For seniors, last playtime with Navy

Navy fullback Eric Kettani has had the feeling before during his four seasons in Annapolis. As Kettani approached his final college game this week, the difference between the Midshipmen and nearly every other Football Bowl Subdivision team became obvious to the senior.

It happened after he finished studying for one of his final exams.


"I'm in my room, studying thermodynamics until 4 a.m. - it was the hardest class I've taken in my entire life - and I'm thinking, 'No other college football player is taking this class,' " Kettani recalled with a smile a couple of days later.

"But that's why we came here. We came here for a challenge, in academics and with football. There've been some rough days and there've been some bad days."


More often than not, there have also been some good days when it came to football. Playing in his third straight bowl game while the Midshipmen are making the school's sixth straight postseason appearance, Kettani and his teammates are hoping today is one of those.

When Navy (8-4) takes on Wake Forest (7-5) in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium in Washington, the Midshipmen will be looking to open the 2008 bowl season by beating the Demon Deacons for the second time this season.

While their Atlantic Coast Conference opponent will be trying to avenge a 24-17 loss to the Midshipmen in Winston-Salem, N.C., in late September, many of the Navy players will be ending a significant part of their lives - for nearly all of the seniors, today will be the last organized football game they ever play.

"For our seniors, this is a finality for them. For most of them this is the last time they put on the pads," said Ken Niumatalolo, whose first game as Navy's head coach came last year in the Poinsettia Bowl loss to Utah. "This is a pretty emotional time coming to the end of an athletic career."

Senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada acknowledged that trying to focus on a football game, especially a bowl game, is difficult with everything else going on in his life.

"It's really hard," Kaheaku-Enhada said. "By this point in the season you're not thinking about football that much. You're thinking about getting the right grades to get out of the semester, and then to graduate. There's a lot that will change for us."

Kaheaku-Enhada was referring mostly to the military commitment that will follow graduation in May.

"I think a lot of people don't know what they're getting into," said Kaheaku-Enhada, who is planning to become a Marine. "You've got to get mentally prepared for it."


Capt. Matthew Klunder, the commandant of midshipmen, said yesterday that what the players have done on the field as well as in the classroom the past four years will prepare them for what they face in the near future.

"They understand that when we commission them in May, the very next day we could be sending them into harm's way. We have to have them fully prepared," Klunder said. "We do want them to understand and handle any kind of situation presented to them, specifically in conflict or on the battlefield."

That is why today's game is a brief distraction toward thinking about that future, Kaheaku-Enhada said.

"It's the one time you can clear everything out of your mind," he said.

It kept Kaheaku-Enhada going after he initially suffered a hamstring injury in a preseason scrimmage, then reinjured it late in the first half against Wake Forest. It kept him going after he nearly quit rehabilitating the injury - and football - last month.

It motivates him today, as he hopes to play better against the Demon Deacons than he did in a 34-0 win over Army two weeks ago.


"I did not play a good game," Kaheaku-Enhada said. "I just want to finish my career strong. It's come to an end really quick, and I want to enjoy it."

By this time next year, Kaheaku-Enhada and the rest of the seniors will be dispersed to bases around the country, as many look to fulfill commitments that could take them to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Kettani, who was invited to next month's East-West Shrine Game and is expected to eventually follow one of his predecessors, Kyle Eckel, into the NFL, knows that his football future remains uncertain.

Today is the final chance for Kettani to put what is already an indelible stamp on a career that includes more than 2,000 rushing yards, highlighted by a career-high 175-yard performance against the Demon Deacons on Sept. 27.

Kettani is not looking toward the rematch for individual reasons. "It's the last game playing with the brotherhood, as we call it," he said. "I don't have that opportunity every day in my life."

One thing is clear: It beats the heck out of studying for thermodynamics.


NAVY (8-4) vs. WAKE FOREST (7-5)

EagleBank Bowl, Washington

Today, 11 a.m.


Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Wake


Forest by 2

mids today

Matchup: Navy (8-4) vs. Wake Forest (7-5)

Time: 11 a.m.

Site: RFK Stadium, Washington



Radio: 1090 AM

Line: Wake Forest by 2

Series: Wake Forest leads 6-3.

Last meeting: Navy won, 24-17, in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Sept. 27.

Navy offense vs. Wake Forest defense: QB Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was injured late in the first half of the meeting in September, with the Midshipmen ahead 14-0. With Kaheaku-Enhada out, the offense struggled until Eric Kettani's 57-yard run set up a short touchdown by backup QB Jarod Bryant. Look for the Demon Deacons, ranked 21st nationally against the run (116.1 yards a game) and led by Butkus Award winner Aaron Curry at linebacker and All-America CB Alphonso Smith, to focus on Kettani and Shun White and try to make Kaheaku-Enhada beat them. The Midshipmen are the nation's top rushing team (298.3 yards a game) for the fourth straight year.

Navy defense vs. Wake Forest offense: Navy is coming off back-to-back shutouts. In the Midshipmen's first meeting against Wake, they forced six turnovers. That included four interceptions of QB Riley Skinner, who hadn't been picked off going into the game and has thrown just three more this season. The Demon Deacons have struggled with their running game (their 111.6-yard average is 100th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams), so the Midshipmen will try to put as much pressure on Skinner as they did before. The return of senior CB Rashawn King, who missed the Army game after the death of his father, should help bolster Navy's secondary.


Prediction: Wake Forest 28, Navy 24

Don Markus