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Navy Midshipmen football releases 2021 schedule, which coach Ken Niumatalolo calls ‘the toughest in all my years’

Navy quarterback Xavier Arline picks up a first down against Tulsa on Dec. 5 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Navy's 2021 schedule includes six home games.
Navy quarterback Xavier Arline picks up a first down against Tulsa on Dec. 5 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Navy's 2021 schedule includes six home games. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Navy football will have six home games for the 2021 season with the opener against Marshall and annual service academy showdown against Air Force highlighting the slate.

The Midshipmen are also set to host defending American Athletic Conference champion Cincinnati and two-time champ Central Florida in Annapolis, resume its annual rivalry against Notre Dame in South Bend and face archrival Army in New Jersey.

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“This is, hands down, the toughest schedule in all my years at the Naval Academy. It’s not even close,” said Ken Niumatalolo, who will be entering his 14th season as head coach. “We definitely have our hands full, but our players are excited about it. They’re looking forward to the challenge of playing such a formidable schedule.”

Navy, which went 3-7 overall and 3-4 in the American Athletic Conference last year, will kick off the campaign Sept. 4.

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The Midshipmen will play eight teams that qualified for a bowl game last year, most notably the Fighting Irish, who qualified for the College Football Playoff this past season. That game is scheduled for Nov. 6.

Four of Navy’s first five games will be played in Annapolis, including a Sept. 11 game against Air Force to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.

“Today our staff is full speed ahead in our planning to host our alumni, friends and fans at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium this fall,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk wrote in a news release.

“Every home game in 2021 is a big-time matchup and our opponents project to not only be highly competitive, but are all of national stature,” Gladchuk added. “A family atmosphere, fly-overs, march-ons, tailgating and great Navy football will bring us together again to enjoy one of the most special environments in all of college sports.”

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Since joining the AAC in 2015, Navy has been reduced to four nonconference contests, three of which (Army, Air Force, Notre Dame) are set in stone. The Midshipmen have normally filled that one open slot with a Football Championship Subdivision school.

Marshall, a member of Conference USA, marks a significant step up in competition from the likes of Holy Cross and Colgate. The Thundering Herd posted a 7-3 record and played in the Camellia Bowl last season.

Marshall captured the C-USA crown in 2014 and made seven bowl appearances under Doc Holliday, who compiled an 89-54 record but was surprisingly fired in January and replaced by former Alabama associate head coach Charles Huff.

“Marshall has always been a really good football team. You’re talking about one of the top programs in that conference, a consistent winner,” Niumatalolo said.

That contest is meaningful as it’s a recognition of events related to the plane crash that devastated the Marshall football program on Nov. 14, 1970.

Former Navy athletic director Jack Lengyel was the head coach charged with rebuilding Marshall football after 37 players and numerous support personnel were killed when the plane crashed into a hillside two miles away from Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia.

Next season marks the 50th anniversary of when Lengyel took over at Marshall. He transitioned into administration and served as Navy athletic director from 1988 to 2001.

Gladchuk said Navy will honor Lengyel for the “indelible influence and impact” he made on the Marshall football program. Lengyel’s role in resurrecting the football program in the wake of the tragedy was highlighted in the movie “We Are Marshall” starring Matthew McConaughey.

Navy normally plays Air Force in early October, but that rivalry game has been moved up a month as way for the two service academies could meet on the anniversary of 9-11. Niumatalolo acknowledged it will be an adjustment meeting the Falcons in the second game of the season. Air Force opens against Lafayette of the Patriot League.

“What it represents is really special. I think it’s awesome that we’re recognizing that anniversary by playing Air Force on that date,” Niumatalolo said.

In addition to playing Marshall and Air Force in Annapolis, the Midshipmen will host Central Florida (Oct. 2), SMU (Oct. 9), Cincinnati (Oct. 23) and East Carolina (Nov. 20).

Cincinnati was ranked as high as No. 7 in the College Football Playoff and finished 9-1 after falling to No. 9 Georgia, 24-21, in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Bearcats boast a 31-6 record over the past three seasons under coach Luke Fickell.

“That’s going to be a very challenging game. Luke Fickell really has Cincy humming,” Niumatalolo said.

Central Florida captured the American championship game in 2017 and 2018. The Knights have seen their last two head coaches hired away by by Power Five conference programs with Scott Frost going to Nebraska and Josh Huepel heading to Tennessee.

“We pick up UCF, which has been a perennial powerhouse nationally and within our conference,” Niumatalolo said.

UCF just hired former Auburn head coach Guz Malzahn to replace Huepel. Malzahn never suffered a losing season at Auburn, which he led to the BCS championship game in 2013.

Navy’s road games will be at Houston (Sept. 25), Memphis (Oct. 14), Tulsa (Oct. 29), Notre Dame and Temple (Nov. 27).

The AAC Championship game is scheduled for Dec. 4.

Navy will serve as the home team when it plays archrival Army at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on Dec. 11. Army-Navy was purposefully scheduled for the New York City region 2021 in recognition of the 9-11 anniversary.

Several Army-Navy game events will be held in New York City, including the traditional Friday night gala that is slated to be held on Ellis Island in the shadow of the State of Liberty.

Season ticket packages are on sale now for current season ticket holders.

Navy football is tentatively slated to begin spring practice on March 29.

“Right now, we’re focused on ourselves and doing what we need to get ready,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m looking forward to having a normal offseason and being able to build the team the right way.”

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