Mids try­ing to right ship vs. Tem­ple

‘Con­cerned’ Navy alarmed by 35-7 loss to Air Force

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Bill Wagner

For Navy foot­ball fans, what hap­pened last week­end in Colorado Springs was alarm­ing.

Air Force ab­so­lutely ham­mered Navy, 35-7, in the first leg of the Com­man­der-in­Chief’s Tro­phy se­ries. For the Fal­cons, it was their most lop­sided de­feat of the Mid­ship­men since 2002 when they won at home by a score of 48-7.

That re­sult was not so sur­pris­ing be­cause Navy was ter­ri­ble at the time, in the midst of a three-year stretch when it com­piled a 3-30 record.

Most ob­servers thought the Navy pro­gram was well past the point when it could pos­si­bly lose to a fel­low ser­vice academy in such con­vinc­ing fash­ion. Af­ter all, the Mid­ship­men have built a steady, con­sis­tent pro­gram that has posted win­ning records in 14 of the last 15 sea­sons.

Satur­day’s matchup with Tem­ple (3-3, 2-0 Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence) marks

the mid­way point of the sea­son and Navy (2-3, 1-1) finds it­self at a cross­roads. The Mid­ship­men are rid­ing a two-game los­ing streak and des­per­ately need to turn things around in a hurry in or­der to keep alive hopes for a win­ning sea­son and bowl berth.

Even coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo ac­knowl­edged the sit­u­a­tion is dire, stat­ing af­ter the Air Force loss that he was “very con­cerned” be­cause Navy is “not play­ing very well right now.”

Ni­u­mat­alolo is in his 11th sea­son as head coach and 21st over­all with the pro­gram. There have been bad losses dur­ing that span and Navy has al­most al­ways man­aged to right the ship. In fact, the Mid­ship­men have a his­tory of fol­low­ing dev­as­tat­ing de­feats with up­lift­ing vic­to­ries.

It most re­cently hap­pened last year af­ter Navy ab­sorbed a 14-13 loss to archri­val Army in the reg­u­lar-sea­son fi­nale. Ni­u­mat­alolo made some changes to the prac­tice rou­tine and Navy re­bounded to blowout Vir­ginia, 49-7, in the Mil­i­tary Bowl.

In 2016, Navy lost at Air Force then bounced back to up­set na­tion­ally ranked Hous­ton in what re­mains one of its big­gest wins in AAC play.

It is tough times like these when it helps to have a vet­eran coach­ing staff and Ni­u­mat­alolo is blessed to have seven as­sis­tants who have been with the pro­gram for 11 years or more.

“We just have to keep grind­ing. There is no magic wand on this stuff. We just have to go back to work. Our staff has been to­gether a long time and that has al­ways been our ap­proach,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “We can’t panic. We just have to be re­ally hum­ble and self-crit­i­cal and look at where we made mis­takes. So the mes­sage is: Don’t panic, keep work­ing, be hum­ble and find a way to move on.”

Navy’s of­fense strug­gled dur­ing the back-to-back losses to SMU and Air Force. The Mid­ship­men have been some­what one-di­men­sional with quar­ter­back Mal­colm Perry tak­ing the bulk of car­ries. Bal­ance has al­ways been a hall­mark of the triple-op­tion of­fense, but the full­backs and slot­backs have not been in­volved nearly as much as years past.

Ni­u­mat­alolo re­jected the no­tion of mov­ing Perry back to slot­back and in­stalling Gar­ret Lewis as the start­ing quar­ter­back. He said quar­ter­back play was far from the only is­sue with the of­fense at the mo­ment and noted the Mids must get bet­ter across the board.

Hear­ing fans and me­dia won­der aloud whether the coach­ing staff has con­sid­ered per­son­nel changes or schematic al­ter­ations amused Ni­u­mat­alolo, who said the coach­ing staff is con­stantly dis­cussing ways to im­prove the team.

“That’s what we do all day. It’s not like we come in there and watch Fam­ily Feud or put on the Price is Right at 10 o’clock. There are in­tri­cate things we talk about ev­ery day,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said. “Peo­ple ask if we’re go­ing to coach harder now. They don’t re­al­ize it’s a com­mando raid ev­ery day. I don’t know how to coach harder than I al­ready do. If things aren’t go­ing well you have to try to change. You have to look at per­son­nel and schemes and how you’re coach­ing.”

Ni­u­mat­alolo re­sponded sim­i­larly when asked dur­ing the Amer­i­can Ath­letic Con­fer­ence weekly tele­con­fer­ence if the coach­ing staff would con­duct a sum­mit ses­sion in the wake of the re­sound­ing loss to Air Force.

“I think ev­ery week is a sum­mit. Ev­ery week you make changes and fig­ure out how you can get bet­ter. You’re al­ways try­ing to im­prove. That’s what you do week by week,” he said. “We’re at the Naval Academy. There is no mar­gin of er­ror. You have to scru­ti­nize ev­ery­thing week in and week out. You have to coach with your hair on fire and with a great sense of ur­gency.”

Faced with a sit­u­a­tion in which it des­per­ately needs a bounce-back win, Mal­colm Perry will stay at quar­ter­back, ac­cord­ing to coach Ken Ni­u­mat­alolo de­spite his re­cent strug­gles for the Mids. Navy would rather not have seen Tem­ple next on the sched­ule. The Owls have won the last two meet­ings be­tween the schools while de­fend­ing the triple-op­tion quite well.

Tem­ple held Navy to 136 rush­ing yards on a whop­ping 52 at­tempts in last sea­son’s meet­ing at Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field. Start­ing quar­ter­back Zach Abey was swarmed by mul­ti­ple de­fend­ers as he tried to pound the ball up the mid­dle, manag­ing only 60 yards on 25 car­ries.

Two years ago, in the AAC Cham­pi­onship game, the Mids mus­tered just 168 rush­ing yards against a pow­er­ful de­fense that fea­tured sev­eral fu­ture NFL play­ers such as Haa­son Red­dick (Ari­zona Car­di­nals) and Tavon Young (Bal­ti­more Ravens).

Ni­u­mat­alolo noted that Tem­ple’s de­fense han­dled the op­tion in con­sec­u­tive sea­sons while be­ing led by two dif­fer­ent staffs. Matt Rhule was the head coach in 2016 be­fore be­ing hired away by Bay­lor and re­placed by Ge­off Collins.

“They’ve had a re­ally good plan and played it well. You have good coaches that know what they’re do­ing with re­ally phys­i­cal play­ers,” Ni­u­mat­alolo said.

PAUL W. GILLE­SPIE/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

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