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Disappointed but encouraged, Navy football prepares for Tulsa on another short week

For the second time this month, Navy football has a quick turnaround for a road game as it travels to Tulsa for a Friday night affair.

Navy fell to Memphis, 35-17, on Oct. 14 to drop to 2-6 in weekday games since joining the American Athletic Conference. On the bright side, most of the losses came on Thursday night or Friday afternoon. The Midshipmen are 2-1 playing on Friday nights.

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When asked what he learned about the Thursday night game against Memphis that could help the coaching staff prepare for the Friday night matchup at Tulsa, coach Ken Niumatalolo said, “I learned we didn’t play very well. Whatever I did, I have to change it.”

Another statistic that bodes well for the Midshipmen is the fact they are 4-0 against the Golden Hurricane at H.A. Chapman Stadium. Navy has outscored Tulsa 149-83 on its home field.

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Navy (1-6, 1-4) heads to northeast Oklahoma needing to win all five of its remaining games to avoid a second straight losing season. While the overall record is disappointing, the Midshipmen are buoyed by the fact they have gone toe-to-toe with three of the top teams in the conference.

Navy took second-ranked Cincinnati to the wire on Saturday before falling 27-20. The Mids battled then-No.19 SMU close in a 31-24 loss, and they had Houston, which is receiving votes in the AP Top 25 poll, on the ropes in a 28-20 defeat.

“We just had our team meeting. Guys are disappointed and also encouraged,” Niumatalolo said. “The margin of error is extremely thin. We had a chance to beat all three of those teams, but the reality is that we didn’t. Why? Here are the reasons.

“How do we coach better to eliminate the mistakes? We’re just trying to coach better, play better and find a way to get a ‘W.’”

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Tulsa (3-4, 2-1) has won three of its last four following an 0-3 start that was the product of a rigorous nonconference schedule. In the season opener, the Golden Hurricane lost 19-17 to UC-Davis, which is now 7-1. They also have road losses to Oklahoma State and Ohio State, which are currently ranked Nos. 15 and 5, respectively, in the AP poll.

Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, on the sideline in the fourth quarter on Saturday against Cincinnati, said "guys are disappointed and also encouraged" after battling the No. 2 team in the country to a one-score game.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, on the sideline in the fourth quarter on Saturday against Cincinnati, said "guys are disappointed and also encouraged" after battling the No. 2 team in the country to a one-score game. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

Tulsa is coming off its best season during the seven-year tenure of coach Philip Montgomery, having earned a berth in the AAC championship game after going unbeaten (6-0) during the regular season in 2020. They fell to Cincinnati, 27-24, on a game-winning field goal.

Tulsa returned 11 All-American Athletic Conference selections from that runner-up squad and brought in 17 transfers, including eight from Power Five conference schools. The Golden Hurricane have a veteran roster featuring 20 graduate students and 10 who are playing in either their fifth, sixth or seventh year of eligibility.

Inside linebacker Zaven Collins spearheaded a hard-hitting defense that limited Navy to 153 total yards in a 19-6 win in Annapolis last season. Collins, the Chuck Bednarik Award winner and a unanimous All-American, is now playing with the Arizona Cardinals after being selected with the 16th overall pick in the NFL draft.

While Niumatalolo and the rest of the Navy offensive coaching staff are glad to see Collins gone, Tulsa brings back plenty of other talented defensive players. Heading the list is defensive tackle Jaxon Player, a first team All-ACC pick who has recorded 17 career tackles for loss. The 6-foot, 294-pound senior was a disruptive force up front during last season’s meeting with the Midshipmen.

“Jackson has given us trouble over the years. He’s not the tallest kid but he’s super-explosive, super-athletic and plays really hard,” Niumatalolo said.

Senior defensive end Cullen Wick, who was injured for most of last season, ranks 10th nationally with 7 ½ tackles for loss despite sitting out two games this fall. Linebacker Justin Wright and safety Cristan Williams were both second team All-AAC selections a year ago.

“Our games against Tulsa have always been slugfests. Defensively, they’re not very sophisticated but very sound, very physical and well-coached.”

Quarterback Davis Brin directs a Tulsa attack that ranks 21st nationally in total offense with 459.4 yards per game. The Golden Hurricane are similar to the Midshipmen in that they’ve had trouble finishing, ranking 88th in scoring offense with an average of 25.4 points.

Brin has already passed for 1,915 yards and 10 touchdowns through seven games. Wide receiver Josh Johnson has been the primary target and has 43 catches for 582 yards and three scores. Sam Crawford has averaged 19 yards per reception and has four touchdowns.

The Golden Hurricane have been without their top wide receiver, 2020 second team All-AAC choice Keylon Stokes, for much of this season.

Meanwhile, Tulsa boasts one of the best running backs in the conference in Shamari Brooks, who just became the fifth player in program history to surpass 3,000 career rushing yards. The fifth-year senior has 3,261 yards and needs 254 more to move into fourth place all-time at Tulsa.

Brooks runs behind an offensive line led by four returning all-conference picks in tackle Tyler Smith, guards Dante Bivens and Dylan Couch, and center Gerard Wheeler.

NAVY@TULSA

Friday, 7:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM

Line: Tulsa by 11

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