. They’re so athletic, so fast,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s part of the game. People get hurt.”