Navy football desperately needed a win for many reasons.
This season was slowly slipping away from the Midshipmen, who were going in the wrong direction thanks to two straight losses. With a fourth straight losing season looking like a strong possibility, the fan base was becoming increasingly disgruntled.
With two straight home games against opponents with losing records, the Midshipmen needed to make a strong statement. They did just that Saturday before an announced 29,078 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Quarterback Xavier Arline directed an offense that broke out of a three-game slump, while inside linebacker Colin Ramos spearheaded a defense that bounced back from its poorest performance of the season as Navy played its most complete game in a month, beating Alabama-Birmingham, 31-6.
“We needed that win and I’m proud of the way we did. To respond the way we did under the circumstances speaks volumes about the character of our football team. I’m almost emotional and super-proud,” Navy first-year coach Brian Newberry said.
“Coming off two losses, one really difficult one to Air Force and uncharacteristic one to Temple, I just think it shows the character of our football team with the way they responded.”
Arline made a strong argument that he should have been the starting quarterback all along by operating the option offense in an efficient and effective manner. With Arline mostly making good reads and doing a good job distributing the ball, the Mids amassed 363 total yards.
Arline rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown and also got the job done through the air, completing 7 of 10 passes for 94 yards and a score. Fullback Alex Tecza brought an inside element to the option by running for 82 yards on just nine carries, while slotback Eli Heidenreich provided a perimeter threat with 60 yards on five attempts.
Arline took an option keeper up the middle for a 50-yard touchdown that basically clinched the win with 4:12 remaining. He faked to the fullback and burst through a huge hole to race untouched into the end zone.
“I thought Arline played really well and did some good things. I thought he played really well as far as decision-making, taking care of the football, making the right reads and distributing the ball where it needed to go,” Newberry said. “To see [Arline] lead us to a win out there warms my heart. I thought he was really steady today and I’m really proud of him.”
Safety Rayuan Lane put the finishing touches on the blowout with a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown. It was the longest interception return in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium history.
Ramos amassed 12 tackles as the Navy defense played bend but don’t break throughout. UAB moved the ball well between the 20-yard lines but repeatedly stalled in the red zone, managing just two field goals. Defensive back Mbiti Williams made nine tackles, while end Justin Reed contributed 1 1/2 sacks.
“I thought we played lights out on defense. The plan was to make them earn everything they got and I thought we did that,” Newberry said. “Coach [P.J.] Volker and the defensive staff came up with a phenomenal plan and we went out and executed it. We really flew around and played assignment football.”
UAB moved the ball inside the Navy 25 five times and came away with just six points. The Blazers called multiple timeouts in an attempt to score a touchdown in the final seconds and wound up turning the ball over on downs at the 3.
“I love the fight. That’s pride right there,” Newberry said of not allowing the late touchdown.
“We talked about not giving up explosive plays, keeping the ball in front of us and making them earn everything they got. If they did get down there, we talked about giving up threes, not sevens. We’ve been pretty good in the red zone all season and today I thought we were exceptional down there.”
Navy improved its record to 4-5 overall, 3-3 in the American Athletic Conference and can get within one win of being bowl-eligible by beating East Carolina (2-8) next week on Senior Day in Annapolis.
Navy struck first with a well-executed pass play on first down. Arline pump-faked as if he was throwing a short out, then reared back and fired a dart that hit wide receiver Regis Velez in stride to produce a 45-yard touchdown.
Newberry had talked about the need to throw on early downs to make defenses pay for stacking the line of scrimmage. That first-down call succeeded in doing just that and gave Navy a 7-0 lead with 2:49 left in the first quarter.
It was the longest completion of Arline’s career and the longest reception of Velez’s.
UAB drove deep into Navy territory on two straight possessions, but the Mids rose to the occasion and stopped the Blazers on third down in the red zone to force field goals of 37 and 29 yards by kicker Matt Quinn that cut the deficit to 7-6.
It’s been that type of season for Navy that even a positive play turns into a negative one. A well-designed short pass play on which Arline found slotback Brandon Chatman open on a cross route picked up 22 yards and brought the Mids to midfield.
However, Chatman had the ball ripped from his hands fighting for extra yardage. Keondre Swoopes was credited with both a forced fumble and recovery.
It was the second big play by Swoopes, who earlier intercepted a pass in the end zone. That was the result of a bad decision by Arline, who threw into double coverage rather than take a sack.
That was a major missed opportunity for the Midshipmen, who had first-and-goal from the 8 thanks to a long run by Tecza. Navy’s leading rusher appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage, but kept his feet moving and was able to slip a tackle and race 36 yards.
Navy’s second turnover proved not to be costly as UAB was unable to capitalize. The Blazers only picked up one first down and stalled at the Mids’ 25. Quinn came on to attempt a third field goal and this time missed from 42 yards.
UAB got the ball to start the second half and quickly moved into Navy territory before the possession went sideways. A false start pushed the Blazers back into their own half of the field and quarterback Jacob Zeno then made a poor decision by throwing into triple coverage.
Navy cornerback Dashaun Peele easily picked off the poor pass and returned the ball 42 yards to the UAB 33. The Mids settled for a 31-yard field goal by kicker Nathan Kirkwood for a 10-6 lead.
UAB went three-and-out on the ensuing possession and Navy responded with the type of time-consuming drive for which its option offense used to be famous. Offensive coordinator Grant Chesnut got into a nice play-calling rhythm and Arline was executing as the Mids marched 80 yards on 20 plays and took almost 13 minutes off the clock.
Fullback Daba Fofana capped the impressive drive by diving over the goal line from 2 yards out for a 17-6 lead with 10:08 remaining in the game. It was easily the longest drive of the season — in terms of plays, yards and time of possession — for the Mids.
“That’s Navy football at its finest. It was great to see and we have to build on that. We need more of that,” Newbery said. “That’s who we are. We have to be able to grind people out. We’ve talked about being able to sustain drives and stay on track. That’s a lot of play to stack without making a mistake.”
Navy converted on third down four times during the drive. By far the biggest conversion came on fourth down deep in UAB territory as Fofana bulled forward for two yards. That gave the Mids a fresh set of downs at the Blazers’ 17and helped take more time off the clock.
Navy was outplayed in every phase of the game and outcoached in suffering a surprising 32-18 loss to a Temple team it was favored to beat. Putting together a complete game one week after such a disastrous outing told Newberry a lot about the heart and toughness of this team.
“What makes this win even bigger to me is what happened last week. Being able to bounce back and respond to that. Our guys were upset and embarrassed about it. I think the way they attacked practice this week showed that,” Newberry said. “Our kids didn’t flinch. They kept their heads up and chins high then went out and attacked the week. I couldn’t be more proud of what we did today.”