Navy looks to avoid letdown and upset versus Lehigh

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Lou Holtz was famous for pumping up inferior opponents while he was head coach at Notre Dame.

With a completely straight face, Holtz would tell the media assembled at his weekly press conference how worried he was about a 28-point underdog. Take for instance, the 1990 matchup with Navy when Notre Dame was ranked No. 2 in the country.

“I told our team this game is for a bowl game, and hopefully we can find a way to win on Saturday,” Holtz said. "You look at the film and you’re very impressed with the Naval Academy defense. Their defense can be the kind that disrupts your offense.”

Listening to Holtz, one would never have known Navy had a losing record and was coming off an embarrassing 16-7 upset at the hands of Division I-AA James Madison.

“They throw the ball and they know what they’re doing. The improvement they’ve made with the passing game has been more than remarkable,” Holtz said.

Of course, the Fighting Irish scored 52 points in beating the Midshipmen handily at The Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, that season.

Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo seemed to be taking a page out of the Holtz playbook this week when he discussed Saturday’s matchup with Lehigh, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.

“Lehigh is the two-time defending champion in the Patriot League and has won a ton of football games over the years,” Niumatalolo said. “Obviously, you don’t win that many games and that many conference championships without have a strong program with good coaches and talented players.”

Indeed, Lehigh has been one of the premier programs in the Patriot League, capturing five championships during the 12-year tenure of head coach Andy Coen. The Mountain Hawks are the two-time defending conference champs and have made a total of 14 NCAA playoff appearances.

Navy rebounded from an ugly 59-41 season-opening loss at Hawaii by upsetting Memphis, 22-21, last Saturday in an important meeting of top contenders in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference.

Niumatalolo was angry about the way Navy practiced this past Wednesday, believing the players were just going through the motions. The 11th-year head coach worried his troops had allowed last Saturday’s big victory to go to their heads and was miffed the Mids had already forgotten how poorly they played at Aloha Stadium on Sept. 1.

“We win one game by a point and you practice like this?” Niumatalolo yelled while giving the team a real tongue-lashing after practice.

Navy (1-1) will be a heavy favorite on Saturday when it hosts Lehigh (1-1), which has not played a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent since 2003. Niumatalolo did not think Wednesday’s sub-par practice performance was a case of taking the upcoming opponent lightly as much as players getting complacent.

“Really, I don’t think it has anything to do with Lehigh. It has to do with our players not bringing it today,” Niumatalolo added. “We can’t have that. We have to bring it every day. Lehigh is a really good football team and very capable of beating us.”

Navy has not lost to a Football Championship Subdivision opponent since getting upset by Delaware, 59-52, in 2007. The Blue Hens, who were led by current Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, wound up falling in the FCS championship game that season.

Niumatalolo, who is 9-0 against Football Championship Subdivision competition, believes the distinction between the two levels of competition is not as great as most fans think.

“Whether FBS or FCS, every team has good athletes, good coaches, good strength programs, good nutrition programs,” he said. “We’re the Naval Academy. We don’t act like we’re any better than anyone else. It would be very foolish for us to think any differently about who we are.”

Niumatalolo isn’t totally blowing smoke when it comes to talent level. Navy routinely recruits against FCS programs and you can beat there are a few players on the current roster who were offered scholarships by Patriot League schools.

“I’m hoping there isn’t a big gap in terms of athleticism. I think we’ve got some pretty good athletes here. I imagine some of our players might have been recruited by Navy to some extent,” Coen said. “I think we’ll see some players that are somewhat similar to what we have, albeit a bit bigger and stronger.”

Lehigh comes into the contest off a resounding 31-9 loss to Villanova, which is ranked No. 10 in the latest FCS Coaches Poll. Villanova is proof an FCS school can beat an AAC member, having stunned Temple 19-17 in the season opener.

However, last Saturday’s result shows the difference between the Patriot League and the top end of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). Colgate, which lost to Delaware in the 2003 final, is the only Patriot League school to ever advance past the second round of the FCS playoffs.

Navy is a member of the Patriot League in most of the other major sports such as basketball, lacrosse and soccer. That affiliation is the main reason why the Midshipmen began playing Patriot League schools in football, beating Colgate 48-10 in 2015 and Fordham 52-16 in 2016.

Coen knows the prospects of pulling a stunning is unlikely and is not talking in those terms this week. He simply wants the Mountain Hawks to savor the experience and improve while doing so.

“We’re excited as a football team. This is the first time we’ve had an opportunity to compete against an FBS school. Our players understand the challenge,” Coen said. “I’m looking to have our team show up and do the best we can. I want the team to have a good experience and continue to grow. What is most important to me is to see growth.”

This game was originally slated to be held the weekend before the rest of college football got underway. Coen said that would have been more conducive because Lehigh could have spent most of the preseason preparing for Navy’s patented triple-option.

“Obviously, trying to defend the triple-option is no small task and Navy is the best in the business at running that offense,” he said. “This was supposed to be the first game of the season, which would have been better. Now we only have a few days to get ready for it.”

Lehigh must find a way to slow down Navy quarterback Malcolm Perry, who has averaged 184 rushing yards in five career starts under center.

“Perry is a dynamic athlete and real dangerous with the ball in his hands. It will be tough to contain him,” Coen said.

Lehigh will be without standout tailback Dominick Bragalone, the Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year in 2017. Bragalone, a first team All-American a year ago, became the school’s all-time leading rusher during the season opener against St. Francis and now has 3,722 career yards.

Coen said Bragalone suffered a head injury versus Villanova and will be held out of Saturday’s game in Annapolis as a precaution.

“I feel really bad for Dominick that he will not get to play in this game and show what he can do against an FBS opponent,” said Coen, who is three wins shy of surpassing Bill Leckonby (1946-1961) as the all-time winningest head coach at the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania school.

Bragalone will be replaced in the starting lineup by talented freshman Rashawn Allen. Lehigh may lean more heavily on the passing ability of quarterback Brad Mayes, who was named first team All-Patriot League after throwing for 3,886 yards and 31 touchdowns last season.

“Brad is a very talented quarterback who can throw the ball a country mile,” Coen said. “I think Brad has developed himself into a quarterback who has great command of the offense.”

Coen highlighted linebacker Keith Woetzel, rover Divine Buckingham, strong safety Sam McCloskey and free safety Riley O’Neil as Lehigh’s top players on defense.

“Woetzel is very physical and very smart, a real leader of our defense. Divine can really run and pursue sideline-to-sideline,” he said. “Sam is a three-year captain and has developed into an outstanding tackler. Riley O’Neil is very aggressive and has a real nose for the football.”

Coen cited winning the turnover battle as critical to Lehigh’s chances of contending in this contest. If Navy takes care of the football and dominates possession it could be a long day.

“One thing we haven’t been great at so far is creating turnovers. That will be very important in this game,” Coen said. “We need to get some short fields. It’s going to be tough if we have to drive the length of the field.”

Coen admitted it would help if the Mids overlooked the Mountain Hawks with another important West Division matchup in the American looming the following Saturday at Southern Methodist University.

“You never know in games like this. Sometimes the FBS players view this as a lesser program and maybe take the game lightly,” he said. “If we can somehow keep things close into the fourth quarter that would certainly increase the pressure on Navy. Hopefully, we can scare them a little bit.”

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