Navy's program-defining win was eight months in the making
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: October 7, 2019
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — It was a program-defining win that was eight months in the making.
Navy’s gutsy, hard-fought 34-25 victory over Air Force in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series validated all the moves made by head coach Ken Niumatalolo since the end of last season.
In the wake of a dismal 3-10 record, Niumatalolo was forced to make some very difficult decisions. The 12th-year head coach changed defensive coordinators and basically overhauled the staff, hiring six other new assistants.
Niumatalolo did some serious soul-searching and decided he made a mistake by moving Malcolm Perry back to slotback. Perry was named the starting quarterback prior to spring camp and Niumatalolo declared the offense would be tailored to suit his strengths.
First-year defensive coordinator Brian Newberry installed a more aggressive and less predictable defensive scheme designed to keep opponents off-balance. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper challenged Perry to improve as a passer while Niumatalolo hired Billy Ray Stutzmann away from Hawaii to install some run-and-shoot schemes to help the Midshipmen throw the ball more effectively.
Niumatalolo pushed hard for numerous programmatic improvements and athletic director Chet Gladchuk responded. The Midshipmen are benefiting from several facilities upgrades along with a full-time nutritionist among many developments authorized by Gladchuk.
Above all else, Niumatalolo challenged everyone involved with Navy football to recommit to the fundamental philosophical values of the program. After spending a total of 21 years in Annapolis, Niumatalolo knows better than anyone that culture is the most important element of success at a service academy and recognized there was something off in that department during the disappointing 2018 campaign.
Niumatalolo decided it did not make sense to announce the team captains during the annual football banquet in February as has been the case in recent years. In the wake of what happened last season, he believed leadership needed to be earned during the offseason.
Following spring practice, Niumatalolo did something unprecedented in Navy football history by allowing the players to elect four captains. Perry, center Ford Higgins, outside linebacker Nizaire Cromartie and inside linebacker Paul Carothers immediately took ownership of the team and pushed their teammates to work harder than ever.
All of this came flooding into Niumatalolo’s mind as he sat down at the podium for the post-game press conference on Saturday night. The 54-year-old coaching lifer was still extremely emotional and fought back tears as he talked about all the work that went into winning a service academy showdown such as this.
“I knew we would be back this year. I saw that way back in January. I saw our seniors and how hard they worked for days like this,” Niumatalolo said softly.
“I’ve been doing this long enough to see the signs of what it takes to be a good team. You’ve got to be selfless, you’ve got to be humble and you’ve got to be a team person. I saw all the signs in our leadership that we had a chance this year,” Niumatalolo added. “I like our leadership. I saw it in January, and I saw it again today.”
All of the issues that were addressed during the offseason were on display Saturday. What everyone involved with the Navy football program did from January through August showed through in that thrilling victory.
Navy jumped on top of Air Force just like it needed to do and that was due largely to the sharper passing skills developed by Perry.
The Midshipmen have routinely had trouble running the ball against the Falcons, who almost always stack the box and dare them to throw. Sure enough, it was tough sledding on the ground during Navy’s initial three possessions, which ended with two punts and a fumble.
Niumatalolo and Jasper took to the air to get things going and Perry responded in a way he would not have been able to a year ago. Perry completed deep passes of 38 and 24 yards to wide receiver Mychal Cooper to produce Navy’s first touchdown. He connected with Cooper and slotback C.J. Williams on throws of 28 and 22 yards to set up the second score.
Meanwhile, Newberry made his service academy debut by devising a defensive game-plan that held Air Force well below its season averages of 34.5 points and 332 rushing yards. The Falcons only managed 108 rushing yards in scoring 25 points, going 5-for-17 on third down conversions along the way.
Air Force drove deep into Navy territory four times and was forced to settle for field goals on each occasion. Navy’s defense stiffening in the red zone and preventing touchdowns on those four possessions proved crucial.
“At the end of the day, I think it was just our will to win. We’ve really come a long way,” inside linebacker Diego Fagot said of the defense digging deep with its back against the wall. “Something I always think about is: This is the 1-yard line – even though we might be in the middle of the field. We’re on the goal-line right now. We always need a sense of urgency to get off the field.”
After taking a seemingly comfortable 21-9 lead late in the third quarter, the Navy offense suddenly went stagnant. Perry and company could not produce points on three straight possessions and that gave Air Force an opportunity to come back.
Talented quarterback Donald Hammond III led the way as the Falcons scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 25-21 lead with just 3:15 remaining in the game.
Suddenly, things did not look so good for the Midshipmen, who were staring at a second straight loss in the series. An offense that had done almost nothing on three previous possessions was put into a position of having to march 75 yards in less than three minutes to retake the lead.
That’s exactly what the Mids did with Perry showing tremendous leadership in the huddle.
“There’s something special about Malcolm. We all know his character inside the locker room. What’s great about what you guys just saw is that he showed the type of person he is out on the field,” Higgins said afterward. “He’s the leader of our pack on offense. When he comes in confident to the huddle, it’s contagious to all of us that we’re going to get this done.”
Perry and slotback Tazh Maloy suggested to the coaching staff the idea of running a gadget play to begin the crucial final possession. Niumatalolo and Jasper agreed to do so and it worked to perfection.
Perry handed off to Maloy, who quickly flipped the ball to wide receiver Chance Warren. Maloy then ran a wheel route and Warren hit him in stride for an 18-yard gain that jump-started the drive.
Perry made another terrific throw down the seam to Williams, who adjusted his body and leaped high to snag the ball away from a taller defender for a 32-yard gain. It was pretty much all Perry from there with the slightly built senior taking quarterback keepers for 8 and 11 yards to set up his own 3-yard touchdown trot.
Perry left the game twice after aggravating a shoulder injury sustained during the Memphis loss. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder displayed tremendous toughness by coming back each time and absorbing more punishment.
When the game was on the line, Perry sold out – diving for the goal-line and getting spun around like a helicopter blade before flying out of bounds. Niumatalolo had high praise for Perry during the post-game press conference.
“I thought Malcolm willed us to the win at the end,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m very proud of Malcolm. He’s such a tough kid. We were going to ride him at the end.”
A sellout crowd of 37,957 – fourth largest in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium history – exploded when Perry trotted into the checkerboard end zone for the touchdown that gave Navy a 28-25 lead.
It was eerily similar to two years ago when quarterback Zach Abey threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyler Carmona on the last possession to give Navy a thrilling 48-45 victory over Air Force.
“We were sitting on the sideline and there was three minutes and some change left. The only thing I could think about was that we’ve been here before – two years ago. That is what was communicated, and we got it done,” Higgins said.
Outside linebacker Tony Brown put an emphatic exclamation point on the uplifting win by scooping up a fumble and scoring as time expired. Cromartie had caused the fumble with the ball rolling right to Brown, who picked it up at the 8-yard line and scooted into the end zone as the Navy sideline erupted.
It was complete bedlam as the Navy coaches and players stormed the field before Brown even crossed the goal line with the entire Brigade of Midshipmen poured out of the stands to join the celebration.
“I was overwhelmed with emotion afterward, just knowing all of what has gone into this win,” Higgins said. “There’s an awful lot that works toward this one moment.
Navy lost four games by a touchdown or less last season. That was tough pill to swallow for a program that has become accustomed to finding a way to win close games. Had the Mids been able to pull out those four nail-biters, they would have posted a winning record for the 15th time in 16 seasons.
Instead, the Midshipmen were saddled with their worst record since going 2-10 in 2002, the first year under head coach Paul Johnson.
Needless to say, it was a major mental hurdle for Navy to pull out the first close contest of the 2019 campaign.
“It’s a big deal for our program. It’s something we harped on during the offseason. We’ve been in a lot of tight games,” Higgins said. “Walk into the locker room at halftime and the only word you see on the white board is FINISH with a big box drawn around it. We’re going to build off this and know if the situation comes around again, we know how to finish.”
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