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Encouraged coming off Houston loss, coach Ken Niumatalolo and Navy football face another tough test in Central Florida

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he has been receiving condolence letters and messages, even from close friends. It’s not surprising considering the Midshipmen are 0-3 and struggling on a lot of levels.

However, Niumatalolo is in no mood to wallow in disappointment and certainly isn’t giving up on this season as the Mids still have nine more games.

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Navy is in the midst of a brutal stretch of games against programs picked to finish first through fifth in the American Athletic Conference. Up next is Central Florida, which was predicted to be runner-up to defending conference champion Cincinnati in the media preseason poll.

In a passionate and fiery speech in the locker room following a 28-20 loss at Houston Saturday night, Navy senior captain and standout inside linebacker Diego Fagot urged his teammates to keep fighting and assured them things would turn around.

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“We’ve got great leadership on our team, and we have great young men. These are some super resilient kids,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re a proud program and we’ve won a lot of games in this conference. We’re struggling a little bit right now, but we ain’t going anywhere.

“The resolve is definitely there from everybody. Our players are going to keep scrapping, and our coaches are going to keep slugging it out,” he added.

While Cincinnati might be setting the standard of late, Central Florida has been the most consistently successful program in the AAC. The Knights are two-time conference champions and boast an overall record of 43-9 since the start of 2017.

Central Florida was in the conversation for the national championship after posting a 13-0 record and beating Baylor in a New Year’s Six Bowl in 2017. The Knights came close to duplicating that performance the following season with a 12-1 mark.

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That sustained success has led to the last two UCF head coaches being hired away by Power Five conference schools. Scott Frost left for his alma mater Nebraska while Josh Huepel is now at Tennessee.

Such is Central Florida’s reputation and its commitment to football that it replaced Huepel with Guz Malzahn, who was surprisingly fired following a successful eight-year tenure at Auburn where he compiled a 68-35 record and reached the national championship game in 2013.

Early season results would indicate the Knights are good again this year. Central Florida beat Boise State 36-31 in the opener and was nipped 42-35 by Louisville on Sept. 17.

“I did not need to see their film this season to know how good they are,” Niumatalolo said of the Knights. “They’ve been one of the best teams in our league, one of the best teams in the country. You didn’t need to watch film to know that. They’ve always had good coaches and good personnel.”

Niumatalolo described Central Florida as “an elite” program and said it will be a “tall order” for Navy to pull off the upset. The Knights, who had a bye last weekend, opened as 15 ½ point favorites despite the fact starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel is out indefinitely after sustaining a broken clavicle at the end of the Louisville game. The Hawaii native ranks sixth in Central Florida history with 8,041 passing yards, having surpassed former NFL starter Blake Bortles this season.

Central Florida has announced that true freshman Mikey Keene will start in Gabriel’s absence. Keene got into the game for mop-up duty toward the end of a 63-14 rout of Bethune-Cookman and completed 4 of 7 passes for 55 yards and a touchdown.

Niumatalolo acknowledged it is difficult to prepare for a quarterback who has barely played at the college level. He guessed the Knights would employ similar schemes despite the quarterback change and figured the Midshipmen will make adjustments during the game after seeing Keene’s style of play and strengths.

That said, Niumatalolo would rather face a freshman making his first career start instead of a potential NFL prospect.

“It’s good for us because we recognize how good Dillon Gabriel is. He’s a phenomenal football player and we’re hoping for a speedy recovery for him,” said Niumatalolo, who was the backup quarterback at Hawaii behind Garrett Gabriel, Dillon’s father.

Navy is coming off a 28-20 loss at Houston in which it showed vast improvement offensively. The Midshipmen amassed 300 yards of total offense with most of that coming in the first half. Sophomore quarterback Xavier Arline looked more comfortable leading the triple-option attack and directed four long scoring drives. The Mids established the fullback dive that is the engine of the option, as Isaac Ruoss and James Harris II combined for 102 rushing yards.

“I’ve been doing this for 31 years and I don’t know if I’ve ever been more encouraged in a loss than I was Saturday. I saw Navy football in the first half. There were things there that I haven’t seen in a while,” Niumatalolo said.

“There are no moral victories, but I was encouraged because I thought we played better. We had a chance to win that football game against a really good Houston team.”

In addition to the condolence letters and messages, Niumatalolo said he’s also been receiving motivational speeches from well-wishers. He is not reflecting on a winless September, but rather looking ahead to better things in October.

“In this profession, you always have to move on. You don’t look back or ahead. All of our arrows are pointed at UCF this week. We’re focused on how we can continue to improve,” he said. “September is over. We’re starting a new month with UCF.”

CENTRAL FLORIDA@NAVY

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

TV: CBS Sports Network Radio: 1430 AM, 1090 AM

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