Mids, Tulsa aim­ing to take charge of West in the AAC

Win­ner of to­day’s matchup will have in­side track to berth in league ti­tle game

Baltimore Sun - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - By Bill Wag­ner

There was some ap­pre­hen­sion among long­time fans when Navy foot­ball joined the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence in 2015. Af­ter 135 years as an in­de­pen­dent, the Mid­ship­men were ven­tur­ing into the un­known.

Those within the pro­gram had widely ac­knowl­edged that a big rea­son for Navy’s suc­cess, start­ing in 2003, was its abil­ity to mas­sage its sched­ule. Ath­letic direc­tor Chet Glad­chuk had talked about a phi­los­o­phy of play­ing four games in which the Mids would be fa­vored, four in which they would be un­der­dogs and four that would be toss-ups.

Build­ing such a sched­ule in­creased Navy’s chances of win­ning six games and earn­ing a bowl berth.

The Mids lost that flex­i­bil­ity when they be­came a mem­ber of the AAC. Navy was guar­an­teed to play the other five schools in the West Di­vi­sion ev­ery sea­son, while their three East Di­vi­sion op­po­nents would ro­tate.

Hav­ing eight con­fer­ence games, plus ri­valry games against Air Force, Army West Point and Notre Dame, also meant Navy had just one open date each year.

“It’s a re­ally good league. The West side is su­per-com­pet­i­tive. A lot of good foot­ball pro­grams with good coaches and good play­ers,” Navy coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “Week in and week out, you have to be ready to play. That be­ing said, we played a team from the East [South Florida] that beat the crap out of us. So the East is pretty good, too. It’s a very good over­all con­fer­ence.” Tulsa coach Philip Mont­gomery agreed. “I think this one, from top to bot­tom, is as tough as any con­fer­ence I’ve ever been in,” said Mont­gomery, who pre­vi­ously served as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor at Bay­lor in the Big 12 Con­fer­ence. “Ev­ery week, you bet­ter be ready to play. Ev­ery­body can beat you.”

Con­sid­er­ing the cal­iber of the AAC, it is im­pres­sive that Navy has been in con­tention for the con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship in both years since be­com­ing a mem­ber. Last sea­son, Navy met Houston the day af­ter Thanks­giv­ing with the West crown on the line. The Cougars won and went on to cap­ture the AAC cham­pi­onship.

De­spite suf­fer­ing sig­nif­i­cant losses to grad­u­a­tion, Navy is back in the thick of the West race. The Mids have one con­fer­ence loss and are in a strong po­si­tion to ad­vance to the AAC cham­pi­onship game.

“I think ‘pleased’ is a good word,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “To be back in con­tention again feels good. Our guys are ex­cited about the op­por­tu­nity. We came up short last year. Hope­fully, we can seize this op­por­tu­nity.”

Navy (6-2, 4-1) hosts Tulsa (7-2, 4-1) to­day in a matchup of teams tied atop the West. The win­ner will gain a leg up on rep­re­sent­ing the di­vi­sion in the AAC cham­pi­onship game Dec. 2, hosted by the higher seed.

“It’s a huge game for our pro­gram. The win­ner of this game is go­ing to con­trol their own des­tiny,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said.

Tulsa is a sur­prise con­tender af­ter be­ing picked fourth in the West in a pre­sea­son poll. The Golden Hur­ri­cane are rid­ing a three-game win­ning streak in which they’ve av­er­aged 51.3 points.

“Ob­vi­ously, we’re ex­cited about the po­si­tion we’re in,” Mont­gomery said. De­spite sig­nif­i­cant losses to grad­u­a­tion, Navy is atop the West in the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence. “To be back in con­tention again feels good,” coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “There are so many good teams in it, and we’re not one of those that gets talked about of­ten. So our guys are fight­ing for re­spect.

“Any­time you get this late in the sea­son and you have mean­ing­ful games like this, you feel good about that.”

Tulsa has the con­fer­ence’s best run­ning back com­bi­na­tion in James Flan­ders and D’An­gelo Brewer, who have rushed for 1,080 and 983 yards, re­spec­tively. The Golden Hur­ri­cane rank third in the con­fer­ence and 13th na­tion­ally in rush­ing of­fense with 253.3 yards per game.

Mont­gomery, who also serves as of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor, has cre­ated a bal­anced at­tack that av­er­ages 258.8 pass­ing yards. Quar­ter­back Dane Evans is 178-for-307 for 2,244 yards and 18 touch­downs. Kee­van Lu­cas (60 catches for 845 yards and nine touch­downs) and Josh Atkin­son (54 for 714 yards) are a po­tent re­ceiv­ing duo.

Navy de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Dale Pehrson said Tulsa is sim­i­lar to South Florida in its abil­ity to run and pass. That’s not good news con­sid­er­ing the Bulls beat the Mids, 52-45, in a game last month that was not nearly as close as the fi­nal score might in­di­cate.

“Those two backs are re­ally, re­ally spe­cial. A good of­fen­sive line with tough, hard-nosed guys that block re­ally well,” Pehrson said. “A strong-armed quar­ter­back and re­ceivers that can re­ally run. Just a well-coached, re­ally ef­fi­cient of­fense.”

Pehrson said Evans is not as much of a run­ning threat as Houston’s Greg Ward Jr. or South Florida’s Quin­ton Flow­ers, but he has “the speed to hurt you if you don’t keep con­tain.” He said the Golden Hur­ri­cane have the con­fi­dence to call a power-run­ning play on third-and-long.

Like South Florida, Tulsa will line up five wide re­ceivers to force the de­fense to spread out. The Mids left the tackle box empty of­ten against the Bulls and got burned on the ground for do­ing so.

“It’s the same thing. They try to get guys out of the box. If you put too many guys out to de­fend the pass, they’ll hurt you by run­ning the ball in­side,” Pehrson said.

Pehrson did not hes­i­tate when asked whether the Navy coach­ing staff gained a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how to de­fend such an of­fense by play­ing South Florida. “We learned a ton of things. I don’t want to tell you ex­actly what, but there was a lot of stuff.”

Navy’s of­fense also has been clicking on all cylin­ders. Quar­ter­back Will Worth has rushed for 624 yards over the past four games, and the Mids have av­er­aged 40 points and 475 to­tal yards dur­ing that stretch.

“To try to get ready for this of­fense in two or three days is very, very dif­fi­cult to do. Just from a schematic stand­point, you have to change so much of what you do de­fen­sively,” Mont­gomery said. “We just have to be very dis­ci­plined in what we do and play with re­lent­less ef­fort. You can’t mimic it with your scout group. You don’t have a quar­ter­back that op­er­ates it at that level. The ad­just­ments Ken and his staff make through­out games are al­ways re­ally, re­ally well done.”

JOHN RAOUX/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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