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Navy football looks to turn the page with first 2020 road trip to Tulane

In this file photo from last season, Navu celebrates kicker Bijan Nichols hitting a 48-yard field goal as time expires in a 41-38 win over visiting Tulane. The Green Wave will host the Midshipmen on Saturday in what is Navy's first road game of the 2020 season.
In this file photo from last season, Navu celebrates kicker Bijan Nichols hitting a 48-yard field goal as time expires in a 41-38 win over visiting Tulane. The Green Wave will host the Midshipmen on Saturday in what is Navy's first road game of the 2020 season. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Navy football will try to turn the page and put the 55-3 beatdown administered by BYU on Labor Day in the rearview mirror when it travels to New Orleans to take on Tulane at noon Saturday.

The Midshipmen had a bye this past weekend, as a home game against Lafayette was canceled when the Patriot League decided not to play fall sports in July, and it was much needed as coach Ken Niumatalolo made the decision to begin full contact practices.

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That gave the Navy coaching staff almost two weeks to conduct a mini-camp featuring live scrimmage situations in which the starting offense and defense squared off against each other for the first time.

Off the field, there has been additional drama for the Midshipmen. Sophomore quarterback Perry Olsen left the team Friday and entered the transfer portal, and Niumatalolo apologized Monday hours after blaming the decision to continue the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series on the Pentagon.

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Navy’s focus, however, is on Tulane.

With full-contact practices back in the fold, defensive coordinator Brian Newberry was particularly eager to see how the first, second and third defensive units performed when competing against the front-line players on the offensive side of the ball. Newberry acknowledged last week that it would be dramatically different from working against the scout team throughout training camp.

“We need to bang, we need to go good-on-good, we need to see that speed of play,” Newberry said. “We need to learn how to play with better pad level. Some of those things don’t get emphasized enough when you go against the scouts.”

To a man, the Navy players want to make amends for what happened against BYU. It was one of the most embarrassing losses of the triple-option era, which has produced winning records in 15 of 16 seasons since 2003.

Standout inside linebacker Diego Fagot talked about the importance of making an immediate turnaround so the season does not head in the wrong direction. Fagot was a freshman in 2018 when Navy lost nine of its last 10 games to finish 3-10.

“The attitude is this: We’re not going to have a 2018 season again. Whatever we need to do, we’re going to get it done,” Fagot said during a virtual news conference Friday. “Last Monday was an embarrassment and very hard to swallow. Having that bad taste in our mouths for a week and a half leading up to Tulane is something that is going to drive us.”

As part of what Navy football calls its “Kool-Aid” pep talks, Niumatalolo talked about how the New England Patriots opened the 2017 season with a humbling 42-27 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs but rebounded to capture the AFC championship and reach the Super Bowl.

“We just have to trust the process. Coach Ken is the winningest coach in Navy history. He knows the formula. He knows how to get us back on track,” senior slotback Myles Fells said.

This will be the American Athletic Conference opener for both schools, which were formerly West Division rivals. With Connecticut departing to become an independent, the AAC has abandoned its divisional format since only 11 members remain.

Navy is 4-1 against Tulane since joining the AAC, with the past four meetings being decided by a touchdown or less. In fact, the last three meetings have come down to the wire and been decided by a total of six points with the Midshipmen winning at home in 2017 (23-21) and 2019 (41-38).

However, Navy’s last visit to Yulman Stadium in 2018 ended in disappointment as Tulane pulled out a 29-28 victory thanks to a successful two-point conversion in the final seconds of regulation.

“We have great respect for Tulane. All of our games have been really close, back-and-forth,” Niumatalolo said. “When you think of a Willie Fritz team — tough, physical, hard-nosed well-coached. They’re going to run the ball and play tough defense.”

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Niumatalolo scoffed when asked if there is extra motivation since this is the conference contest.

“If you can’t get up after getting your butts whipped like that ... if you’re a competitor, you’re excited to play the next game. We didn’t need it to be a conference game to be motivated,” he said. “We’re not going down there to see New Orleans. We have one purpose. We need to get a [win]. Our No. 1 goal is to get back to playing Navy football.”

Tulane opened the season with a 27-24 come-from-behind victory over South Alabama in Mobile. Tailback Tyjae Spears led a rushing attack that turned the tide, while defensive ends Cam Sample and Patrick Johnson spearheaded a defense that held the home team scoreless over the final 22 minutes.

The Green Wave scored 21 unanswered points to erase a 24-6 deficit and avoid joining the list of upset victims in Week 1 of the college football season.

“I was impressed by the way they wore down South Alabama in the second half. That’s a testament to their conditioning and determination,” said Niumatalolo, who watched the game live Saturday.

Fritz comes from an option background, having employed his own version of the offense. Fritz is a practitioner of the zone option scheme and employed it during successful stints as head coach at Blinn College, Central Missouri, Sam Houston State and Georgia Southern.

Tulane was less reliant on zone option plays in 2019 under first-year offensive coordinator Will Hall, who came from Memphis and brought some spread option passing principles.

The Green Wave are breaking in a new starting quarterback this season in Keon Howard, who sat out last season after transferring from Southern Mississippi. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound redshirt junior struggled in his debut, completing just 14 of 30 passes for 191 yards.

Spears was the catalyst as a punishing ground game helped Tulane turn around the game. The speedy, explosive redshirt freshman ran for 105 yards on 11 carries. Cam Carroll, a powerfully built 225 pounds, was a bulldozer in goal-line situations and scored two touchdowns.

Tulane has defended Navy’s patented triple-option offense as well as any opponent in the AAC, largely because of Fritz’s background. The Midshipmen were limited to 204 total yards in the 2018 meeting.

This marks Navy’s first road trip of the season, which is cause for concern because of the coronavirus. The Midshipmen must manage the travel elements of buses, planes and hotels for the first time.

Traditionally, the Navy football players enjoy going on the road as a getaway from the grind of the academy. Fells said this is an important business trip.

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“It definitely holds a deeper meaning. We need to prove to ourselves that we got this, that everything is OK,” he said. “We need to get that bad taste out of our mouths from [Labor Day]. We know Tulane, which is a really good football team. It came down to the wire last year. We know it’s going to be a dogfight.”

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NAVY@TULANE

Saturday, noon

TV: ABC

Radio: 1430 AM, 1090 AM

Line: Tulane by 7½

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