Ken Niumatalolo has been watching the college football bowl games regularly during this holiday season. Navy’s veteran head coach has noticed one trend that has shown through whether it was the Cheribundi Tart Cherry Boca Raton Bowl, DXL Frisco Bowl or Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl.
“It has been interesting to me watching the bowls because it seems like there is always one team is ready to play and one team that is not,” Niumatalolo said. “During the bowl season, it’s always interesting to me how diametrically opposed two teams can be.”
Niumatalolo was speaking outside the main ballroom of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the Military Bowl luncheon was being held on Wednesday. The 10th-year coach admitted there is concern that Navy could be flat coming into this contest because it is still recuperating from a crushing loss.
With the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy on the line, Navy endured a 14-13 loss to archrival Army on Dec. 9 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Kicker Bennett Moehring missed a last-second field goal by mere inches and a potentially uplifting victory became a mind-numbing defeat.
Now the Midshipmen must figure out how to get themselves up for one more game that has nowhere near as much meaning.
Navy (6-6) and Virginia (6-6) meet in the 10th annual Military Bowl, being held Thursday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. The game, rated a tossup, gives Navy a chance to knock off a Power Five conference opponent while building positive momentum going into the offseason and Niumatalolo is anxious to see how his troops will react.
“We’re coming off a tough loss a couple weeks ago. It was a pretty devastating loss for our program. Hopefully, our guys have moved on and found a way to get ready for this team. Because if we’re not, we’ll get embarrassed by these guys,” Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo believes the way Navy lost to Army made it more difficult to stomach. The Midshipmen took a week off for final exams then returned to the field on Dec.19, conducting six practices in preparation for the Military Bowl. Niumatalolo said it has “taken our team some time to get over it,” but believes the players have finally moved on.
As Niumatalolo noted and many college football analysts have opined, the outcome of bowl games often comes down to which team cares the most. Niumatalolo was asked on Wednesday whether he thought Navy would be properly motivated in the Military Bowl.
“I hope so. I really hope so. It’s one more opportunity to strap it on. I know we’re going to be playing a highly motivated Virginia team that is back in a bowl for the first time in a while,” he said. “I think the game will tell. We’ve worked hard. It’s such a great group of young men and they are so resilient. I think the only indicator will be how we play. Will we have a lot of energy and focus? I like the way we looked during our week of practice.”
In order to snap Navy out of its funk, Niumatalolo took a different approach to postseason preparation. Normally the Mids take it relatively easy during the lead-up to bowls, practicing in shells and going non-contact. That was not the case this year as the coaching staff wanted the players to unleash their frustration by hitting.
“We want to go out the right way so we were in pads the whole time and lifted every day. That’s something we’ve never done before,” Niumatalolo said. “We really got after it from a physical standpoint, which is totally opposite from my usual approach to bowl games. I’ve tried to treat bowl games as a reward.”
Niumatalolo said Navy has never practiced and lifted weights on the same day at any point during a season.
“That’s kind of a new thing we tried to do this time around. We’ll see if it works. If our guys have no legs in the game tomorrow it was a bad plan,” he said with a chuckle.
Niumatalolo altered his normal philosophy this postseason because he felt something drastic needed to be done in order to make the Midshipmen forget the hurtful loss to the Black Knights.
“We’ve got a bad taste in our mouths and we’re trying to get rid of it. That’s what I thought we needed to get over that loss. Don’t wallow in our misery,” Niumatalolo said. “So we really got after it and had physical practices. It’s probably the toughest bowl practices we’ve ever had. It was kind of like two-a-days in a way.”
Most of Navy’s bowl opponents are seeing the triple-option for the first time and struggle to defend it as a result. There probably will be no option factor in this matchup because the Virginia defensive coaching staff is quite familiar with the unique attack while many of the players have gone against it for two straight seasons.
Head coach Bronco Mendenhall has schemed for the triple-option four consecutive years, having played Georgia Tech twice while at Brigham Young University and twice since taking over at Virginia.
Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper has carefully studied videotape of those games to evaluate how Mendenhall and staff have gradually adjusted to the option.
“All you need to watch is the last four games and try to see what he’s done differently in each. For the most part, they play hard and are assignment-sound and make you earn it,” Jasper said. “Bronco believes in his package. He has a system and is going to do what he’s done in the past. We have to come out and block them and execute on offense in order to move the ball.”
Virginia limited Georgia Tech to 199 rushing yards and 321 total yards in a 31-17 loss in 2016 then gave up 220 rushing yards and 399 total yards in a 40-36 win this season. BYU beat Georgia Tech 41-17 in 2002 and 38-20 in 2013.
Mendenhall faced the option on an annual basis when BYU was in the same conference as Air Force and said he has been studying the tricky attack since first facing one in 1998. He was quoted earlier this season as saying “I have a passion for defending option offenses.” To which Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson retorted “I have a passion for playing 3-4 defenses.”
Mendenhall, who owns an 8-2 record against option teams as a head coach, was asked how Navy’s version of the offense differs from Georgia Tech’s.
“More innovative, more creative, more formations, more plays,” he said. “Georgia Tech is very good, but very good at a smaller number of things. Navy is good at those things and also adds variety and innovation.”
Navy has employed the zone read option out of shotgun formation at various times this season and will likely show that look on Thursday with Malcolm Perry at quarterback. Perry has rushed for 1,068 yards this season with more than half coming in two starts at quarterback.
“I think he’s one of the most dynamic players that I’ve seen this season,” Mendenhall said of Perry. “He’s a very good player and presents a whole new set of challenges at that position.” Virginia’s defense is led by middle linebacker Micah Kiser (6-2, 240), an All-American who has racked up 134 tackles. The Cavaliers have another All-American in free safety Quin Blanding (6-2, 215), who is second on the squad with 121 tackles.
“They’re big and physical. A lot of four- and five-star recruit type of guys, several NFL caliber guys. We have a real mountain to climb,” Jasper said of the Virginia defense, which also features inside linebacker Jordan Mack (105 tackles).
Virginia’s offense is directed by quarterback Kurt Benkert, who set a single-season school record with 3,062 passing yards. The 6-foot-4, 215-pound senior has completed almost 60 percent of his passes and tossed 25 touchdowns.
“I think the quarterback is a real difference-maker. He has a strong arm and can make all the throws,” Navy defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson said. “He moves around real well and is not afraid to run if he can’t find an open receiver. He looks like a real smart quarterback and has a very impressive arm, an NFL arm.”
Benkert is blessed with numerous dangerous targets with Olamide Zaccheaus leading the Cavaliers with 80 receptions for 833 yards. Doni Dowling (48-632) and Andre Levrone (31-662) are also big-time threats in the passing game.
“A really talented and athletic group of receivers. They have six that can really run and catch the ball,” Pehrson said. “(Levrone) has great straight-line speed and is a deep ball threat. (Zaccheaus) reminds me of Chad Hall from Air Force because they move him all around — in the backfield, in the slot, out wide.”
Pehrson had high praise for the schemes devised by Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae, who held the same title at BYU under Mendenhall.
“A lot of formations, lot of motions, lot of different shifts. There are a lot of things to get ready for. It’s a very solid offense we’ll be facing,” Pehrson said. “I think Anae does a really good job of getting mismatches. They do a lot of different things with a lot of different personnel groupings. There are a lot of things to cover to we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
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