Entering the 2018 season, the Navy football team had earned a bowl bid in six straight seasons (and 14 out of 15), so perhaps the Mids’ 3-10 mark in 2018 could’ve been considered a blip on the radar screen.
For head coach Ken Niumatalolo, though, the three-win season — the fewest wins the Mids had earned since 2002, Paul Johnson’s first year as the head man — was enough reason to overhaul his coaching staff, including bringing in new defensive coordinator Brian Newberry.
But Niumatalolo’s dissatisfaction with the state of his program went beyond the down season in the 2018. The Mids had lost three straight games to archrival Army — all of which were winnable games — after winning 14 straight.
In 2019, Navy righted the ship in every way. The Mids are 10-2 entering the Liberty Bowl Dec. 31 against 8-4 Kansas State, which beat CFP-bound Oklahoma in October. Navy also beat Army, 31-7, the most lopsided decision in the rivalry since 2013, to regain the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. And senior Malcolm Perry, after being moved off quarterback last year, earned AAC Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2019.
“This season has been like a dream. It’s just been like a euphoric ride. None of us want it to end,” Niumatalolo said on Glenn Clark Radio Dec. 17, noting that the Liberty Bowl will take place in Tennessee, the home state of Perry and 13 others on the roster.
“To finish it off for our seniors, we’re going to go out and give it all we can and we’re going to have fun,” Niumatalolo added. “There can be times where the Army game is obviously very stressful because you want to win so bad. It’s not that we don’t want to win the bowl game, but it’s different. We’re going to go there and have fun, but at the same time we’re going to give it everything we have.”
The Army game was the culmination of a turnaround for Perry and defense. In 2018, Perry was moved from quarterback to slot back after a 35-7 loss to Air Force, and then-senior Garret Lewis took over at quarterback. Perry was a more explosive runner than Lewis, but Perry completed just 9 of 25 passes for 222 yards last year. Lewis started the final eight games at quarterback.
Niumatalolo committed to Perry as his quarterback during the offseason, and Perry rewarded his trust. Perry has run for a Navy-record 1,804 yards this year and has completed 43 of 79 passes (54.4 percent) for 1,027 yards. He ran for a career-best 304 yards against Army, the most ever by a single player in the Army-Navy game.
After the game, Niumatalolo called himself a “moron” for moving Perry to slot back in 2018.
“He’s such a highly motivated kid to be successful,” Niumatalolo said. “Maybe some of the things that weren’t experienced because we weren’t as good last year, maybe it propelled him to use those experiences to improve himself. I don’t know, it’s a great point. I know once we told him that you’re going to be the guy, we’re going to put all our chips in on you, he was all-in.”
If Perry needed a bounce-back year, then the entire defensive unit certainly did, too. In 2018, Navy allowed 33.5 points and 427.1 yards per game, though the AAC featured some high-flying offenses like Houston, UCF and Memphis. This year, the Mids allowed 22.8 points and 326.3 yards per game, the latter of which ranked first in the AAC.
With a dominant running game, Navy was able to keep opposing offenses on the sideline. But Newberry, the first-year defensive coordinator who took over for the retiring Dale Pehrson, made his mark on the program.
Navy held Army to 148 yards of total offense Dec. 14.
“I’ve been in a lot of these games and they’re always very, very close, so to beat them in such a dominating fashion … the three losses that we had to them, we could’ve won all of them. There was no question on this game. We crushed them,” Niumatalolo said.
Prior to the Army-Navy game, President Donald Trump visited each locker room and touted a policy change that allows athletes at both institutions an opportunity to defer their service and pursue a career in professional sports. In November, defense secretary Mark Esper signed a memo that indicated military service secretaries can nominate an athlete for a pro sports waiver, which is then turned over for approval by the defense secretary.
The policy, which takes effect in 2020, did not impact former Navy pitcher Noah Song, who was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in June. He was not granted a waiver and will have to serve two years before pursuing his baseball career full time. Still, Niumatalolo believes the new policy is a “game-changer,” particularly in recruiting.
“It’s not like we’re Alabama pumping out 10 guys every year to the league,” Niumatalolo said. “So I think it doesn’t diminish what this school stands for, and if there happens to be guys who are good enough to go, I think it’s awesome for them, it’s awesome for our school, it’s awesome for our country.
“And it definitely helps us in recruiting because you can come, get a great education, serve our country, play great football and if you’re good enough to play at the next level, that opportunity’s there also. I couldn’t be more pleased.”
For more from Niumatalolo, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox