ORLANDO, Fla. — Ken Niumatalolo was extremely emotional in the wake of his biggest win in three seasons. Navy’s 15th-year coach could not hold back the tears while doing a postgame interview with ESPN.
It was totally understandable.
A third straight losing season that has featured four losses of a touchdown or less has worn on Niumatalolo. However, he has been buoyed by a young squad that has continued to improve, continued to battle.
The Midshipmen finally got over the hump in a big way by beating the first-place team in the American Athletic Conference.
Fullback Daba Fofana rushed for 114 yards to lead an offense that held the ball for almost 40 minutes, while outside linebacker John Marshall totaled 10 tackles and four sacks to spearhead a defense that totally shut down a high-powered attack as Navy stunned No. 20 Central Florida, 17-14.
An announced crowd of 44,813 booed the home team as it left the field after a lackluster first half. Those fans began filing out of FBC Mortgage Stadium as the visiting Midshipmen ran out the clock with an impressive 11-play drive.
“I’m just so happy and proud of our football players. Just the resolve they showed,” Niumatalolo said. “That was a grind and our kids laid everything on the line against a really, really good team.”
Quarterback Xavier Arline did a superb job of directing the triple-option offense, which punished UCF with a time-consuming ground game and went 4-for-4 on fourth down. Slotbacks Vincent Terrell Jr. (41 yards) and Maquel Haywood (36) as well as backup fullback Anton Hall Jr. (37) helped the Midshipmen amassed 248 rushing yards.
Arline only attempted one pass (which was incomplete) as Navy played keep-away from a UCF offense that came into the contest averaging almost 36 points and 500 yards per game.
“We knew we had to burn the clock,” Niumatalolo said. “Our goal coming into the game was to hold the ball for 40 minutes and we were almost able to do that. It all started because we got stops on defense.”
Marshall played like a man possessed in setting a single-game school record for sacks. The senior captain now has 10 1/2 sacks, which sets the single-season school record. Tyler Tidwell, also an outside linebacker, recorded 10 sacks in 2005.
Inside linebacker Colin Ramos notched seven tackles and a fumble recovery for Navy, which held UCF to two touchdowns and 314 total yards. Outside linebacker Nicholas Straw and inside linebacker Will Harbour added five tackles apiece.
“I thought the defense played awesome. We bent but didn’t break and were able to hold them in the red zone,” Niumatalolo said.
Kicker Bijan Nichols, who missed nine games to start the season, booted a 46-yard field goal that provided the winning margin. Punter Riley Riethman played a huge role in the game, averaging 50 yards on six punts.
“It was great to have Bijan back to make that big kick and Riley flipped the field a couple times, which was huge,” Niumatalolo said.
It was an uplifting victory for Navy (4-7, 4-4), which evened its record in the American Athletic Conference. The Midshipmen have shown dramatic improvement during a difficult three-game stretch that started with a road game against Cincinnati (20-10 loss) and a neutral site meeting with Notre Dame (35-32 loss).
“We’ve been so close. I felt good coming out of the Cincinnati loss because I could see Navy football. Even though we lost to Notre Dame, I could see some hope,” said Niumatalolo, who now has six victories over teams ranked nationally by the Associated Press during his 15-year tenure.
“I’m grateful we were able to turn the corner against a really good team on the road. Fortunately, because of [the players’] determination and resolve, we were able to come away with a big victory. I feel really good because this catapults into our biggest game.”
Navy now has three weeks to prepare for the season-ending showdown against archrival Army, which will be held Dec. 10 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
Wide receiver Javon Baker had 13 receptions for 101 yards and a touchdown for UCF (8-3, 5-2), which only needed to beat struggling Navy and last place South Florida to clinch a berth in the AAC championship game.
Quarterbacks John Rhys Plumlee and Mikey Keene each played a half and combined to complete 19 of 33 passes for 230 yards for the Knights, whose hopes of earning a New Year’s Six Bowl were dealt a brutal blow.
“First of all, extremely tough loss. Real disappointing for our guys, especially our seniors,” said UCF coach Gus Malzahn, noting it was senior day. “Give Navy credit. They did what it took to win the game.”
Things could not have gone any better for Navy in the first half.
The Midshipmen won the pregame coin toss and elected to receive, which marks a major departure. Niumatalolo wanted to take an early lead and that’s exactly what Navy did thanks to an impressive game-opening drive.
Fofana broke loose for a 46-yard run to highlight an 11-play, 75-yard march that produced a touchdown. The Mids went for it fourth-and-goal from the 1 and Arline dove over on the quarterback sneak to make it 7-0 at the 8:20 mark of the first quarter.
“I feel like when we get off to a fast start we’re a hard team to beat. Just the nature of our offense and the way our defense has been playing,” Niumatalolo said. “I think it was huge to get ahead against these guys.”
Fofana, whose long run came off a well-executed trap play, concurred: “Taking the ball and driving it right down their throat really set the tone.”
It was the first time this season the Mids scored a touchdown on their opening drive and the added bonus was that it took just over 6 1/2 minutes off the clock.
UCF punted on its opening possession, then was forced to settle for field goals on its second and third. Colton Boomer connected from 21 and 31 yards to cut the deficit to 7-6. That was a major victory for the Mids as the defense held on consecutive trips into the red zone by the Knights.
Those stops proved more significant after Navy followed with another time-consuming drive, this time a 13-play, 84-yard march that took almost seven minutes off the clock. Fofana appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage, but slipped out the backdoor and raced 20 yards into enemy territory.
Navy went for it on fourth down for the second time in the game and Fofana converted with a strong 5-yard run. Hall followed with a 16-yard run to set up first-and-goal and Terrell scored on the next play, taking a jet sweep around the left side to increase the lead to 14-6 with 1:33 left in the half.
After the Knights rushed for only 47 yards in the first half, Malzahn decided to abandon the ground game. Keene came off the bench and promptly completed three passes for 79 yards as UCF scored on its opening possession of the second half.
Keene threw beautiful bomb to O’Keefe for 45 yards. After being sacked on first down, Keene dropped a perfect pass into the arms of Baker for a 28-yard scoring strike. The Knights used a trick play to convert a 2-point conversion with Keene handing off to Plumlee, who then fired to Baker in the end zone and suddenly it was 14-14 with just 1:25 elapsed in the third quarter.
It seemed a bad sign that Navy went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, giving the ball right back to UCF. However, that is when Marshall made one of the biggest plays of the game with a strip-sack of Keene. Ramos recovered the fumble and the Mids were in business at the home team’s 32-yard line.
Navy gained 6 yards and that was enough to get into field goal position for Nichols, who drilled the ball through the middle of the uprights in just his second game of the season after being sidelined with a lower body injury.
That three-point lead held up because of the splendid play of the Navy defense, which harassed Keene the rest of the way. UCF managed only one first down on its next three possessions and still trailed going into the fourth quarter.
Navy took almost six minutes off the clock with an odd eight-play, 27-yard drive that ended with a 47-yard punt by Riethman. UCF took over at its own 20-yard line and steadily moved into enemy territory.
Facing fourth-and-4 from the Navy 43, Malzahn had to go for it with time winding down. That is when Williams came up big, jumping a slant route for a pass breakup that forced a turnover on downs.
Navy took over with 5:54 remaining and proceeded to salt away the remaining time. Arline converted a crucial fourth-and-1 to prevent a three-and-out and the Mids wound up picking up three total first downs before Arline took a knee twice to close out the upset.
“That’s Navy football. That’s grit and what we’re all about. In that situation, there is no other option than to get the first down,” Arline said.
Army vs. Navy
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Saturday, Dec. 10, 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1430 AM