Navy coaches blamed the blowout loss to BYU in the season opener on not being “pad ready.”
Due to concerns about possible coronavirus infections and subsequent contact tracing, coach Ken Niumatalolo decided to avoid live contact during August training camp. That proved a major mistake as Navy was not ready to play tackle football and got manhandled on both sides of the ball during a 55-3 beatdown at the hands of BYU on Labor Day.
Niumatalolo elected to implement live hitting during practice in the wake of that embarrassing loss. However, the pad ready problem persisted during the first half of the Tulane game as Navy fell behind 24-0.
Fortunately for the Midshipmen, something clicked in that department down in New Orleans and a true football team emerged from the locker room following intermission. Navy played more physical in the second half and that was a key to a remarkable 27-24 comeback victory.
Needless to say, the coaching staff was disappointed to see a massive regression in overall physicality against service academy rival Air Force on Saturday. The Falcons dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball while administering a 40-7 whooping to the Mids.
Things don’t get any easier this Saturday as Navy welcomes Temple, which has a well-earned reputation for being one of the most physical football teams in the American Athletic Conference.
“[Temple] is always tough, hard-nosed and physical, which is a major concern because we’re not a very physical team right now,” Niumatalolo said during a virtual news conference Monday. “Over the years, this is probably the most physical team in our league, so this is going to be a tough challenge.”
Navy is never going to be bigger or stronger than its opponents. However, the Midshipmen during the triple-option era have taken pride in being an extremely physical team. That simply has not been the case so far this season and the main reason they have been outscored 123-10 in five of six halves of football.
Niumatalolo said Monday the emphasis in practice this week will be finding ways to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.
“Being able to stop the run and being able to run the ball has been a major concern this year,” he acknowledged. “There are some young guys that haven’t played and don’t recognize how you have to play with good leverage and pad level.”
While frustrated by the inability to instill the proper fundamentals and mentality three games into the season, the Navy coaching staff is determined to eventually do so.
“We just need to stay the course, continue to work on playing lower with tight hands,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re going to keep fighting, we’re going to keep working.”
Conditions caused by the coronavirus have convinced Niumatalolo more than ever that preparing a service academy team for a football season is a step-by-step process. Navy was forced to cancel spring practice and did not have players on campus during the summer for workouts overseen by the strength and conditioning staff.
Players that were able to lift weights and do other conditioning exercises while stranded at home because of the pandemic regressed while doing nothing during a mandatory two-week quarantine period upon returning to the academy.
Factor in a strange preseason camp of blocking bags and tackling doughnuts, and the proven formula for developing a typical Navy football team was lost.
“There is a process in building our football team and there are just some things we can’t get away from,” Niumatalolo said after the Tulane game. "It has become really evident to me, in developing our team, that the offseason is very important.
“Our culture and how we build things over spring ball, summer conditioning, preseason camp … when you lose out on those components, it’s hard. There’s a toughness factor, both mental and physical, that gets ingrained because of the way we practice.”
On Monday, Niumatalolo mentioned that it’s become obvious to him Navy is not the only college football program experiencing this issue. He pointed to the rash of surprising upsets as evidence the pandemic has impacted the preparation of many teams.
“There are a lot of teams that have been handcuffed in different ways. You can see the identity of some teams has been a little off. We’re definitely off. We’re always a disciplined team that comes off the ball and is physical,” Niumatalolo said. “I knew it was going to be tough getting our team ready. You play the hand you were dealt and try to make the most of it. We’re trying to mold this into a Navy team the best we can.”
Temple coach Rod Carey is well-versed in how coronavirus can interrupt preseason preparations. The Owls were unable to practice as a team because of guidelines imposed by the City of Philadelphia.
Carey said early last month that city health officials recommended Temple football limit the number of players participating in practice to 20 or fewer and not conduct live scrimmage situations. The second-year coach said the Owls could not properly practice under such conditions and would not be prepared to open the season on time.
As a result, the American Athletic Conference postponed the Temple at Navy game from Sept. 26 to Oct. 10.
“With the restrictions we were under from the city and the guidelines, moving it back, it’s kind of the last chip we had to play as far as getting the team ready to play and getting that time back on our side here,” Carey told reporters on Sept. 7.
This will be the latest season opener in Temple football history as a result of cancellations caused by coronavirus. The Owls are only playing an eight-game conference schedule after losing non-conference contests against Miami (Sept. 5), Idaho (Sept. 12) and Rutgers (Sept. 19).
“Our fall camp has been four calendar months. We started in July. It’s the world’s longest fall camp and every day has been a hold-on-to-your-rear-end type of day,” Carey said. “It’s been educational on a lot of levels for me.”
Speaking to reporters Monday, Carey said the City of Philadelphia gave Temple football permission to resume practice without restrictions starting Sept. 21.
“We got the OK from the city three weeks ago to have a ‘normal’ fall camp where we could hit,” said Carey, using air quotes for the word normal. “We did that, and our guys have responded very well.”
Saturday, 6 p.m.
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Line: Temple by 3