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
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.”