Navy linebacker misses chance to play against father's alma mater
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 29, 2017
Hudson Sullivan had special motivation to play in the Military Bowl. Navy’s starting inside linebacker wanted to strap it up against Virginia for a variety of reasons.
Sullivan grew up rooting for Virginia, the home state school and alma mater of his father. Dave Sullivan played football for the Cavaliers, starting on both offensive and defensive line during the early 1980s.
“I was always a huge Virginia fan and really wanted to play there,” said Sullivan, who had two sisters graduate from the Charlottesville school. “I was recruited by Virginia a little bit, but the coaching staff must not have thought I was good enough. They told me I could be a preferred walk-on. I decided to go somewhere I was really wanted.”
Sullivan would have loved to have gone against Virginia and shown that snub was a mistake. After all, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound junior was coming off a superb performance against archrival Army, leading Navy with 13 tackles despite not being 100 percent.
Unfortunately, Sullivan was unable to play in the Military Bowl after undergoing surgery to repair a broken foot. Dr. Bob Anderson, a renowned orthopedic surgeon based in Charlotte, North Carolina, had an opening to perform the surgery on Dec. 20 and the Navy medical staff recommended that Sullivan take advantage of the opportunity.
“It does hurt not being able to play against Virginia because I felt like I had something to prove,” Sullivan said. “Looking at the big picture, it made sense to get the surgery done while I had a chance. Dr. Anderson is one of the best in the country and there was no telling when was the next time he could have operated on me.p”
Sullivan suffered a Lisfranc injury during the Air Force game and team doctors initially feared it would be season-ending. However, Sullivan elected to go through rehabilitation in hopes of playing again and managed to get healthy enough to get cleared for the Army game.
“I tried to come back during the bye week and tweaked it again,” Sullivan said. “I was able to practice the week of the game and it felt good enough that I was able to go against Army.”
Dave Sullivan found out three days beforehand that his son was going to suit up for the Army-Navy game. Sitting in the stands at Lincoln Financial Field, the father was overwhelmed when No. 53 ran out for the first defensive possession.
“I was absolutely flabbergasted that Hudson was able to start,” the elder Sullivan said. “To then see him make so many tackles was even more surprising. I thought it was an amazing performance. I was very, very proud of Hudson.”
Hudson Sullivan admits he was not full speed against Army and was unable to change direction or accelerate as well as before the injury.
“During the game I was trying not to think about it. It wasn’t bothering me too much, but I could tell I wasn’t able to explode, to push off and come downhill,” he said.
Knowing he could not perform at peak capacity helped Sullivan make the decision to undergo surgery before the bowl game. He had two screws inserted into the foot to help the broken bones heal better. It should take the inside linebacker five to six months to recover, meaning Sullivan will sit out spring practice.
“I’m already thinking about next season and making sure I’m 100 percent healthy. I really want to have a strong senior season,” Sullivan said.
Dave Sullivan started at defensive tackle as a redshirt freshman for Virginia before being switched to offensive tackle for his final three seasons. He sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament as a senior, which hurt his NFL Draft stock. The Long Island native signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent, but did not make the team. He wound up playing two seasons with the Washington Federals of the United States Football League.
Tom O’Brien was the offensive line coach at Virginia when Dave Sullivan was a senior and now serves as color analyst for Navy radio broadcasts. He called Hudson Sullivan a “chip off the old block” in terms of toughness and tenacity.
“Hudson just loves the game so much and I think it shows when he plays,” Dave Sullivan said.
Dave Sullivan still wears his Virginia alumni sweatshirt and roots for the Wahoos on most weekends. However, the Nokesville, Virginia resident was wearing blue and gold on Thursday during the Military Bowl and wishing his son was not sidelined.
“It’s just killing me. I know how much Hudson would have loved to play in this game. He’s a little heartbroken about the situation,” Dave Sullivan said. “Even though Hudson won’t be in uniform, I’m still rooting for Navy in this game. That is where my heart is now.”
Hudson Sullivan was one of several pre-game scratches announced by Navy. Micah Thomas, the other starting inside linebacker, also sat out the contest with a wrist injury.
Thomas has played all season wearing a cast or protective wrap and aggravated the exisiting injury against Army. Doctors were worried about permanent damage if the 6-foot-1, 241-pound senior played another game and therefore shut him down.
Starting wide receiver Tyler Carmona sat out with a shoulder injury while backup defensive end Anthony Villalobos and backup fullback Josh Walker were suspended for the Military Bowl due to a violation of team rules.
BOWL PREP PAYS OFF: Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo took a different approach to postseason preparation this time around. Niumatalolo had the Midshipmen practice in full pads instead of shells for the first time and also conducted daily weightlifting sessions.
The 10th-year head coach felt the players needed physical practices and strength training in order to get over the demoralizing loss to Army and the unique philosophy paid dividends.
“We had seven practices in pads and lifted the same day. I just wanted our kids to be strong, physically and mentally,” Niumatalolo said after Thursday’s impressive victory. “I was a little afraid because I didn’t know if our legs would be gone. We were physical, which is part of what we wanted to do.”
Niumatalolo called the 14-13 loss to Army the worst setback he’s experienced in 20 years of coaching and said everyone involved with the Navy program is still getting over it. Beating an Atlantic Coast Conference member by a 49-7 score brought an uplifting end to a somewhat disappointing season.
“We knew this game was huge, not only to send our seniors out the right way, but to also propel us into the offseason. To beat a good team that convincingly, I think is going to really help us,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s huge for our conference and our program to get a win over a Power Five program.”
Junior quarterbacks Malcolm Perry and Zach Abey are among many key players returning to lead the Navy offense in 2018. The Midshipmen also bring back three starting linemen (left tackle Jake Hawk, left guard David Forney and right tackle Andrew Wood) along with standout fullback Anthony Gargiulo and promising freshman slotback Keoni-Kordell Makekau.
Left end Jarvis Polu, nose guard Jackson Pittman and safety Sean Williams join Sullivan as returning starters on defense. Placekicker Bennett Moehring and punter Owen White will give the Mids a pair of experienced specialists.
“We have a lot of guys that played in this game coming back and the future is bright for Navy football,” Niumatalolo said.
NO PASSING FANCY: Senior quarterback Kurt Benkert came into the contest already holding the Virginia single-season record with 3,062 passing yards. Benkert is blessed with a strong, accurate arm and boasts a fleet of talented receivers.
Meanwhile, Navy ranked 62nd nationally in passing defense, giving up 221.7 yards per game.
So the most surprising aspect of Thursday’s game was Virginia’s inability to do any damage through the air. Benkert had his worst outing of the season, completing only 16 of 36 passes for 145 yards. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, whose NFL stock is reportedly on the rise, tossed an interception and no touchdowns.
“We’ve had strong success throwing the ball and the Naval Academy has struggled defending the pass, at least statistically. So we believed that matchup would be in our favor,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We didn’t throw, catch or execute in protection as well as we needed to. Once we got behind it put even more pressure on the passing game and we were not able to produce.”
Safety Sean Williams, who picked off a deep pass late in the first half, said Navy played more zone coverage than it has all season. Senior outside linebacker Justin Norton, who recorded a sack, said defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson dialed up some blitzes the Mids had not shown previously.
“We knew we were going to go against a talented offense so we switched it up from the normal things we do. We had some disguises and made sure our reads were right and it worked out in the end,” Williams said. “Any time you switch up and do something you normally don’t do it throws any opponent off.”
LACK OF RESPECT: Niumatalolo mentioned during the post-game press conference that Virginia angered the Navy players and coaches by committing an act of disrespect during pre-game warmups.
“There were some things that happened out there that got our guys fired up. They walked through our stretch lines,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve been coaching at this stadium for 20 years and the only other team that did that was Rutgers in like 2000. We’re a pretty respectful team. If you walk through our stretch lines, you better hold on brother.”
Palmore admitted the Mids were taken aback by the sudden interruption to their pre-game routine and noted the Cavaliers never stopped running their mouths despite playing so poorly throughout.
“That definitely kind of made us angry,” Palmore said of what happened during stretching. “They were talking trash the whole game. I was like ‘It’s the third quarter and you have five yards.’ It definitely kind of struck a nerve.”
MID BITS: Navy set Military Bowl records with 452 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on 76 attempts… Navy has won four of its last five bowl games and now owns an 11-11-1 all-time record in the postseason… Abey broke the Navy record for most rushing touchdowns in a bowl game with five… Virginia was limited to 30 rushing yards, the fewest Navy has allowed since Rice managed only 21 in 2009.
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