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With Backs Against Wall, Mids Finally Finish
Posted Sep 21, 2008

Must win. Two words every college football fan dreads. Two words which can hinge an entire season’s value on the thin line between disaster and triumph, between failure and accomplishment. For a mid November showing they can breed expectations of postseason play, but set against the backdrop of a September sky they often force a more ominous cloud of missed opportunity unto a team and its fans.

If the United States Naval Academy wasn’t facing a must-win situation going into Saturday’s contest with the Rutgers Scarlet Knights they sure were approaching the prospect. Coming in at 1-2 with consecutive losses to Ball State and Duke, the Midshipmen returned to Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium this past Saturday with a tough task in front of them. Not only would the Mids have to travel to Wake Forest and Air Force over the next two weeks, but with an uncertain offense and still-struggling defense even October matchups against the likes of Pittsburgh, Southern Methodist, and Temple could be considered in doubt. With arguably the most challenging portion of the schedule still ahead of them, the Mids suddenly found themselves at an early season crossroads. Upset the Scarlet Knights and climb back to .500 while taking momentum into the heart of the schedule, or fall to a jeopardizing 1-3 which could signal a halt to Navy’s unprecedented success over the past five seasons.

With the stakes perfectly clear, Ken Niumatalolo’s team chose the former, fighting their way back on three separate occasions to knock off Rutgers 23-21 before a record setting crowd of 37,821 fans in Annapolis. And while getting the win and getting back to .500 certainly helps the Midshipmen in their quest to achieve bowl eligibility for a sixth consecutive year, it was ultimately the way in which Navy (2-2) played against Rutgers (0-3) which pleased their second year headman the most.

"Our mentality the whole week was that our backs were to the wall and we had to come out and fight," explained Niumatalolo, who saw his team squander a first half lead against Duke in week three to drop to 1-2. “Win or lose, we wanted to out-fight them.”

And out-fight them they did. Coming into the game equally, if not altogether more desperate, Greg Schiano and his Rutgers Scarlet Knights found their own goals for the season quickly slipping away. After an implosion against North Carolina the previous week the Scarlet Knights needed a victory in Annapolis to set the tone for Big East conference play, which begins October 4th in Morgantown for Rutgers.

With their own offensive demons to exorcise, Rutgers pursued an aggressive ground based attack, which for much of the game found success through the middle of Navy’s defense. After an early Matt Harmon field goal put Navy up 3-0, Rutgers roared back on the heels of running backs Joe Martinek and Jourdon Brooks, who combined for 195 yards on the day. After taking a 14-6 lead into the half, it looked like more of the same for the Midshipmen, whose problems were compounded when quarterback Kaipo-Noa failed to direct the offense to a manageable third down situation on the first play of the second half. Facing a third and seven from their own 21, Navy’s offense was in serious danger of letting the Scarlet Knights force a three-and-out, a possibility which would have made any comeback attempt extremely difficult against the usually stout Rutgers defense.

Yet somehow, someway, Kaipo-Noa’s wobbly 41-yard pass on third down found its way into the hands of Tyree Barnes, preserving the Midshipmen drive and striking a blow that the Rutgers defense was never quite able to recover from. Four plays later Kaipo-Noa found Barnes again, this time in the corner of the endzone to cut the Rutgers lead to one. After forcing a punt on the ensuing Rutgers drive Navy’s offense went right back to work, switching to an unbalanced line formation that isolated the short side of the field and made it easier for fullback Eric Kettani to go to work up the middle. Rutgers was slow to adjust, and before long the Mids punched it in again behind Kettani, taking a 20-14 lead into the fourth quarter.

Following the game, head coach Ken Niumatalolo talked at length about the theme for the week of practice leading up to the game. Saying that the coaching staff stressed “finishing” to the team, Niumatalolo credited his players and coaching staff with never giving up against the Scarlet Knights, even when defeat looked imminent at times.

And after a fourth quarter Rutgers score allowed the Scarlet Knights to take a 21-20 lead, it looked as though Navy may be headed for yet another close loss and fourth quarter collapse. But luckily for Niumatalolo, and perhaps inspired by his call for redemption after the second half collapse against Duke, Navy’s players fought their way back in a late game effort which put the Mids on top 23-21 with just over a minute to go. Two plays later it was all over, as Ross Pospisil’s interception of Mike Teal preserved the victory, and perhaps saved the season for Navy.

Aside from finishing, the biggest difference for the Navy offense on Saturday was arguably the return of the team’s two most important offensive players in quarterback Kaipo-Noa Keaheaku-Enhada and fullback Eric Kettani. While neither looked to be 100% coming off of early-season injuries (Kaipo missed two games due to a hamstring injury while Kettani left early against Duke in week three) both provided enough of a spark for Navy’s triple option offense to overcome the Scarlet Knights, who have traditionally been stout against the option under Schiano.

Indeed, it was Kettani, who by his own admission was playing at only “75 to 80%” who provided the biggest spark for the Midshipmen. Thanks in large part to second half adjustments made by offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper and some quick-thinking reads by Kaipo-Noa, Kettani ran wild on the Rutgers defense, finishing the day with a career-high 131 yards and a touchdown.

But above all, Navy was able to finish off the Scarlet Knights because of improved defensive play. A week after being gashed for 317 passing yards by Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis the Mids limited Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel to just 117 yards passing, a considerable accomplishment when one considers Teel has thrown for over 200 yards against Navy each of the past two seasons. And while Navy’s run defense wasn’t anything to write home about (the Mids allowed 6.2 yards per carry to Rutgers) the Navy defense still held when it had to, forcing the Scarlet Knights to punt four time while also forcing two critical turnovers, including a final interception by junior linebacker Ross Pospisil to seal the victory.

While Navy fans will likely be celebrating the team’s victory for much of the next week, the team now turns its attention to this Saturday’s game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, who defeating Florida State 12-3 on Saturday. Wake Forest is currently 3-0 on the young season, and will come into the game ranked 15th in the Coaches Poll.

Press Box Perusals: Navy once again featured the combination of sophomore cornerback John Angelo and freshmen fullback Alexander Teich as kickoff return specialists, with Angelo busting an impressive 57-yard return in the first quarter…Navy held Rutgers to 131 yards passing, the lowest output allowed through the air since Navy allowed 117 yards passing to Army last season. It was only the second time since the start of the 2007 season in which Navy has held an opponent to under 150 yards passing in a game…Navy was held to under 300 yards rushing for the second consecutive week…Shun White rushed for 85 yards on 16 carries during the game. Only one other Navy slotback (Greg Shinego) touched the ball in the game. White is now third in the nation in rushing yards…OT Andrew McGinn, who was listed as questionable going into the week, did not play (Concussion.)…Starting DE Michael Walsh left the game due to what is being called a “toe injury.” Walsh could be seen on crutches on the sideline during the game…Junior linebacker Craig Schafer left the game with a concussion. Oh yea, and you may have heard that some guy name John McCain was at the game. It was kind of a big deal.

Adam Nettina covers MAC East and Independent Football for

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