It was absolutely miserable in Annapolis last Tuesday afternoon — bitter cold and rainy.
Navy football was holding its first full-scale practice of the week after a dramatic comeback fell just short in a 35-32 loss to Notre Dame. That defeat dropped the Midshipmen to 3-7 and it would be understandable if the players were a bit deflated.
Almost all the preseason goals — capturing the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, reaching the American Athletic Conference championship game, qualifying for a bowl — have fallen by the wayside.
Veteran coach Ken Niumatalolo was curious how the troops would respond with a road game against Central Florida, the first-place team in the American Athletic Conference, looming. He was impressed by what he saw during that Tuesday workout.
“Notre Dame was a crushing defeat and our guys laid everything on the line. Tuesday it was freezing in Maryland and our guys came and worked. I was like, ‘Man, look at these kids.’ Our kids don’t quit,” Niumatalolo said.
That nondescript Tuesday practice in adverse conditions, when players on many losing teams might have mailed it in, truly epitomized what this Navy football team is all about.
“We ain’t going anywhere. We’re going to keep fighting,” Niumatalolo has vowed numerous times this season.
What the Midshipmen did Saturday in Orlando emphatically backed up that statement.
After coming close in so many contests this season, Navy finally got over the hump by knocking off 20th-ranked Central Florida on Senior Day at FBC Mortgage Stadium in Orlando. Fullback Daba Fofana rushed for 114 yards to lead an offense that dominated possession, while outside linebacker John Marshall totaled 10 tackles and four sacks to spearhead a gritty defensive effort.
This season had already been categorized as disappointing before the Midshipmen embarked on a difficult three-game stretch that consisted of road games against American Athletic Conference contenders sandwiched around a neutral site meeting with Notre Dame.
Even the most diehard Navy fans would not have been surprised if that murderer’s row produced three blowout losses. Instead, the Mids showed true heart, determination and grit in playing those three powerhouse programs tough.
Cincinnati had to dig deep to escape with its 31st straight victory at Nippert Stadium, holding off Navy, 20-10. If the Midshipmen had been able to finish several drives in Bearcats territory, that result could have been different.
Navy found itself facing a 22-point deficit following a dismal first half against Notre Dame, but turned around that contest. A dominating defensive effort shut out the Fighting Irish in the second half and the Mids were a successful onside kick away from being able to tie or win at the end.
Despite each disappointing defeat, the Midshipmen came back the next week dedicated to preparing the same way they would if the record was 10-0. All the hard work and grinding finally paid dividends as Navy secured a signature victory over one of the American’s perennial powers.
Central Florida controlled its own destiny in terms of clinching a berth in the AAC championship game and grabbing the Group of Five spot in a New Year’s Six bowl. All the Knights needed to do was handle struggling Navy at home then beat last-place South Florida on the road.
UCF could still wind up in the AAC championship game, but head coach Gus Malzahn was clearly disappointed his club did not take care of business Saturday and send the seniors out with a win. Instead, the Knights were befuddled on both sides of the ball by the Midshipmen and had an eight-game home winning streak snapped.
Navy is clearly playing its best football of the season — in all phases — and it could not come at a better time with archrival Army looming on Dec. 10. It is obvious the collective confidence of the players is higher than it has been in a long time.
Above all else, what Navy has done during this grueling stretch is show that these players remain all-in. Three straight losing seasons could cause seniors to check out, but that has not been the case.
Navy only has five senior starters with Marshall and fellow tri-captains Kip Frankland and Bijan Nichols among them. They, along with wide receiver Mark Walker and outside linebacker Nicholas Straw, have provided tremendous leadership.
For the most part, service academy athletic programs are synonymous with never giving up and battling until the end. However, the reality is that there are Navy football teams in the past that have mailed it during dismal seasons.
That was certainly the case toward the end of the tenures of coaches George Chaump and Charlie Weatherbie, which marked some of the lowest points in program history.
That these Midshipmen are showing so much heart, determination and fight shows the players still believe in this coaching staff and what it is trying to accomplish. That bodes well for the future, especially with so many players returning in 2023.
A resounding victory over Army would close out a positive finish to this season and produce a 5-7 record that is decent considering the strength of schedule Navy faced.