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Navy looks to bounce back from devastating defeat

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

For Navy football fans, what happened last weekend in Colorado Springs was alarming.

Air Force absolutely hammered Navy, 35-7, in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series. For the Falcons, it was their most lopsided defeat of the Midshipmen since 2002 when they won at home by a score of 48-7.

That result was not so surprising because Navy was terrible at the time, in the midst of a three-year stretch when it compiled a 3-30 record.

Frankly, most observers thought the Navy program was well past the point when it could possibly lose to a fellow service academy in such convincing fashion. After all, the Midshipmen have built a steady, consistent program that has posted winning records in 14 of the last 15 seasons.

Saturday’s matchup with Temple (3-3, 2-0) marks the midway point of the season and Navy (2-3, 1-1) certainly finds itself at a crossroads. The Midshipmen are riding a two-game losing streak and desperately need to turn things around in a hurry in order to keep alive hopes for a winning season and bowl berth.

Even head coach Ken Niumatalolo acknowledged the situation is dire, stating after the Air Force loss that he was “very concerned” because Navy is “not playing very well right now.”

Niumatalolo is in his 11th season as head coach and 21st overall with the program. There have been bad losses during that span and Navy has almost always managed to right the ship. In fact, the Midshipmen have a history of following devastating defeats with uplifting victories.

It most recently happened last year after Navy absorbed a heartbreaking 14-13 loss to archrival Army in the regular season finale. Niumatalolo made some changes to the practice routine and pushed a few other right buttons and Navy rebounded to blowout Virginia, 49-7, in the Military Bowl.

In 2016, Navy lost at Air Force then bounced back to upset nationally-ranked Houston in what remains one of its biggest wins in American Athletic Conference play.

It is tough times like these when it helps to have a veteran coaching staff and Niumatalolo is blessed to have seven assistants who have been with the program for 11 years or more.

“We just have to keep grinding. There is no magic wand on this stuff. We just have to go back to work. Our staff has been together a long time and that has always been our approach,” Niumatalolo said. “We can’t panic. We just have to be really humble and self-critical and look at where we made mistakes. So the message is: Don’t panic, keep working, be humble and find a way to move on.”

Navy’s offense struggled during the back-to-back losses to SMU and Air Force. The Midshipmen have been somewhat one-dimensional with quarterback Malcolm Perry taking the bulk of carries. Balance has always been a hallmark of the triple-option offense, but the fullbacks and slotbacks have not been involved nearly as much as years past.

Niumatalolo rejected the notion of moving Perry back to slotback and installing Garret Lewis as the starting quarterback. He said quarterback play was far from the only issue with the offense at the moment and noted the Mids must get better across the board.

Hearing fans and media wonder aloud whether the coaching staff has considered personnel changes or schematic alterations amused Niumatalolo, who said the coaching staff is constantly discussing ways to improve the team.

“That’s what we do all day. It’s not like we come in there and watch Family Feud or put on the Price is Right at 10 o’clock. There are intricate things we talk about every day,” Niumatalolo said. “People ask if we’re going to coach harder now. They don’t realize it’s a commando raid every day. I don’t know how to coach harder than I already do. If things aren’t going well you have to try to change. You have to look at personnel and schemes and how you’re coaching.”

Niumatalolo responded similarly when asked during the American Athletic Conference weekly teleconference if the coaching staff would conduct a summit session in the wake of the resounding loss to Air Force.

“I think every week is a summit. Every week you make changes and figure out how you can get better. You’re always trying to improve. That’s what you do week by week,” he said. “We’re at the Naval Academy. There is no margin of error. You have to scrutinize everything week in and week out. You have to coach with your hair on fire and with a great sense of urgency.”

Faced with a situation in which it desperately needs a bounce-back win, Navy would rather not have seen Temple next on the schedule. The Owls have won the last two meetings between the schools while defending the triple-option quite well.

Temple held Navy to 136 rushing yards on a whopping 52 attempts in last season’s meeting at Lincoln Financial Field. Starting quarterback Zach Abey was swarmed by multiple defenders as he tried to pound the ball up the middle, managing only 60 yards on 25 carries.

Two years ago, in the AAC Championship game, the Mids mustered just 168 rushing yards against a powerful defense that featured several future NFL players such as Haason Reddick (Arizona Cardinals) and Tavon Young (Baltimore Ravens).

Niumatalolo noted that Temple’s defense handled the option in consecutive seasons while being led by two different staffs. Matt Rhule was the head coach in 2016 before being hired away by Baylor and replaced by Geoff Collins.

“They’ve had a really good plan and played it well. You have good coaches that know what they’re doing with really physical players,” Niumatalolo said. “I would not have needed to watch film on (Temple) to know how physical they are. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the last two games against this team in-person with my own two eyes.”

Niumatalolo said there has been particular emphasis on physicality this week with running game coordinator Ashley Ingram challenging the offensive line to come off the ball hard and win the line of scrimmage.

“We didn’t play very physical against Air Force. Now we’re going against a team that beat the crap out of us the past two seasons,” Niumatalolo said. “Unfortunately, you get your butt whipped and you turn around and face a team that is bigger and more physical than the one you just played.”

Collins, who previously served as defensive coordinator at Florida and Mississippi, remains concerned about the triple-option despite the recent Navy struggles and the fact Temple defended it well last season.

Navy managed only 129 rushing yards against Air Force and dropped out of the top spot in that category as a result. Georgia Tech now leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 373 rushing yards per game while Navy is second with 310, just ahead of archrival Army (308).

“It’s a big challenge any time you’re getting ready for the triple-option. They’ve got some really good athletes and some tremendous schemes,” Collins said. “The quarterback is a dynamic player and the offensive line comes off the ball really hard. They seem to have more size up front than in the past. They make you defend every single part of the field and make you be disciplined in your assignments and with your eyes.”

Perry leads Navy in rushing with 584 yards on a whopping 105 attempts. Collins knows the 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster is a threat to break a long run at any time.

“(Perry) is able to play outside of the framework. He executes it at a high level and is such a dynamic athlete that he can make the special plays even when you do have it defended soundly. He’s a very electric athlete with the ball in his hands,” Collins said.

Sophomore fullback Nelson Smith is Navy’s second-leading rusher with 173 yards on 32 carries. The Mids might be without top slotback C.J. Williams, who suffered an upper body injury last Saturday and is questionable. Williams has rushed for 143 yards on just 16 pitchouts and caught six passes for another 148 yards.

Temple’s offense seems to be hitting its stride, having scored 31 points or more in four straight games. Quarterback Anthony Russo is coming off the best outing of his career, having completed 21 of 25 passes for 254 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-6 rout of East Carolina.

Temple has one of the top tailbacks in the American Athletic Conference in Ryquell Armstead, who has rushed for 626 yards on the season.

The Owls possess a dangerous all-around threat in Isaiah Wright, a starting wide receiver who takes occasional snaps at quarterback and also returns punts and kickoffs. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound speedster accounted for 192 all-purpose yards against East Carolina with the highlight being a 59-yard punt return for touchdown.

Niumatalolo chuckled wryly when asked what has impressed him about Temple’s offense.

“Unfortunately, there’s too much that impresses me. I don’t know where to start. Who do you try to stop?” Niumatalolo said.

“They are big, strong and physical up front and can run the football with a great back. The quarterback is throwing the ball well and making great decisions,” he added. “After a tough loss you don’t want to put on the tape and watch them play. That’s a scary offense and they’re operating really well right now.”

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