When the 141st season of Navy football kicks off against Marshall at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 4, a sense of normalcy will return to Annapolis.
The Midshipmen expect a capacity crowd for the first time since 2019 after the COVID-19 pandemic kept fans away last season. The plethora of traditions that make the game day experience at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium unique will also make the Mids’ return a special one.
“There’s just some things you don’t find anywhere else when you come to Annapolis. It’s just a different experience when you come here compared to any other college,” sophomore nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. said Aug. 30. “Having all this stuff back that we missed out on last year, it’s really something to look forward to. I just can’t wait for it.”
Berniard, who started each of the last six games of his freshman season, admitted he was harkening back to his official visit to the Naval Academy when describing the experience. Soon, he will experience the atmosphere that left him in awe as the Midshipmen host non-conference foe Marshall in the season opener for both teams.
“I didn’t really enjoy having no fans in the stands last year, but going back to my visit when I came here, it was surreal seeing all the fans and all the traditions held in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial as a spectator,” Berniard said. “Now I can’t wait to experience it as a player.”
Navy has enjoyed more than pageantry at home under 14th-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo. The Midshipmen are 54-17 at home under his tutelage, including a 1-4 mark in Annapolis last fall.
“We’re a tough team to beat at home,” Niumatalolo said. “With the Mids here, a capacity stadium, it’s a great home-field advantage for us. I’ve had several coaches that we’ve played against in our league that have come from Power Five schools, I don’t think they recognized what our stadium would be like at capacity. We’re expecting a full stadium.”
First-year head coach Charles Huff takes over the Marshall program after two seasons on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. The Thundering Herd won the Conference USA East Division last year and is predicted to repeat as champs this season.
Navy lists a pair of sophomores, Xavier Arline and Tai Lavatai, atop its depth chart at quarterback. Whoever is in the game will face the tall order of jumpstarting the Midshipmen’s run game against a stout defensive front.
Marshall ranked first in FBS last season in scoring defense, allowing just 13 points per game. It ranked second in total defense with 279.4 yards of offense allowed per contest. Against the run, the Thundering Herd surrendered 95.5 yards per game in 2020 — fourth fewest in the nation.
“They’re really good on defense,” Niumatalolo said. “They’ve got a lot of guys up front returning — really stout against the run. But that’s also what we do, we run the football. It’s going to be a great challenge. We’re looking forward to it.”
Between spring workouts, summer sessions and preseason practices, Niumatalolo estimated that Navy’s offense and defense have taken more than 1,000 snaps against one another. It’s a far cry from entering the season opener a year ago when the Mids did not practice in the spring or summer due to the pandemic and opted to work without live contact in the fall.
“The things that we’ve done in the past, we were able to do this year. All of it. Last year, there were a lot of things we didn’t do. This year, we did everything,” Niumatalolo said. “Our whole program is vaccinated. We’ve done everything normal this year, so I don’t have any apprehensions. ‘Can we run this? Can we do this?’ I know, I’ve seen it … It’s kind of mind-boggling that we played last year. I was just thinking about it like, ‘Man, we didn’t do any of this last year.’
“At least I know coming into this fight that we’re prepared.”
Former Naval Academy athletic director and Marshall head coach Jack Lengyel will be honored at the coin toss and during the first media timeout. Lengyel took over the Marshall football program 50 years ago after the tragic plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, that killed all 75 people on board following Marshall’s game at East Carolina. It has been recognized as the worst sports-related air tragedy in U.S. history. Lengyel served as Navy’s first civilian athletic director from 1988-2001.
“There’s a great tie between both schools. To be able to do this, to represent Jack, two institutions that are very important to him, it’s exciting,” Niumatalolo said. “On the field, it’s going to be a great challenge. Off the field, it’s an awesome deal for Jack to be honored by both schools that have been a big part of his career. We’re excited to be a part of it.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics