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Bill Wagner: Close loss to No. 2 Cincinnati should build confidence for Navy football | COMMENTARY

There is no such thing as a moral victory.

However, there is something to be said for a close loss to a powerful program that builds confidence.

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Navy pushed undefeated and second-ranked Cincinnati to the limit Saturday before falling 27-20. After recovering a perfectly executed onside kick, the Midshipmen had a chance to drive for the tying touchdown.

The Bearcats escaped only after Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai tried to force a tough throw to slotback Chance Warren along the sideline and cornerback Arquon Bush stepped in front of the pass for an interception.

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Navy players had talked about shocking the world and they darn near did. The Midshipmen were 28-point underdogs and even diehard fans were just hoping they would not get embarrassed.

No one except the coaches and players in the home locker room at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium expected Navy to be in a position to win down the stretch.

Of course, the Midshipmen that met with the media afterward did not want to hear about moral victories or platitudes about how much they challenged a supposedly far-superior squad.

“Moral victories are not a thing. We want to win games,” said senior cornerback Jamal Glenn, adding that he was very proud of his teammates.

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However, the value of what happened Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium is the Midshipmen (1-6) learned that with proper preparation, sound game-planning and solid execution they can compete and beat one of the best teams in the country.

“I think it just shows that we can play with anybody. Obviously, they’re the No. 2 team in the nation and we gave them a pretty good run,” Navy sophomore slotback Kai Puailoa-Rojas said. “We just use that confidence going forward that we can play with anybody.”

Defensive coordinator Brian Newberry continues to impress with his ability to devise schemes that enable Navy to contain even the most potent offenses. Cincinnati was a 28-point favorite and came into the contest averaging 43 points and 427 yards per game. The Bearcats had scored a whopping 108 points in two previous American Athletic Conference matchups.

Quarterback Desmond Ridder is a Heisman Trophy candidate and likely early-round NFL draft pick. Tailback Jerome Ford, an Alabama transfer, also looks like a future pro. The Bearcats have plenty of talented weapons in the passing game, notably wide receiver Alec Pierce and tight end Josh Whyle.

That high-powered Cincinnati attack looked pedestrian on Saturday. Newberry surprised the visitors by employing Navy’s base 3-4 defense instead of the 3-3-5 alignment he’d utilized in the four previous games.

Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai scored a fourth-quarter touchdown against Cincinnati on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai scored a fourth-quarter touchdown against Cincinnati on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Ridder admitted afterward the Bearcats were not prepared for that look after preparing all week for the three-high safety look. Newberry caused the standout quarterback more problems by bringing pressure from all over the place, repeatedly forcing Ridder to flee the pocket and unload the ball faster than he wanted.

Ridder was clearly confused and had trouble finding open receivers in completing just 18 of 30 passes for 176 yards and two touchdowns, easily his worst outing of the season.

“I think Coach Newberry called a great game. He was sending pressure a lot and disguising almost all our plays,” junior outside linebacker Nicholas Straw said. “Just moving the front, moving the defensive backs a lot. I think that kind of confused [Ridder] a bit.”

Navy forced Cincinnati into obvious passing downs by stuffing Ford on first and second down. After running wild in consecutive contests against Temple and Central Florida, Ford was limited to just 10 rushing yards in the first half Saturday.

Navy’s front seven deserves enormous credit for controlling the line of scrimmage against a massive Cincinnati offensive line that has manhandled most opponents. Tackle J’arius Warren, nose guards Donald Berniard Jr. and Clay Cromwell along with end Jacob Busic were the unsung heroes.

They held the point of attack and allowed inside linebacker Diego Fagot to deliver another dominant performance with nine tackles, including 2 ½ for loss. Inside linebacker Johnny Hodges had six stops, while outside linebacker Tyler Fletcher added five. Straw, whose raider position was replaced by a safety in the 3-3-5 scheme, did a good job setting the edge and contributed a tackle for loss.

“I think our big key this week was being more physical and controlling the line of scrimmage. I think we did a good job of that,” Straw said. “We were staying in our gaps and doing our jobs well. I thought our linebackers were playing downhill pretty well.”

Cincinnati was limited to 271 total yards, well below its season average. A good amount of that came on two plays — a 43-yard touchdown trot by Ford and a 31-yard scoring strike to Whyle.

Glenn was outstanding with a team-high and career-best 11 tackles to go along with an interception that snuffed out a promising Cincinnati scoring drive. Freshman safety Rayuan Lane (Gilman) recorded a career-high four tackles.

Navy did use the nickel package in obvious passing situations with senior standout Michael McMorris moving from cornerback to safety. For the most part, the entire secondary performed well in pass coverage, allowing just one completion longer than 16 yards.

That marked a major improvement from the previous week when the Midshipmen gave up three passes of 49 yards or more.

“Last week, we got torched. This week we stressed just controlling the passing game,” Glenn said. “Other than the one touchdown pass, they didn’t throw anything deep on us.”

Glenn pointed out that Ridder was unable to take many deep shots because he was under pressure so much. Defensive backs could play more aggressively because they were confident that they would not have to cover for long.

“We had an aggressive game-plan. We probably played more man-to-man than we have all season. We’re moving around all the time and sending heat from all over the field — lot of safety blitzes today,” Glenn said.

Navy’s offense authored just the type of drive it needed early in the game. Lavatai led a 13-play, 79-yard touchdown march that featured an impressive mixture of play calls. Warren went in motion across the formation to take a pitchout that produced a 14-yard gain. Wide receiver Jayden Umbarger (Spalding) continued to prove valuable running reverses, using his speed to pick up 19 yards.

Unfortunately for Navy, there was only one other touchdown drive in the game — a 90-yarder that lasted 16 plays and was the longest given up by Cincinnati this season. Too often, the Midshipmen came up short — settling for three field-goal attempts, one of which was blocked.

“Some of the blueprint of what we were trying to do was playing out,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I thought we possessed the ball well on offense to give ourselves a chance, but you have to finish drives.”

Navy’s inconsistent offense is averaging just shy of 18 points per game, which is not nearly enough to win games in the high-scoring American Athletic Conference.

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Obviously, what happened in the final seconds of the first half — when Cincinnati linebacker DeShawn Pace blocked a Navy field goal attempt then returned the ball 38 yards to set up a 52-yard field goal by Alex Bales — was the turning point of the game.

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However, field position was another huge factor with the Bearcats consistently starting drives close to midfield. Meanwhile, the Midshipmen’s average starting field position was their own 23-yard line.

Cincinnati only had to go 44 yards for its first touchdown because Niumatalolo called for an onside kick after scoring a touchdown late in the first quarter. Niumatalolo said that decision was made going into the game in hopes of surprising the Bearcats early.

“I don’t regret that. We were going to take our chances,” Niumatalolo said. “When you’re playing the No. 2 team in the country you have to take some chances. You can’t play scared. We were going to come in swinging and attack these guys.”

NAVY@TULSA

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1430 AM, 1090 AM

Line: Tulsa by 9 ½

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