Early Saturday morning, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo posted the following message to Twitter: “It’s GAMEDAY in Paradise!”
That tweet accompanied a picture of the Pacific Ocean taken from the balcony of Niumatalolo’s hotel room overlooking Waikiki Beach.
By the end of Saturday, as he headed for the visiting locker room at Aloha Stadium, Niumatalolo was probably feeling like he was in the exact opposite of paradise.
Starting quarterback Cole McDonald led the way as the Hawaii offense went up and down the field at will all night during a 59-41 rout of Navy. McDonald threw for 428 yards and six touchdowns as the Rainbow Warriors raced to a 28-0 lead, withstood a brief comeback by the Midshipmen then finished strong to improve their record to 2-0.
Niumatalolo spoke to The Capital on Sunday after having time to digest the disappointing season-opening loss. Asked to provide a next-day assessment, the 11th-year head coach chose to give credit where credit was due.
“Hawaii was as advertised offensively. I was trying to remember the last time we faced a juggernaut like that, an offense we couldn’t at least hold for a little bit,” Niumatalolo said. “There was no stopping those guys last night. I know it was frustrating for all of us. We have played a lot of good offenses in the past, but Hawaii was as good as I’ve seen in a long time.”
McDonald connected with slot receiver John Ursua on a 50-yard scoring strike to cap a remarkable first half in which Hawaii scored touchdowns on four straight possessions to start the game. Add in a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown and the Midshipmen found themselves down 35-7 with 4:17 remaining until intermission.
Niumatalolo noted that Navy faced a prolific run-and-shoot offense for four years when June Jones was head coach at SMU. It was Jones who brought the system to Hawaii, which enjoyed tremendous success during his nine-year tenure.
Current Hawaii head coach Nick Rolovich, one of many record-setting quarterbacks tutored by Jones, has brought back the run-and-shoot in resounding fashion this season. Through two games, the Rainbow Warriors are averaging 51 points and 570 total yards of offense.
Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said Rolovich has “fancied up” the run-and-shoot and Niumatalolo seconded that assessment when speaking on Sunday. Niumatalolo noted that Hawaii is taking great advantage of McDonald’s mobility by employing run-pass-option plays along with rollouts and designed keepers.
McDonald also has plenty of dangerous weapons at his disposal. Ursua finished with 10 receptions for 167 yards and two touchdowns while fellow slot receiver Cedric Byrd added 11 catches for 90 yards and two scores. Outside wide receiver JoJo Byrd wasn’t bad either, amassing 161 yards and two touchdowns on six targets.
“They have so many different components to that offense with the RPO stuff complementing the run-and-shoot package. The quarterback is such a dynamic runner that it’s hard to get to him because he can move and buy time with his legs or scramble for first downs,” Niumatalolo said. “I thought the two slots were as good of inside receivers as we’ve seen in a long time. They are super smart and know the offense really well. Offensively, that was as good a team as we’ve seen in a long time.”
Niumatalolo praised Rolovich and Hawaii offensive coordinator Brian Smith for not calling the game based off a script, but rather based off what the defense was doing.
“I think Rolo does a really good job of calling the game by feel off what is happening on the field. It is very similar to what we do option-wise in terms of countering what the defense is doing,” Niumatalolo said.
“Rolovich has a really good plan and utilizes all of the talents of his quarterback. That offense is just so hard to defend. It’s like trying to plug one hole and another pops up. You try to defend the inside pass and they go outside. You drop a lot of people into pass coverage and they run the ball. They were just one step ahead all game.”
Niumatalolo readily admitted that Navy made mistakes on defense with blown assignments, missed tackles and the like. More notable was the Midshipmen’s inability to aggressively stop what the Rainbow Warriors were doing, basically a case of being reactive as opposed to proactive.
“We had some busted coverages and those were disappointing. It wasn’t just that. There were times when we were in position and just didn’t make the play. You have to find a way to make a play,” Niumatalolo said.
Hawaii drove the field methodically on the game’s opening possession, taking almost six minutes off the clock while moving 75 yards in 12 plays. Navy came out in zone pass defense and was picked apart. Pehrson switched to man-to-man coverage later in the game and that is when McDonald hit some long pass plays, such as the 50-yarder to Ursua and a 75-yard touchdown toss to Byrd.
“We weren’t stopping them by staying back in zone. On that first drive, they took six minutes and just dinked and dunked us. They were going to just bleed us to death,” Niumatalolo said. “We had to play some man and try to come after them a little bit. Unfortunately, that didn’t work so well either. We couldn’t slow those guys down, which was really frustrating.”
Navy’s offense didn’t help the defense early on, picking up just one first down on three possessions to start the contest. Down 28-0 at the 11:08 mark of the second quarter, the Midshipmen finally got something going when sophomore Nelson Smith came into the game at fullback. Smith broke a 40-yard run on first down and gained 15 yards a few plays later to set up a 3-yard touchdown trot by goal-line quarterback Zach Abey.
While not happy with how the offense performed early, Niumatalolo pointed out the end result was 41 points and 411 total yards.
“We kind of got hit in the mouth early on and it sort of discombobulated us. We sputtered on offense for a while to start, but I thought we played okay once we got going,” he said.
Niumatalolo said Navy’s failure to move the ball and keep the Hawaii offense off the field for most of the first half was no excuse for falling behind 35-7.
“If we’re going to have to score 60 points we’re not going to win many games. You still have to play defense. Just because you don’t score doesn’t mean the other team should score,” he said. “You have to play defense. We have to keep the standard the same. We expect the offense to score every time, but we don’t hold the defense to the same standard. We have to find a way to stop people.”
Starting quarterback Malcolm Perry led Navy in rushing with 108 yards on 17 carries, most of which came on one long run. Perry broke an option keeper 75 yards for a touchdown, quickly darting in and out of one hole that closed then finding another, turning the corner and racing untouched down the middle of the field.
However, Perry managed just 2.2 yards on 16 other carries – an average that was impacted by 27 negative yards. He completed 1 of 3 passes, hooking up with slotback Tre Walker for a 19-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
“I thought Malcolm played OK. He did some good things and there were some other things he needs to get better at doing,” Niumatalolo said. “Everyone has work to do. We lost, which means there’s a ton of work to do.”
Abey excelled in his new role as short-yardage specialist, entering the game when Navy was in the red zone and scoring four touchdowns on runs of 7, 3, 2 and 1 yards. Third string quarterback Garret Lewis played the final series when Navy needed to throw the ball and completed 5 of 9 passes for 66 yards while leading a touchdown drive.
“Zach and Garret both came in and played well. I thought that plan went well. Zach and Garret did some good things,” Niumatalolo said.
Smith wound up with a career-high 86 yards rushing on 10 carries while starting fullback Anthony Gargiulo ground out 40 yards on 10 attempts. Navy slotbacks only took five pitchouts, but two went for big gains with Tazh Maloy gaining 23 yards and Keoni-Kordell Makekau picking up 21.
“My focus is not the offense right now. That’s the least of my concerns right now,” Niumatalolo said. “We need to get our defense right because we play a ton of potent offenses in our conference. We’re not going to win another game if we give up that amount of points.”
Perry’s 75-yard touchdown gave the Midshipmen momentum going into halftime and they opened the second half in strong fashion.
Perry directed a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that featured a 19-yard run by third string fullback Mike Martin. Outside linebacker Nizaire Cromartie then delivered a strip-sack with defensive end Josh Webb recovering the fumble at the Hawaii 9-yard line. Navy quickly capitalized on the turnover with Abey scoring off a 7-yard run that cut the deficit to 38-28 with 6:28 left in the third quarter.
“We sputtered early on offense and got in a hole. So I felt very fortunate to come back and be within 10 points,” Niumatalolo said. “With the way the game unfolded, it was actually a blessing in disguise that we got the ball to start the second half. We were able to keep things going after Malcolm’s big run.”
Navy finally forced Hawaii to punt on the ensuing possession and had a chance to get within single digits with either a touchdown or a field goal. However, on third-and-13 from the Navy 44, Perry dropped back to pass then stopped because he heard a whistle. Several offensive linemen also stopped playing because they too heard a whistle.
Unfortunately for the visitors, the whistle apparently came from the stands and officials did not stop play with Perry taking a sack that forced a turnover on downs.