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For Navy's Ken Niumatalolo, playing Hawaii different than other games

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If Navy's game last week at Notre Dame was about the history of one of college football's longest series, Saturday's home game against Hawaii is about the heart. Specifically, it is about Ken Niumatalolo's heart.

Hawaii is more than just another opponent for the Navy football coach. It is where he went to college to play football after being a star quarterback on Honolulu's North Shore, where he met his future wife, and where he started his family and his coaching career. Some of those memories are bound to return Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

"It's going to be weird seeing them across on the other side of the field," Niumatalolo said this week.

As was the case in 2009, when the Midshipmen lost to the Rainbow Warriors, 24-17, at Aloha Stadium, sentiment quickly will be replaced by stark reality for Navy (4-4) and Hawaii (0-8).

"We're trying to win a game, just like they are," Niumatalolo said.

With Navy coming off a down-to-the-wire 38-34 defeat in South Bend, Ind., quarterback Keenan Reynolds said it's hard to tell that either Niumatalolo or offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, who also played and coached at Hawaii, has any sort of emotional attachment to Hawaii.

"Every week is an intense week as far as preparation is concerned," the sophomore said. "They both coach us hard, and I really don't see a difference. They both let us just know we've got to go play and give these guys the respect they deserve and get ready."

Niumatalolo concedes that it is different this week because of his friendship with many of the Hawaii coaches, including head coach Norm Chow, and his familiarity with many of the Rainbow Warriors. Hawaii's winless season doesn't change Niumatalolo's opinion.

"Their coaches are as good as any coaches in the country. They've had opportunities [to win] in a lot of games, a play here or there — it's just a matter of breaking through," he said. "I know a lot of their players — I played with their fathers. They're tough, hard-nosed kids. We better be ready to go."

Recruited to play in a pro-style Hawaii offense, Niumatalolo spent much of his college career as a backup after Georgia Southern's Paul Johnson was hired as offensive coordinator in his junior year to run something called the triple-option.

Bob Wagner, who was the defensive coordinator when Niumatalolo arrived and finished his first season as head coach a few months before Niumatalolo graduated in 1989, said recently of the Navy coach: "If he ever complained or had a problem, I never heard about it. He was just a team guy, a solid person."

Wagner, who moved to Annapolis a couple of years ago with his wife to live closer to their daughter, a Washington resident, said Johnson's arrival at Hawaii was not good for Niumatalolo's playing career. But it has ultimately been beneficial to his coaching career.

"Being exposed to a very good offensive system, especially as a quarterback, nobody understands that offense better than a quarterback," Wagner said.

Said Niumatalolo: "In 1986, we had some pretty good players on offense, but we weren't really an explosive offense. When [Johnson] came in, we averaged 30-something points a game. It made me realize that there's something special about this offense."

When graduation loomed the following year, Niumatalolo recalled being uncertain about how he was going to support his wife, Barbara, and their baby daughter, Alexcia. Niumatalolo thought about becoming a sportscaster.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do," said Niumatalolo, who on Saturday can tie Johnson with his 45th victory at Navy, third on the school's all-time list behind George Welsh (55) and Eddie Erdelatz (50). "I was a backup quarterback wondering what I was going to do when I got done playing."

At Johnson's urging, Niumatalolo was hired as a graduate assistant and later as a full-time assistant by Wagner. Niumatalolo encouraged another Hawaii quarterback, Navy's Jasper, to follow him into the coaching ranks.

Niumatalolo wasn't sure how things were going to work out.

"My wife gave me a two-year limit," Niumatalolo said with a smile. "She said, 'OK, you can try this dream for two years, and if it doesn't work, you have to get a real job.' I was very fortunate after that."

Niumatalolo is respected back in Hawaii for what he has done since coming to what is called "the mainland." Bobby Curran, a radio host for Honolulu's ESPN affiliate and play-by-play voice on the team's broadcasts, said this week that he had Niumatalolo on his show Wednesday when the subject of what the 48-year-old coach has accomplished came up.

"He got so emotional, he couldn't talk, he started to choke up," Curran said. "Kenny is still very much like the guy he was here. Everybody always loved Kenny because he's so human. You would almost say his personality doesn't fit the football prototype."

Niumatalolo's name has come up for the job at Hawaii, most recently when Greg McMackin was pushed out after the 2011 season. At the time, Niumatalolo was coming off his only losing season (5-7) after having averaged nine wins a season his first three years.

Wagner is not sure that Niumatalolo has been "pigeonholed" as a triple-option coach, as Johnson is now at Georgia Tech. Wagner also thinks Niumatalolo might have one of the best jobs in the country.

"I think, as smart as we all think he is, he's well compensated and he's at a great institution," Wagner said. "You always have to be successful everywhere, never say never, but I think it would have to take something incredible for him to leave. I don't know if that's going to happen."

don.markus@baltsun.com

HAWAII (0-8) @ NAVY (4-4)

When: Saturday 3:30 p.m.

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, Annapolis

TV: CBS Sports Network

Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Series: Hawaii leads 2-0

Last meeting: Hawaii won, 24-17, on Nov. 28, 2009, in Honolulu

Line: Navy by 17

Navy offense vs. Hawaii defense: The Midshipmen were nearly flawless on offense in last week's 38-34 loss at Notre Dame, rushing for 331 yards and not committing either a penalty or a turnover. Navy will likely do more of the same against the Rainbow Warriors, who give up an average of more than 174 rushing yards against Western Athletic Conference teams that mostly like to throw. The Midshipmen got a combined 162 yards from fullbacks Chris Swain (85) and Quinton Singleton (77) last Saturday. Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who ran for three touchdowns and threw for another against the Fighting Irish, could also exploit Hawaii — which ranks near the bottom in the Football Bowl Subdivision (over 299 yards a game, 117th in the country) in pass defense — with some play action, as he did in hitting Matt Aiken for a touchdown against Notre Dame. Hawaii gives up nearly 37 points per game.

Navy defense vs. Hawaii offense: As well as the offense played against the Irish, the defense was a bit overmatched by Notre Dame's size and speed. Navy surrendered 506 yards overall and 9 yards per play — the most by the Fighting Irish since 1999. The Rainbow Warriors are not Notre Dame, but senior quarterback Sean Schroeder leads the nation's 22nd-ranked passing offense. Schroeder has thrown for nearly 1,700 yards and 14 touchdowns, though his pass completion rate is a modest 52 percent, and he has been picked off 11 times. The Midshipmen are a bit banged up on defense, and lost nose guard Bernie Sarra with an ankle injury last week at Notre Dame. Travis Bridges, who defensive coordinator Buddy Green had used in tandem with Sarra to give the undersized Midshipmen some bulk against bigger teams, also limped off for awhile but should play against Hawaii. Freshman cornerback Brendon Clements, who had his second interception of the season last week, will be tested again. Hawaii averages just under 22 points per game, so it shouldn't be that hard of a test.

-- Don Markus

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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