Navy football simply cannot put together a complete game during this disappointing season that just keeps getting worse.
For most of the season, the Midshipmen have been stout on defense — holding high-powered opponents well below their scoring averages and giving themselves a chance to win.
However, the program’s once powerful triple-option offense had been mostly responsible for repeated close losses — ranking 125th out of 130 Football Bowl Subdivision schools with a scoring average of just 16.8 points.
On Senior Day in Annapolis, the tables turned at the wrong time and it was the defense that let down the Midshipmen.
Quarterback Holton Ahlers picked apart the defense from start to finish in leading East Carolina to a 38-35 victory over Navy before an announced crowd of 28,001 Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Ahlers dropped a 46-yard bomb into the arms of wide receiver Tyler Snead on the game’s final possession, and that set up a 54-yard game-winning field goal by kicker Owen Daffer as time expired. It was easily a career-long for Daffer, who had never even attempted a field goal of 50 yards or more.
It was a stunning turn of events for Navy, which was in position to send the seniors out on a winning note after taking an eight-point lead at the midway mark of the fourth quarter.
Slotback Carlinos Acie took a pitch and raced 90 yards for a touchdown, then moments later freshman Maquel Haywood followed with another explosive play by returning a kickoff 98 yards for a score as Navy built a 35-27 advantage with 8:33 remaining in the game.
A defense that forced just one punt during the contest could not make that lead hold up.
Ahlers was on target throughout and completed 27 of 32 passes for 405 yards and three touchdowns. Tailback Keaton Mitchell ran for 94 yards and a score for East Carolina (7-4, 5-2 American Athletic Conference), which rolled up 563 total yards.
Acie finished with a career-high 155 rushing yards for Navy (2-8, 2-5), which wasted its best offensive performance in more than a month. Quarterback Tai Lavatai threw two short touchdown passes to jump-start the Midshipmen, who finished with 382 total yards — second-highest total of the season.
“That was probably one of our worst defensive performances of the whole season,” Navy senior cornerback Michael McMorris said. “It just seems like we can’t click as a team. When the offense is clicking, the defense is not working well. We need to have a game when we put it together in all three phases.”
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury during the second quarter when an East Carolina defender accidentally slammed into him out of bounds. Niumatalolo remained down on the field and was in obvious pain while being attended by team trainers.
However, Niumatalolo stayed on the sideline for the remainder of the game even though he was limping noticeably. The 14th-year mentor arrived later than usual to the postgame press conference and was wearing a heavy knee brace.
“I’m fine. Fortunately, I have big, fat tree trunk legs,” said Niumatalolo, who underwent X-rays immediately afterward then took time to console all 25 of the Navy seniors.
“I’m sorry I took so long but I wanted to stay in there to hug every one of those guys and tell them that I love them,” he said. “It was hard to come out of that locker room. A lot of tears in there. Everyone is devastated right now, especially the seniors. They’re crushed.”
It took all of Niumatalolo’s willpower to remain standing on the sidelines and he was forced to turn play-calling over to quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper, who was stripped of the offensive coordinator title earlier this season.
“I could not call plays anymore after I got hurt. Coach Jasper took over and did an awesome job,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo echoed the sentiments of McMorris in wishing the defense that held Houston to 28 points and Cincinnati to 27 had shown up for a game in which the offense had a breakout performance.
“We have to play better complementary football. That was probably one of the best games we’ve played all year offensively. We just gave up too many big plays on defense,” Niumatalolo said. “Heartbreaking loss. I thought we had our chances, but you’ve got to make plays.”
Both offenses moved up and down the field with relative ease during a high-scoring first half.
Ahlers was in complete command as East Carolina displayed tremendous balance in amassing 298 total yards before intermission. Ahlers was almost perfect passing the ball, going 11-for-12 for 197 yards and two touchdowns.
Mitchell accounted for 65 of 101 rushing yards for the Pirates, who took a 24-21 lead into halftime. ECU put together touchdown drives of 75, 78 and 85 yards in the first half.
It was a surprisingly poor performance by a Navy defense that has been solid for most of the season. The Midshipmen gave up several chunk plays, including a 40-yard touchdown pass to Snead and a 23-yard run by Mitchell on the first play from scrimmage.
“Our defense has been carrying us most of the season. They’ve played really well in a lot of games. Unfortunately, we had a hard time stopping [East Carolina] today,” Niumatalolo said. “We had some assignment errors that contributed. We made some mistakes that were hard to explain.”
Navy’s only “stop” in the first half came when cornerback Jamal Glenn broke up a potential touchdown pass to wide receiver Audie Omotosho in the end zone. That forced East Carolina to settle for a 37-yard field goal by Daffer.
Meanwhile, Lavatai was on point directing the triple-option offense as Navy totaled 219 yards and scored touchdowns on all three of its first-half possessions. The Midshipmen opened the game with scoring drives of 78 yards in 10 plays and 75 yards in 11 plays that took a combined almost 12 minutes off the clock.
Lavatai capped those two time-consuming marches with 4-yard touchdown tosses to wide receiver Mychal Cooper and slotback Chance Warren.
“They did a great job up front and got a lot of movement. Fullbacks were running hard and the slotbacks were getting on the perimeter,” Lavatai said. “I probably had the easiest job out there. It was great to see it all come together, but at the same time we didn’t finish the job.”
Navy only needed seven plays and 3:18 to move 70 yards for its third touchdown, which was capped by fullback Isaac Ruoss bursting through a big hole up the middle and racing untouched to paydirt.
That was the possession on which Niumatalolo got injured and was helped along by a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on linebacker Xavier Smith for a late hit out of bounds.
After Ruoss scored on a season-best 19-yard run, Navy had first lead of the game at 21-17 with 3:18 remaining in the first half. That turned out to be more than enough time for East Carolina to answer.
Navy freshman cornerback Elias Larry lost wide receiver C.J. Johnson along the right sideline and the resulting catch-and-run went for 54 yards and put East Carolina in the red zone. Moments later, coach Mike Houston went for it on fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line and Ahlers found tight end Ryan Jones wide-open in the end zone to put the Pirates ahead at halftime.
Following a scoreless third quarter, Acie provided the type of explosive play the Midshipmen have been missing all season. It was a counter option play with Cooper and Warren delivering key blocks to spring Acie for a 90-yard touchdown run.
Acie accelerated through the opening on the left side then turned on the jets, outracing several chasing defenders for the fifth-longest play in program history and giving Navy a 28-24 advantage at the 14:03 mark of the fourth quarter.
After going for it on fourth down four times during the game, Houston made a curious decision by settling for a field goal while trailing by four midway through the fourth quarter. With the Pirates facing fourth-and-1 from the home team’s 7-yard line, the third-year coach chose to take the sure points and sent Daffer out to kick a 25-yarder that cut the deficit to 28-27 with 8:47 remaining in the game.
Haywood gave Navy more breathing room by bringing the ensuing kickoff all the way back. The speedster plebe made two defenders miss then switched on the afterburners in flying down the left sideline 98 yards for a return that tied a school record.
East Carolina was undeterred by the sudden turn of events with Ahlers calmly directing a seven-play, 70-yard touchdown drive that tied the score. Facing fourth-and-4, Ahlers delivered a perfect strike to Snead, who beat a defender on a slant route then turned the short catch into a 28-yard touchdown.
The Pirates naturally went for two and Ahlers connected with Johnson to forge a 35-35 deadlock with 5:01 remaining in the game.
Navy had plenty of time to drive the field for a go-ahead touchdown or field goal, which seemed a distinct possibility considering the offensive success so far. Wide receiver Mark Walker looked like he would convert on third-and-seven in enemy territory, but cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian punched the ball out of his hands and the fumble that went out of bounds resulted in a net gain of just 2 yards.
Navy was forced to punt and that gave East Carolina an opportunity to kick the game-winning field goal. Afterward, Niumatalolo still seemed stunned by the reversal of fortunes as moments earlier it was the Midshipmen who seemed poised to have Bijan Nichols kick a walk-off field goal.
“We were one play away. Unfortunately, [Walker] wasn’t able to hold on to that one,” Niumatalolo said. “If we convert there, we’re in good shape. We’re going to milk the clock and put it right where Bijan wants it and do what they did to us — kick a field goal to win.
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