Navy football’s last two games have been decided by just three points and 20-something yards.
“It’s kind of crazy,” admitted Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “I feel like we could be 4-0 but we very easily could be 0-4. It’s kind of who we are though. Since I’ve been head coach, we’ve had more one-possession wins than any team in the country. Our games are just kind of like that.”
Aside from the 31-13 loss to Memphis in Week 2, the Midshipmen have either won or lost every other game by one score. Niumatalolo sees this not as a negative, but as a testament to his players characters.
“We just have such resilient kids here,” said the former Hawaii quarterback. “Sometimes other teams talk smack to our guys and I kind of chuckle because our guys get yelled at all day – you’re not going to phase them; you are wasting your time. I have great respect for these guys. They are just so resilient – they just keep coming to work.”
Of course, work means something a little different at the service schools and Navy has struggled a bit to find its way in this new college football world without the tools other teams rely on - no air raid, no NIL, no gimmies on the schedule and definitely no jumping ship.
“Our kids aren’t going into the transfer portal,” said Niumatalolo. “If you get into the Naval Academy, you are a tough person. If you stay here, you are a tough person. To be honest, I’ve been here for 25 years and I couldn’t have come to school here. I love coaching and working here but it’s a lot different than the University of Hawaii.”
So how will Navy continue to navigate this season under the curse of the close game? By sticking to the scheme (opposing teams hate the triple-option), holding on to the ball and putting a big emphasis on special teams.
“In close games it always comes down to ball security and special teams,” confirmed Niumatalolo. “So, it’s going to be huge for us, we gotta win the special teams battle because we are going to have a hard time stopping the good offensive teams in the American.”
One such team is Tulsa, who the Midshipmen host this weekend in a bit of a culture clash. Tradition, discipline and order meets absolute chaos in this matchup, helmed by two of the most veteran coaches in the conference. But Niumatalolo argues that while facing the Golden Hurricane can indeed feel like playing with live ammo, there is a calculated calm at the center of their storm.
“I feel like there is a lot of predictability about them,” said Niumatalolo. “They are who they are - big and physical, so for us there has always been some consistency that way.”
Navy definitely has Tulsa’s number – the Mids own a 7-2 advantage in the series, but are just 2-2 at home against the Golden Hurricane. The Hawaii native isn’t worried about what Coach Montgomery is bringing to Annapolis on Saturday though.
“It’s a really simple but sophisticated system,” explained Niumatalolo. “You almost have to pick your poison a little bit – do you stop the run and try to match up against their back who is 260-pounds and then they will kill you on the edges? Obviously, they are throwing the ball for a lot of yards too. They are a hard team to defend. On defense there is some consistency as well – they don’t try to trick you a lot, they play physical, they run to the ball. So, from a schematic standpoint there is some consistency.”
Discipline will be a big factor in the matchup. Navy leads the conference with fewest penalties (13) while Tulsa is one of the more penalized teams in the American with 34 penalties for a loss of 341 yards. Tulsa has also allowed the most sacks in the conference, - 21 through five games for a loss of 140 yards.
Can Navy keep its composure against a disruptive Tulsa team? Probably. But would the Midshipmen stay disciplined if a protestor got loose on the field à la Monday Night Football or would they pull a Bobby Wagner and Takk McKinley?
“Well, we have some disciplined kids, but these kids are also going to protect their country, they are fighters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them tackled him,” chuckled Niumatalolo. “I also wouldn’t be surprised if one of our support staff or some of the guys on our operations side that are former Marines and former Navy tackled him too. If something like a protestor running on the field happened, I could see a lot of our guys from players to support staff jumping on that guy.”
I wouldn’t bet against them.