FORT WORTH, Texas — Navy football has a well-earned reputation for delivering in the postseason, at least in ways that are important to bowl organizers.
The Naval Academy Athletic Association always sells its full allotment of tickets and then some while the worldwide fan base usually results in strong television ratings. Meanwhile, all the pageantry that is associated with Navy football, such as the Brigade of Midshipmen March-on and fabulous pregame tailgate parties, travels well to any destination.
However, Navy doesn’t want to develop a reputation as a program that always loses in the postseason. The Midshipmen are in danger of getting stuck with such a label after going 1-5 in their last six bowl games.
“To me, that means we’re just going through the motions,” athletic director Chet Gladchuk said on Friday when reminded of Navy’s recent postseason futility. “We need to straighten that out and I’m sure Kenny is focused on doing just that. I think everyone has a little bit of an edge right now, including the head coach and athletic director. We need to get back on track and win a bowl.”
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo has always talked about bowl games being a reward for the players following a successful season and allowed them to enjoy the experience. However, Niumatalolo has placed increased emphasis on Navy coming away victorious over Middle Tennessee State in Monday's Bell Helicopter Armed Forces Bowl.
“We definitely want to win a bowl game. Our focus, first and foremost, is trying to win this game. Second is to have some fun,” he said. “We’ll prepare the best we can and hopefully we’ll play better than we have in our last couple bowl games.”
Navy has been blown out in its last two postseason appearances — 35-14 by San Diego State in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl and 62-28 in the 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Midshipmen were shut out in three of four quarters by the Aztecs three years ago then allowed the Sun Devils to score touchdowns on their first nine possessions at this time last year.
“Last year, we got our butts whooped. I don’t know how else to say it. We didn’t play very well,” Niumatalolo said. “To get beat, that left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth the whole offseason. We haven’t played well in bowl games. That’s not a mystery. We have to find a way to play better in this one.”
Navy’s No. 1 goal every season is to beat Army and Air Force in order to capture the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. The Midshipmen accomplished that mission for the ninth time in the last 11 years, soundly defeating the Falcons 28-10 on Oct. 5 then routing the Black Knights 34-7 on Dec. 14.
Since securing their 12th straight victory over the archrival at snow-covered Lincoln Financial Field, the Midshipmen have been focused on finishing final exams and enjoying the holidays with family. Navy conducted three practices with a skeleton coaching staff the week after the Army game before Niumatalolo gave the players off from Dec. 20 through 25.
Navy reconvened in Fort Worth on Thursday for three practices at Kennadale High prior to Monday’s game at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Defensive captain Cody Peterson admitted the euphoria of beating Army followed by exams and Christmas vacation
“I don’t want to make excuses, but I feel like maybe there is a little hangover after the Army game and finals. Guys start to get a little bit complacent with the semester ending and going home for the holidays,” Peterson said.
To a man, Navy players admit they were stung by last year’s 34-point shellacking at the hands of Arizona State before a crowd of 34,172 at AT&T Park and a national television audience on ESPN. It was the program’s second-most lopsided loss in the postseason after a 35-0 shutout in the 1980 Garden State Bowl against Houston.
“Last year was a national embarrassment. That was a featured bowl game on national television and we went out there and never showed up. It’s as simple as that,” Gladchuk said. “It was not representative of what Navy football is all about. There are just no excuses for not being prepared coming into a football game.”
Peterson and offensive captain Matt Aiken made winning a bowl game, “not just showing up to a bowl game,” the team’s No. 2 goal behind reclaiming the CIC Trophy. In addition to absorbing two postseason whippings, this year’s seniors were part of the 2011 squad that failed to qualify for a bowl.
“We’re such a close-knit group of guys and I’d really like to see us finish on a positive note,” Peterson said of his fellow seniors. “That’s why I really want to emphasize getting the most out of these practices and film sessions, not getting too distracted by all the festivities. It’s okay to enjoy it, but our focus has to be on getting our work done.”
Quarterback Keenan Reynolds was among several players that mentioned the disappointing performance against Arizona State way back on Navy football Media Day in August. Reynolds, who rushed for just 21 yards on 22 carries and threw an interception before leaving the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with an injury, said that dismal showing fueled the team during winter conditioning sessions and spring camp.
“It’s a lot of fun being out here for the week, but at the end of the day we’re here to get a W. We don’t want to go out with a bad taste in our mouth like last year, we want to finish strong and get some momentum going into winter workouts,” Reynolds said. “So that is what is being used to motivate us and push us to change the outcome. We’ve got some seniors who are playing their last football game. We want to send them out on top.”