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Navy football begins grueling seven-game stretch with road trip to Houston

Houston quarterback Clayton Tune, shown being sacked by Navy outside linebacker John Marshall during last season's meeting, leads an offense that is averaging 34.3 points and 329.7 yards through three games this season.
Houston quarterback Clayton Tune, shown being sacked by Navy outside linebacker John Marshall during last season's meeting, leads an offense that is averaging 34.3 points and 329.7 yards through three games this season. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

A Navy football program in turmoil begins American Athletic Conference action this weekend on the road against a familiar opponent that has been tough to beat.

Navy travels to Houston for a Saturday night (7 p.m.) matchup at TDECU Stadium that will be broadcast on ESPNU. The Cougars were picked to finish fourth in the AAC in a preseason poll of media.

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Houston, under the direction of third-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, is off to a 2-1 start with the lone loss coming in the season opener against Texas Tech. The Cougars led the Red Raiders 21-7 at halftime, but were outscored 31-0 in the second half.

Houston had its way with its two other non-conference foes, routing Rice 44-7 and shutting out Grambling State 45-0. It marked the first time since 1968 the Cougars scored 40 points or more and allowed seven or less in consecutive contests.

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Meanwhile, Navy is coming off a much-needed bye week following a 23-3 loss to service academy rival Air Force. Since that contest, the program has been surrounded by drama with offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper being fired then quickly rehired.

Jasper is now strictly the quarterbacks coach and no longer holds the title of offensive coordinator. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo will resume calling plays, which he did in the season opener against Marshall and throughout the 2019 and 2020 seasons.

“It was a good week to have a bye, for a lot of reasons. A lot of things happened,” Niumatalolo said Monday. “I’m encouraged by the leadership of this team. Nobody is quitting. Our guys continue to grind.”

Navy now embarks on the most difficult stretch of the season with seven straight games against top tier opponents before its next bye the second weekend of November. The Midshipmen are set to play six straight conference contests against teams picked one through six in the preseason media poll.

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Those games against Houston, Central Florida (picked second), SMU (third), Memphis (five) and eighth-ranked Cincinnati (one) is followed by a non-conference road game against No. 12 Notre Dame.

Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen are not dwelling on the Air Force loss or worrying about the difficulty of the next seven games. “All of our arrows are pointed at Houston. That is the only game we can think about.”

However, Niumatalolo’s message to the team is that many goals, including a winning season, a bowl berth and a coveted victory over arch rival Army are still attainable.

“We have a lot to play for. Everybody wants to bury the season, but we’ve still got 10 games — hopefully 11,” he said. “Everyone acts like the world ended last week, but we still have so much to play for. After every loss and every win, you have to move on. Especially early in the season.

“We ain’t throwing in the towel. We have to keep fighting.”

Niumatalolo noted there are ebbs and flows to a season and that things can turn around quickly with one crucial win. He recalled the 2012 season when Navy started 1-3 with blowout losses to Notre Dame (50-10) and Penn State (34-7), along with a shutout at home at the hands of San Jose State (12-0).

Navy traveled to Air Force and freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds came off the bench to lead a 28-21 overtime victory. The Midshipmen went on to win seven of their last eight games.

Navy will need to improve in a hurry to beat Houston on its home field. The Cougars are 4-2 versus the Midshipmen as AAC members despite having three different coaches (Tom Hermann, Major Applewhite, Holgorsen) during that span.

Five of the six meetings between the Midshipmen and Cougars have been high scoring, with the 2017 contest (24-14 Houston win) the lone exception. Navy’s two wins came by scores of 46-40 (2018 in Annapolis) and 56-41 (2019 in Houston).

Holgorsen is still seeking his first winning season at Houston after posting a 4-8 record in 2019 and a 3-5 mark in 2020. The former West Virginia head coach (2011-2018) redshirted a significant number of top players after the Cougars got off to a poor start in his initial season.

After reviewing tape of Houston’s three games this season, Niumatalolo sees a squad that is as talented as usual.

“They’re a really good football team like they always are, just super talented. Always big and physical up front with really long athletes. Really athletic on the defensive line,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s always a tough challenge playing these guys. Good athletes, good scheme, good coach. It’s going to be a battle for us.”

Houston starting quarterback Clayton Tune has a nagging hamstring injury that forced him to miss most of the Grambling State game. Backup Ike Ogbogu took most of the snaps and performed well, completing 14 of 22 passes for 196 yards. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior did absorb three sacks.

“You prepare for Tune as if he’s going to play,” said Niumatalolo, noting Houston’s offensive system wasn’t any different with Ogbogu. “You prepare schematically for what they do.”

Tune is a third-year starter that Navy knows well, having faced him twice before. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior from Carrollton, Texas threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns last season as the Cougars beat the Mids 37-21 in Annapolis.

“Really good quarterback and he knows Coach Holgorsen’s system,” Niumatalolo said of Tune.

Meanwhile, Navy has its own quarterback questions as sophomores Tai Lavatai and Xavier Arline have both played. Lavatai started the season opener and led some decent drives before leaving early in the third quarter with a leg injury. Arline finished the Marshall game and then started against Air Force before giving way toward the end to third stringer Maasai Maynor.

Lavatai was not available for the Air Force game but appears on track to make the trip to Houston.

“Tai had a good week of rehab. He’s going to come out and practice today and see how that goes,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re encouraged by his progress. We’ll reassess him after today.”

Niumatalolo is concerned about the two young quarterbacks feeling pressure to perform and jump-start the struggling offense in the wake of the Jasper saga.

“That was a hard deal. Probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with as a head coach,” Niumatalolo said. “Those kids (Lavatai and Arline) were crushed because they love Coach Jasper. Coach came in and kept working like nothing happened, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take a toll.”

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