Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo was still emotional when asked after Saturday’s heartbreaking loss to Air Force what he told the team.
“Everybody involved with our program is hurting right now. It’s like somebody has split your heart open,” he said. “There’s nothing I can say that would take away the pain. We just have to come back and get ready for Tulsa.”
Navy (1-3 overall, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) had Saturday night and Sunday to dwell on what went wrong in a narrow 13-10 defeat to Air Force. By Monday, the Midshipmen had moved on.
Two teams desperate for a win will meet Saturday afternoon when Navy (1-3) hosts Tulsa (2-3) in Annapolis in conference action. The Midshipmen lead the all-time series 7-2 after edging the Golden Hurricane, 20-17, last season.
Niumatalolo reviewed the Air Force tape and remains convinced Navy was just “a couple plays away” from winning the game.
“I told our guys that we’re not far off. We’ve got some resilient kids and we’re looking forward to bouncing back against Tulsa,” he said.
As has been the case all season, many of the questions during Niumatalolo’s Monday news conference were about the struggling offense. Navy ranks 129th out of 131 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring offense (13.2 points per game) and 117th in total offense (304.8 yards).
Niumatalolo admitted the Midshipmen are nowhere near the standard set for most of the triple-option era and said there are numerous areas to address.
“We’ve definitely got to improve a ton on the offensive side of the ball,” he said.
Navy has been more effective passing than running the past two games. Quarterback Tai Lavatai has combined for 281 yards passing against East Carolina and Air Force, and the Midshipmen have taken advantage of talented weapons with receivers Jayden Umbarger and Mark Walker, along with slotbacks Maquel Haywood and Vincent Terrell Jr., all making big catches.
Niumatalolo noted that one bright spot on the offensive side in recent contests has been pass protection. However, the 15th-year coach does not feel passing 20 to 25 times a game is the answer to their woes.
“We definitely have to take advantage of [Lavatai’s] arm, but we don’t want to make a living off throwing the ball a ton. That’s not who we are,” Niumatalolo said.
That said, Niumatalolo said the offensive coaching staff has already implemented changes designed to improve the overall production and said the evaluation of what works and what doesn’t will continue. The Midshipmen are operating out of the shotgun formation more often because Lavatai is more comfortable there, and there have been some personnel changes, too, such as inserting sophomore Connor McMahon at left guard.
“We’re looking at everything,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s not like we’re saying to stay status quo.”
Despite the offensive issues, Navy ranks second nationally in time of possession — hanging onto the ball an average of 36-plus minutes. That is by design and has helped the defense, which ranks No. 39 nationally with 21 points per game allowed.
However, Navy’s inability to finish drives with touchdowns — or even field goals in some cases — has been costly.
“If you’re possessing the ball and shortening the game … if you’re not scoring, it makes it even harder,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s definitely been a big emphasis — just finishing drives.”
Tulsa has played better than its record indicates, having lost 35-27 to Mississippi of the Southeastern Conference and 31-21 to defending AAC champion Cincinnati. The other loss came in double overtime (40-37) to Wyoming, which beat Air Force.
Quarterback Davis Brin has led Tulsa’s offense, which is averaging 35.4 points and 462 total yards per game, ranking 36th and 27th nationally, respectively. The redshirt senior has completed 60% of passes for 1,555 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Brin has been bothered by a nagging ankle injury, however, and if he cannot go the Golden Hurricane will turn to talented redshirt freshman Braylon Braxton.
Tulsa has one of the top wideouts in the AAC in graduate student Keylon Stokes, who ranks second in FBS with 613 receiving yards. Stokes has 3,163 career receiving yards and is within range of the school record held by Howard Twilley (3,343).
“We know who Tulsa is — just a very good football team. They play everyone tough,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo and Tulsa counterpart Philip Montgomery are the longest-tenured coaches in the AAC at 15 and eight years, respectively.
“Phil Montgomery has been around a long time and is a really good football coach. They know what they want to do offensively and defensively,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy has been outscored 30-7 in the first quarter through four games. In the three losses, the Midshipmen have given up a touchdown on the opponent’s opening drive. Niumatalolo said that trend needs to end Saturday before the partisan crowd at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“I say this every week, but we’ve got to get off to a good start,” Niumatalolo said. “If we can get off to a good start then the crowd can get into it.”
Navy has some growing injury concerns as All-AAC kicker Bijan Nichols has yet to appear in a game, while starting punter Riley Riethman left the Air Force game after aggravating a nagging ailment.
Starting fullback Anton Hall Jr. got hurt on the second play from scrimmage against Air Force and did not return. Niumatalolo was uncertain on Monday afternoon of Hall’s status but seemed prepared to be without the talented sophomore on Saturday.
Daba Fofana and Logan Point are the only other fullbacks who have appeared in a game this season. Niumatalolo said sophomore Thomas Marshall and freshman Alex Tecza would battle for the third spot on the depth chart if Hall is sidelined.
Saturday, 3:30 p.m.
TV: CBS Sports Network
Radio: 1430 AM
Line: Tulsa by 4