Navy must regroup quickly as No. 20 Central Fla. comes to Annapolis
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 17, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Saturday’s loss to Memphis knocked Navy from the ranks of the unbeaten, out of sole possession of first place in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference and out of the Top 25 rankings after just one week’s stay.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo said the Midshipmen needed to forget about that disappointing defeat by the time the team bus pulled away from the Liberty Bowl.
That’s because Navy faces another formidable opponent this Saturday in 20th-ranked Central Florida, one of two remaining undefeated teams in the American. The Knights might be the most improved program in the Football Bowl Subdivision under second-year head coach Scott Frost.
Central Florida, which finished 6-7 in 2016, is outscoring opponents by an average score of 51-17. Dynamic quarterback McKenzie Milton spearheads an explosive, fast-paced offense while inside linebacker Pat Jasinski anchors a hard-hitting defense.
Central Florida routed Memphis, 40-13, on Sept. 30. That was one of two games, along with a 38-10 pummeling of Maryland, in which the Knights have been held below 51 points.
“We recognize this will be a tough challenge because we know how good Memphis is and this team beat Memphis,” Niumatalolo said. “We’re going to have our hands full stopping them and we’re going to have our hands full moving the ball. They’re undefeated for a reason.”
Frost, a standout quarterback at Nebraska, previously served as offensive coordinator at Oregon and brought the same warp speed attack to Orlando. Frost has not only transformed the Central Florida offense, but the defense has been vastly improved as well.
“Coach Frost has done a really nice job in his two years there. He has clearly changed the culture,” Niumatalolo said. “You can see how hard his kids are playing so they’ve bought into what the coaching staff is doing.”
Central Florida leads all of FBS in scoring offense and ranks 19th in total offense at 479.3 yards per game. Milton, a true sophomore from Kapolei, Hawaii, has completed 70 percent (90-128) of his passes for 1,489 yards and 15 touchdowns. He is a dual-threat quarterback, ranking second on the squad with 198 rushing yards.
Niumatalolo is well aware of Milton’s abilities since he personally recruited the youngster from Mililani High.
“McKenzie Milton is a heck of a quarterback. We tried to recruit him here to the Naval Academy so we know the caliber of player he is,” Niumatalolo said.
Milton is far from the only weapon for UCF, which had six different offensive players score touchdowns in last Saturday’s 63-21 rout of East Carolina. Tailback Adrian Killins Jr. is both a running and receiving threat, totaling 406 total yards of offense. Tre’Quan Smith is the top wide receiver with 20 catches for 430 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Our strategy is the same as it always is: Try to possess the ball and keep them on the sideline. That will be easier said than done because UCF has a really good defense,” Niumatalolo said.
Jasinski has notched 33 tackles while fellow linebackers Shaquem Griffin and Chequan Burkett have 26 and 24 for Central Florida, which leads the AAC and ranks 14th nationally in scoring defense. Of particular concern to Navy is the fact UCF is 19th nationally in rushing defense, limiting opponents to 110.2 yards per game on the ground.
Of course, Central Florida has not faced a running team as potent as Navy, which has used its triple-option attack to compile an FBS-leading average of 397.5 yards per game on the ground.
“Navy is a unique challenge. Everyone that plays them knows that,” Frost said Monday during the AAC teleconference. “It is difficult to get ready for something that is so different in only a week. We put in quite a bit of work during spring ball and August camp, just trying to get the defense ready for what it is going to see and familiar with what we’re going to ask them to do. You can’t really replicate the speed and precision with which they do things.”
The Midshipmen have won 17 straight regular season games at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. One of those victories came over Houston, which was ranked No. 6 when it lost to Navy, 46-40, last October.
“We’re excited to come home. We’re tough to beat at home. We’ve played well at home. We definitely feel like we have a home-field advantage,” Niumatalolo said.
Navy performed at a high level on offense, but let down on defense during wins against Cincinnati (42-32) and Air Force (48-45). The Midshipmen buckled down defensively, but struggled offensively in a narrow defeat of Tulane (23-21) and the loss to Memphis (30-27).
Niumatalolo noted that fact during his segment on the AAC teleconference. “Hopefully, we can put it all together. We have to against a team like UCF,” he said.