Navy football will try once again to play a football game Saturday.
After months of avoiding any coronavirus issues, COVID-19 found its way to the program and the rest of the Naval Academy, eventually forcing postponement of the Midshipmen’s scheduled home games against Tulsa on Nov. 7 and Memphis on Nov. 14.
Navy learned Nov. 3 that two players tested positive during a round of testing the day before. Still, the coaching staff crafted a game plan for Tulsa and began mental preparation with the players for several days before that contest was officially postponed on Nov. 5.
Once again, the coaching staff performed its due diligence to get Navy ready for Memphis early last week even though the players were still unable to practice. That game was postponed last Tuesday afternoon because the American Athletic Conference Medical Advisory Board determined the coronavirus outbreak on the campus of the Naval Academy was still not under control.
“It’s been pretty difficult to stay in great mental shape these past two weeks. Each time we were getting ready for a new team the game got canceled,” Navy inside linebacker Diego Fagot acknowledged during a video news conference Monday.
Navy resumed football activities Friday afternoon by conducting a socially-distanced walkthrough practice. It was more of the same Saturday as the Midshipmen got together on Rip Miller Field to go through light drills in shorts and shells.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo said Navy would hold its first contact practice Tuesday in advance of Saturday’s 8 p.m. road game against South Florida. That will mark the first time the Midshipmen have experienced live contact since losing to SMU, 51-37, on Halloween night.
Provided neither program experiences a setback related to coronavirus, Navy (3-4) will play its eighth game of the season against struggling USF (1-7) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
USF suffered its seventh straight loss this past Saturday, a 56-21 rout at the hands of host Houston. It’s the largest single-season losing streak since the program began play in 1997.
After beating The Citadel in the season opener, South Florida got blown out by Notre Dame, 52-0, and has since dropped all six of its AAC contests. Along the way, the Bulls have been significantly impacted by COVID protocols.
USF was without 13 players against Houston, including quarterback Noah Johnson and several starting linebackers, due to positive tests and contact tracing. It’s been a recurring theme throughout the season for the Bulls.
“They’ve been shorthanded a ton going into games. I think that’s hurt them late in games. They’ve kind of run out of gas,” Niumatalolo said. “They’ve been hit heavy by the COVID deal. I know that’s affected them.”
South Florida fired Charlie Strong in the wake of a 4-8 record last season. Strong, who previously coached at Louisville and Texas, compiled a 21-16 mark in three seasons.
Strong was replaced by Jeff Scott, who served as co-offensive coordinator at Clemson from 2015-19. It has been a rough inaugural season for Scott, who has seen his team get outscored by an average of 18 points per game.
While there have been plenty of blowout losses, there have also been some close calls with USF falling to Temple, 39-37, and to Memphis, 34-33.
Navy’s unexpected two-week layoff has enabled numerous injured players to heal. Fagot, who suffered a severe ankle injury against SMU, said Monday he feels 100 percent.
“It was also somewhat of a blessing having a bit of a break. It was much needed time off,” said Fagot, who leads Navy in tackles (53), tackles for loss (8½) and sacks (3).
Navy would have been without upwards of 30 players had it played Memphis this past Saturday, multiple sources told The Capital. Niumatalolo said contact tracing protocols will still prevent the Midshipmen from being at full strength this Saturday night.
“We won’t get everyone back, but we’ll get a lot of guys back,” he said. “Contact tracing takes away a lot of your team.”
While Navy has been idle since Oct. 31 after already having two bye weeks in September, South Florida has eight games in nine weeks since starting the season Sept. 12. The Bulls had their lone bye over Halloween weekend.
Niumatalolo admitted Monday he is concerned about rust, although that was tempered by seeing the injury report reduced.
“There are pros and cons, pluses and minuses. Playing helps you stay in a rhythm,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m going to look at the positive side. At least we have been able to get healthier. We’re not as banged up.”
This will be the fourth meeting between the schools with Navy leading the series 2-1 after soundly defeating South Florida, 35-3, last season.
Saturday, 8 p.m.
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Line: Navy by 2½