Ken Niumatalolo’s postgame news conference after his Navy football team's 42-14 win over South Alabama at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium began innocuously enough Saturday night.
“First of all, very, very happy for our seniors,” the coach started. “For them to be able to finish out here their senior year and go undefeated at home, to become bowl-eligible, just super happy for those guys.”
At that point, Niumatalolo stopped talking. For about 30 seconds, he wiped his eyes, sniffed his nose and cleared his throat before continuing.
“I just have so much respect for them,” he said. “Just the things they go through here, I feel bad as a person when I yell at them. I remember coming into the airplane at Notre Dame [after a 38-34 loss on Nov. 2] and disappointed ... and I wanted to yell at some of them as they got on the airplane. Just to watch those guys walk onto the airplane with ice bags on their legs and arms, and they can barely walk onto the plane, those guys sacrifice so much. I’m just so happy for them. They’re great kids, they come from great families. Just very happy for our seniors.”
Several Midshipmen (6-4) seniors stood out in their final home game, playing a significant role in the team earning a berth in the Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 30 in Fort Worth, Texas. Slotback Darius Staten had a career-high 127 yards and one touchdown on just seven carries.
Inside linebacker Cody Peterson tied for the team lead in tackles with eight — none more important than his fourth-quarter stop of junior running back Kendall Houston on fourth-and-2 on Navy’s 4-yard line. The play killed a 20-play, 79-yard march that had consumed 8 minutes, 40 seconds.
On the ensuing series, sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds spotted senior wide receiver Matt Aiken streaking 10 yards behind the Jaguars secondary for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 7:49 left in regulation. Aiken then caught a laser from Reynolds for a two-point conversion that gave the team a 35-14 lead.
Reynolds said the underclassmen were motivated to get a victory against South Alabama and give the seniors a proper send-off.
“The whole week, everything was kind of locked down because we knew how important this game was,” he said. “There were a lot of things riding on it. Obviously, getting [win] No. 6 [means a] bowl berth and then being undefeated at home, and last but certainly not least was sending these guys out with a victory. They’ve been through so much here. They’ve done a lot of great things, and they deserved this win.”