Navy, Houston playing for pride, second place in the West Division
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: November 21, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Navy and Houston will be playing for runner-up status in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference on Friday morning.
Most college football fans will still be digesting their Thanksgiving Day leftovers when the Midshipmen and Cougars tee it up in an 11 a.m. (Central time) start at TEDCU Stadium.
Two years ago, this matchup had enormous meaning as Houston and Navy were playing for the right to represent the West Division in the American Athletic Conference championship game. In a showdown of the conference’s best quarterbacks, Greg Ward Jr. outdueled Keenan Reynolds as the Cougars clinched the West Division crown with a 52-31 victory over the Midshipmen, who were ranked 16th in the Associated Press poll at the time.
It is a much different scenario this season as Navy and Houston are just looking to finish strong after going through a rough patch down the stretch. The Midshipmen have lost four of their last five after starting off 5-0 while the Cougars have dropped three of their last five after starting off 4-1.
Speaking during the American Athletic Conference weekly teleconference on Monday, both head coaches lamented the near misses that have defined this season so far. All four of Navy’s losses have come by 10 points or less with a 24-17 defeat at Notre Dame last Saturday being the latest.
“In three of our four losses we’ve had the ball at the end with a chance to tie or take the lead,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “So we’re losing some closes games. In the past, we’ve won those close games.”
It has been a similar story for Houston, which suffered a 20-17 loss to Tulane last Saturday in New Orleans. The Cougars had taken a 17-13 lead late in the fourth quarter, but allowed the host Green Wave to respond with a go-ahead touchdown less than 60 seconds later with quarterback Jonathan Banks connecting with wide receiver Terren Encalade on a 64-yard touchdown pass.
“When you look at three of our four losses are by a combined 10 points… it’s difficult to swallow, but you’re motivated to go back and go fix those mistakes and make things better,” Houston head coach Major Applewhite said. “We have to address those issues because we could have a better record than we do currently.”
Ultimately, it means that Houston and Navy have identical records at 6-4 overall and 4-3 in the American and are now playing for second place in the West Division. No. 17 Memphis secured the West Division crown by beating SMU, 66-45, on Saturday and will meet the winner of Friday’s Central Florida versus South Florida showdown in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Niumatalolo was asked on Monday if finishing second in the West Division meant something for the Navy program. Doing so would show a certain level of consistency by the Midshipmen, who tied for the West title in 2015 then captured the division championship in 2016.
“We’re just trying to win. That needs to mean everything. If you have to dangle stuff onto winning, you’re not going to win anyway,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are playing or what the situation is, you’re trying to win every time you suit up. Every time you strap it on you’re trying to win the game. That’s the goal. That’s the motivation in everything you do.”
However, the Midshipmen find themselves in a precarious position in terms of whether this will be viewed as a successful season or not. Navy could finish the regular season at 8-4, 7-5 or 6-6 depending on the results against Houston and archrival Army.
Obviously, a two-game winning streak to close things out would be very uplifting. On the flip side, the Mids are in danger of closing the campaign on a 1-6 slide that would leave them with a .500 record.
“We’re not even looking at that. We’re looking at getting ready for Houston. That’s our approach. We’ve got to see how we can play better,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s always a quest, to play better than the last game. We’re not looking long-term. We’re trying to figure out how we can get better this week.”
This marks the second straight game that Navy is playing an opponent on its Senior Day. Houston’s seniors enter Friday’s game with 36 career wins and need two more wins to tie the the school record that was set by the Class of 2017. Applewhite wasn’t as worried about placing second in the West Division as much as having success on Senior Day.
“It’s a pride game. It’s about seniors. Obviously, there are standings at the end of the season in terms of where you fall within the conference, but mostly you talk about the pride factor,” Applewhite said. “We didn’t play as well as we needed to play against Tulane. There has to be some pride in going out and playing well for four quarters to send our seniors the right way.”
Right tackle Na’Ty Rodgers, wide receiver Linell Bonner, linebacker Matthew Adams and safety Terrell Williams are some of the more prominent members of a Houston senior class that was recruited by Tony Levine, captured an American Athletic Conference championship under Tom Herman and finished with Applewhite.
“We’re excited to play Navy the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a great matchup for our conference. Our guys are excited about the exposure. Also a great day to honor our seniors,” Applewhite said. “A lot of these guys have been through a lot of different coaches, quite honestly. Three different head coaches and a lot of position coaches. A lot of these guys have contributed to putting our program back on the map. We want to send these guys off the right way with a win.”
Friday’s game is being nationally televised by ESPN, which mandated the 11 a.m. (noon Eastern) start time. That makes for a quick turnaround for both programs as Navy played a Saturday afternoon contest in South Bend while Houston was also on the road that day at Tulane.
“We’ve got a short week going against Houston. Both teams are trying to get back on the winning track. Hopefully, we’ll bounce back and play better against Houston,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s the team that can rebound the best that is going to win this game.”