Rested Midshipmen set to host Cincinnati Bearcats
By BILL WAGNER | The Capital, Annapolis, Md. | Published: September 20, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Most college football coaches would rather not have a bye week come just two weeks into the season. A week off is more useful after at least four games and the grind of playing every weekend has worn down a team.
Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo wasn’t complaining about the timing of Navy’s bye, which came in early September for the second time in the span of three seasons.
“I try not to make too big of a deal because I don’t want it to be an excuse. Whenever that week off comes, we try to use it to the best of our advantage,” Niumatalolo said. “Sometimes it’s better late because you want to heal up. Sometimes you might be playing real well and that week off throws you off your rhythm. I don’t try to analyze it too much.”
Navy conducted three relatively short and light practices Tuesday through Thursday of last week. Niumatalolo gave the Midshipmen the weekend off to refresh and recharge.
“We used last week to try to get healthy and focus on ourselves a little bit,” Niumatalolo said. “We just wanted to use the week to get better fundamentally and also try to recover a bit and get ready for this tough stretch.”
Navy does not have another bye until the weekend of Oct. 28 and will play five straight games between now and then. Three of those games come at home, beginning this Saturday when Cincinnati comes to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
This marks the first meeting between the schools since 1956 when Navy beat Cincinnati, 13-7, in Annapolis. Now the Bearcats and Midshipmen are both members of the American Athletic Conference, although they play in different divisions.
Navy is playing three new opponents from the East Division this season as the rotation changes every two years. The Midshipmen are also meeting Central Florida and Temple this season and next.
Cincinnati is coming off a miraculous, come-from-behind victory over Miami-Ohio in the Victory Bell series. The Bearcats scored 15 unanswered points in the final three minutes to shock the RedHawks, 21-17, leaving a homecoming crowd in Oxford dumbfounded.
“It’s an incredible program win,” first-year Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said afterward. “To put yourself behind the eight-ball a little bit like we did and see the guys continue to fight and scratch and claw, there was no give-up in that.”
Niumatalolo said the nature of that improbable win will no doubt give the Bearcats confidence going forward. “Cincinnati had a great win last weekend on the road in a hostile environment. We know it’s going to be a tough game,” he said.
Cincinnati, which was beaten soundly by No. 8 Michigan the weekend prior, has struggled offensively. The Bearcats rank 122nd out of 126 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in total offense (269.7 yards) and 109 in scoring offense (20.3 points).
However, Niumatalolo knows the Bearcats can be dangerous as quarterback Hayden Moore passed for almost 1,800 yards in 2016 while wide receiver Kahlil Lewis is one of the best in the American Athletic Conference.
“Offensively, they’ve got the Lewis kid at wide receiver who is really good. Hayden Moore has a strong arm and can throw any ball,” Niumatalolo said. “Just a lot of really good athletes on that side of the ball.”
Fickell was an assistant at Ohio State from 2004 through 2016, serving as co-defensive coordinator toward the end of his tenure. The Columbus, Ohio native was a standout nose guard for the Buckeyes and definitely brings a defensive mindset to his first head coaching job.
Cincinnati limited Austin Peay to 14 points on just 248 total yards then held Miami-Ohio to 17 points on 291 total yards. The Bearcats are led by linebacker Jaylyin Minor (31 tackles) and safety Malik Clements, whose interception return for a touchdown proved decisive last Saturday.
“Defensively, I’m really impressed – a very athletic, physical team that plays hard and runs to the ball. Schematically, they are very sound,” Niumatalolo said. “Coach Fickell has established his culture and they’re playing tough, hard-nosed football.”
Niumatalolo said Navy coaches have seen glimpses of Cincinnati the previous two seasons through tapes exchanged with other American opponents. While some of the personnel might be the same, the Bearcats have scrapped the offensive and defensive systems employed by previous head coach Tommy Tuberville.
Ohio State played Navy twice while Fickell was on staff so he’s been part of game-planning for the triple-option. Fickell said the Bearcats did some option preparation during preseason camp, but acknowledged it will be challenging to install a game-plan in three days.
“It’s unique being in the first year of your program and having to play the option, which is so different than what you normally do,” Fickell said. “We know it’s going to be about discipline and fundamentals.”
Fickell said several members of his defensive staff have faced option offenses in recent years and together they would brainstorm the best way to attack the double-slot version that Navy has perfected.
The Navy Midshipmen defeated the visiting Tulane Green Wave, 23-21, in men's NCAA football Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.