FORT WORTH, Texas – When Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo addressed the team following practice this week regarding what’s at stake in their final game of the season, his message was unlike any other since taking over eight years ago.
That’s because for the first time under his watch, the Midshipmen enter a bowl game on the heels of a loss to Army. Navy had won a series-record 14 in a row in one of the college football’s most storied rivalries until the Black Knights ended the streak, 21-17, on Dec. 10.
In spite of that stinging disappointment, as well as a 34-10 loss to Temple the previous week in the American Athletic Conference championship game, these Navy players have an opportunity to leave a unique imprint on the program, Niumatalolo reminded them.
“People want to talk about the negative, but we have one more chance to win 10 games” in consecutive seasons, he said. “Never happened before in school history.”
In order to do so, 25th-ranked Navy (9-4) must defeat high-scoring Louisiana Tech (8-5) on Friday in the Armed Forces Bowl at Amon G. Carter Stadium. The considerably shorthanded Midshipmen also are seeking a fourth consecutive bowl victory in their second appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl in three years.
In what has become an ongoing and perplexing saga this season, 11 players are listed as out on Navy’s injury report. Six of those are starters, including both senior co-captains in linebacker Daniel Gonzales and slotback Toneo Gulley.
Midshipmen starters and significant contributors have missed a combined 92 games this year.
“Until we got everybody hurt, we were fine,” said Niumatalolo, the two-time AAC coach of the year who has the most career wins at Navy. “We’ve just got to overcome the injuries.”
Unavailable as well because of injury is quarterback Will Worth, who ascended to first string in the second week of the season when Tago Smith tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the opener. Major college football’s leader in rushing touchdowns (25) broke a bone in his right foot early in the second quarter against the Owls.
So the Midshipmen are down to their third-string quarterback, Zach Abey. The sophomore who played high school football at Archbiship Spalding is set to make his second start at Navy after becoming the only quarterback in program history to make his first career start against Army.
“We just want to win for the sake of winning because it’s the last game I’ll ever play,” said guard Adam West, part of an offensive line that had the second-fewest career starts combined (four) in the country entering the season. “You’re not going to see me at the [NFL] combine, I promise. We’re trying to win because we’re seniors, and it’ll be the last time we play.”
The Class of 2017 has won more games (37) than any other over a four-year period at Navy. That distinction had belonged to the Class of 2016, with quarterback Keenan Reynolds claiming virtually every significant scoring and rushing record in school history as well as a handful of notable national career marks.
Even in Reynolds’s best years, though, the Midshipmen did not flirt with offensive milestones amassed this season. Navy’s 67 touchdowns, for instance, are a single-season school record. Its 56 rushing touchdowns also are the most at Navy in one season.
Another 26 points would give Navy the program single-season record (512) in that category. Ninety-seven yards against Louisiana Tech would set the Navy record for total offense in one season (5,774).
The Midshipmen are averaging 436.7 yards of total offense per game, which ranks 51st nationally among 128 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision. They are fourth in the country in rushing (310.9) and 22nd in scoring offense (37.4).
“We go by next man up,” Abey said. “All throughout the offseason, it doesn’t matter who you are, everyone has to put in the effort as if they’re the starter. I think that really showed this season, just having guys step up when they’re least expecting it.”