Virginia, Navy compete for winning season in Military Bowl
By DAVID GINSBURG | Associated Press | Published: December 27, 2017
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Virginia has already accomplished plenty this season, tripling its win total from a year ago and reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2011.
That's not quite enough for second-year coach Bronco Mendenhall, who won't be satisfied unless the Cavaliers defeat Navy on Thursday in the Military Bowl.
"It's one thing to qualify," Mendenhall said. "It's a whole different thing to perform well and win the game."
Virginia (6-6) hasn't won a postseason game since defeating Minnesota in the Music City Bowl under Al Groh in 2005. The Cavaliers are also seeking their first winning season in six years.
"The postseason was something we were shooting for," Mendenhall said. "Now we're looking to get our seventh win."
A victory over the Midshipmen at the illustrious Naval Academy could mark the beginning of something special for a program that owned a collective 17-43 record from 2012-16.
"In this type of game, in this type of setting with this type of an opponent, it's a foundational piece for us moving forward," Mendenhall said.
Navy (6-6) will be making its 14th bowl appearance over the last 15 years. But it's been an up and down season for the Midshipmen, who have lost six of seven following a 5-0 start and are coming off a disheartening 14-13 loss to Army.
Navy desperately wants to avoid being saddled with a losing record for the first time since 2011. Playing at home should help.
"From a preparation standpoint, you can't beat this," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "You've got everything like you would in a normal game."
Some things to know about the 10th Military Bowl:
This will be the 40th meeting between the two schools, but the first since 1994. Though Navy leads the series 28-11, the Cavaliers have won five straight.
A common thread in the rivalry is coach George Welsh, who guided Navy from 1973-81 before spending 19 years at Virginia and becoming the school's all-time leader in wins. Welsh won 55 games at Navy, second on the career list behind Niumatalolo.
Welsh, a 1956 Navy graduate, went 4-1 against Virginia with the Midshipmen and 7-3 against Navy while on the Virginia sideline.
STAND YOUR GROUND
Virginia's task on defense will be to stop Navy's triple option, the driving force behind the nation's second-ranked rushing attack at 343 yards per game.
The Cavaliers surrendered 36 points in November to Georgia Tech, which also runs the option. To stop the three-pronged attack, each player must adhere to his assignment.
"You've got to trust the people around you to do their job," Virginia linebacker Jordan Mack said. "You can't try to do too much."
Sophomore Malcolm Perry, who ran for 250 yards and a touchdown against Army, will start at quarterback for Navy.
Cavaliers quarterback Kurt Benkert has thrown for 25 touchdowns and a school-record 3,062 yards, including a four-TD, 384-yard performance against Miami.
The 6-foot-4 senior needs three touchdown passes Thursday to tie Matt Schaub for the most in UVA history (28).
Olamide Zaccheaus leads Virginia with 80 catches for 833 yards and five touchdowns. Doni Dowling has 48 receptions for 632 yards and five scores.
When Mendenhall left Brigham Young for Virginia in 2015, Niumatalolo interviewed for the vacancy at BYU before deciding to stay put at Navy.
To carry the connection further, Niumatalolo's son, Va'a, is a senior at BYU and played under Mendenhall for two seasons.
"I know my son learned a lot from him and his staff," Ken Niumatalolo said. "As a dad, I was very appreciative and grateful that my son got to play for someone like Bronco."
Both teams carry potentially prolific offenses that are looking to get back on track.
Virginia was blanked by Virginia Tech in the regular season finale, and Navy has scored only 44 points in its last three games — its lowest output over three straight since 2006.