Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said on Monday that Navy has played the “toughest schedule I’ve seen here in a while.”
Seven of the 11 opponents to date are already bowl eligible and Navy has not fared well in those games, going 1-6. That lone win came over Memphis, which plays Houston on Friday for the West Division title within the American Athletic Conference.
A loss to Tulane on Saturday would drop Navy to 1-7 against bowl-eligible schools. However, a win would prevent the Green Wave from reaching the postseason.
It is déjà vu all over again for Tulane (5-6, 4-3), which must win its regular season finale in order to become bowl eligible. Last season, Tulane was in the exact same position and wound up losing a heartbreaker to SMU, which made a goal-line stand as time expired.
A replay review was needed to determine that Jonathan Banks did not cross the goal line off a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line and SMU escaped with a 41-38 win.
“It’s crazy to think that we’re in the same predicament we were last year, trying to fight to the last game,” Tulane running back Darius Bradwell told the Times-Picayune. “Since we’ve been in this position before, we know what to do. We just got to execute. Like I said the whole year, we just got to execute and be confident in what we’re doing.”
Following a tough start to the season, Tulane won three straight to put itself in contention for the West Division crown. That dream came crashing down last Thursday night as Tulane was routed by Houston, 48-17.
Going to a bowl game would be a big deal for Tulane, which has only appeared in one over the previous 15 seasons. The Green Wave have not won in the postseason since the 2002 Hawaii Bowl.
Head coach Willie Fritz said it would also be important for the program to finish with a winning record in the American Athletic Conference. The Green Wave would be 5-3 in the AAC with a win on Saturday.
“We just want to take a step forward with our program in terms of number of conference wins number one and being able to go to a bowl game number two,” Fritz said. “You always want to be playing meaningful games in November that allow you to play meaningful games in December if you win.”
Meanwhile, Navy (3-8, 2-5) is trying to salvage a season that fell apart amid a seven-game losing streak. The Midshipmen are hoping to close with a three-game winning streak in order to enter the offseason with positive momentum.
“We want to finish out strong. We’d like to win all the rest of our games,” Niumatalolo said during the AAC teleconference on Monday.
Navy took a step in the right direction on Saturday by beating Tulsa 37-29 behind the strong play of quarterback Zach Abey, who was named to the AAC weekly honor roll after rushing for 128 yards and two touchdowns. The Archbishop Spalding product did a superb job of directing an offense that rolled up 404 yards.
“Zach Abey played really well so I was proud of him. I thought he was really good with his checks and got us into the right plays — he took care of the ball and got it to the right people,” Niumatalolo said. “If Zach continues to play like that we’ll have a great shot each week.”
Navy executed the read triple-option at a high level against Tulsa with Abey getting the fullbacks and the slotbacks involved. Anthony Gargiulo and Nelson Smith teamed up to gain 106 yards on the fullback dive while Malcolm Perry and Tre Walker led a slotback corps that took 12 pitchouts for 156 yards.
“I’m encouraged because I feel like we’re starting to play better now. I thought we were starting to improve in bits and parts of other games and we finally put it all together last week,” Niumatalolo added. “I thought offensively we played as well as we’ve played all season. We were able to get all facets of our option going as far as the quarterback, fullbacks and slotbacks.”
Tulane and Navy have engaged in some real slugfests the past couple years. The Midshipmen nipped the Green Wave 23-21 in Annapolis last season after traveling to New Orleans and pulling out a 21-14 win in 2016.
Last season, a safety that was the result of a bad snap when Tulane was punting from its own end zone proved the difference. Navy needed a pair of fourth-down defensive stops late in the game to preserve the victory.
Two years ago, quarterback Will Worth scored on a 1-yard plunge with 3:08 remaining in the game then threw a two-point conversion pass to slotback Toneo Gulley as Navy came from behind to beat Tulane at Yulman Stadium. Kicker Andrew DiRocco missed a 45-yard field goal that would have given the Green Wave a four-point lead with 7:39 left while quarterback Jonathan Brantley threw an interception on the home team’s final possession.
“They’ve had our number the last couple years. We’ve played them close, but close isn’t good enough,” Fritz said. They’ve done the things they needed in order to win those games, particularly at the end.”
Fritz gave his players the weekend off following the Thursday night game and said the coaching staff used the extra time to prepare for patented Navy’s triple-option attack.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo meets with the media following Navy’s defeat of Tulsa.
“I’m glad we have a little longer week because we’re banged up and hopefully a few guys can come back and play this Saturday,” Fritz said. “We gave the guys a little time off from football so they could get away from the coaches and regroup. I think our guys are primed to really well on Saturday.”
Niumatalolo knows Tulane will be highly motivated to earn just its second bowl berth since 2002.
“We’ve always struggled against Tulane so we expect a real battle down there in Louisiana. We were very, very fortunate to beat them last year and the year before,” Niumatalolo said. “We know they are playing for bowl eligibility so this is a huge game for them and we are expecting their best.”