Navy lost to Air Force, 23-3, on Sept. 11, marking the second consecutive loss to start the season for the Midshipmen. An announced 36,997 fans attended the contest, the 10th-largest crowd in the history of Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The service academy rivals met on the 20th anniversary of the deadliest attacks to occur on U.S. soil.
1. It is easy to put this loss into perspective.
Losing is always difficult and rivalry losses cut even deeper. But on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it was easy for senior slotback Chance Warren to put a football game into perspective.
“I’m sitting here sour about a loss, but 20 years ago today, so many people lost loved ones,” the Navy captain said. “It just kind of puts into perspective that I’m out here playing college football with some of my best friends and brothers for life.”
The patriotic pregame pageantry that occurs every game day in Annapolis and the rivalry game between the two academies carried even more meaning than usual.
Following the “March On of the Brigade” tradition, a moment of silence preceded the national anthem. During the service academy exchange — a ceremonial swap of students currently studying at the other academy — Navy’s students had the date of the attacks on their backs while the message “Never Forget” was written across the backs of those from Air Force.
Every member of both teams carried an American flag as they took the field prior to kickoff. Navy wore special uniforms to honor the United States Marine Corps, while those worn by Air Force celebrated a B-52 bomber crew that flew in operation Linebacker II in 1972.
During halftime, family members of fallen graduates from both academies took the field while the band played a montage of patriotic songs.
“I think for our country, there’s so much divisiveness now. I think it was cool for a day to just put all of that aside,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We’re all Americans — not Democrat, Republican, not white, black, brown. None of it. Just remember 9-11 and remember those that passed away that horrific day, and those that passed away after that. We’ve had some players play on Navy football that gave the ultimate sacrifice after 9-11 because of the conflicts that arose.”
2. The offensive woes start up front.
Marshall had one of the nation’s top defenses and best defensive fronts in 2020, so it was no surprise when the Midshipmen struggled offensively in the season opener Sept. 4. It should have been a more fair fight against Air Force.
Instead, Navy managed fewer points, yards and first downs than it did a week earlier in a historically bad offensive showing. The 68 yards of total offense against Air Force were the fewest by a Midshipmen team since a 1966 loss to Notre Dame. It was the fewest yards gained by an FBS team since Iowa managed 66 against Wisconsin in 2017. Only six other times since 1948 has Navy gained under 100 yards in a game.
“We didn’t get anything going offensively,” Niumatalolo said. “We had 36 yards rushing and we’re a rushing team.”
A week after allowing nine sacks against Marshall, the Navy offensive line surrendered five more Sept. 11.
The Midshipmen did not pick a first down until sophomore quarterback Xavier Arline scrambled for 26 yards early in the second quarter. Navy finished the opening quarter with 6 yards of total offense, all coming on the ground, and without once moving the chains.
The next time the Midshipmen picked up a first down was nearly three minutes into the fourth quarter on a completion from backup quarterback Massai Maynor to wide receiver Mychal Cooper for a gain of 15 yards and the team’s first completion of the afternoon.
3. The quarterback position remains a major question mark.
Arline got the start behind center after Week 1 starter Tai Lavatai left the opener with a leg injury that kept him out against Air Force. The sophomore was unable to complete a single pass, going 0-for-5 with a pair of sacks on the day. His 31 yards rushing led Navy and his 26-yard scamper set up a 23-yard field goal by Bijan Nichols for the Midshipmen’s only points on the day.
“You’ve got to be able to throw the ball to loosen them up a little bit,” Niumatalolo said. “They couldn’t run the ball against us either, but I thought their passes loosened us up a little bit. When we dropped back to throw, we couldn’t.”
Arline and Warren both agreed that Air Force was able to successfully pack the box and devote seven defenders to stopping the run game.
“It was definitely crowded up there. There wasn’t a lot of holes to break through,” Arline said. “There just really wasn’t much in the middle out there.”
Maynor looked much better as a passer, completing three of his five attempts for 32 yards after replacing Arline in the fourth quarter. In his first three snaps, he nearly doubled Navy’s previous offensive output.
“I thought he threw the ball well. I thought he did some good things,” Niumatalolo said.
The head coach said he was unsure if he expects Lavatai to be ready after the upcoming bye week when Navy travels to face Houston.
4. Navy’s defense hung tough, but received little help from the offense or special teams.
Until Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels’ 28-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the third quarter, the Midshipmen remained a touchdown away from taking the lead.
That is quite the testament to the play of their defense.
“Our defense played their hearts out, but we’re one team,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s a bounce-back from last week. I thought they came back and played really, really well this week.”
A week earlier, the Thundering Herd scored 49 points on Navy’s home field while recording 464 yards of total offense. Both of those figures were cut in half this week.
“It was just a whole lot of film study and preparation before the game. We played bad against Marshall so we had a chip on our shoulder,” nose guard Donald Berniard Jr. said. “It wasn’t enough, so it’s back to the drawing board.”
All three of Air Force’s touchdown drives began in Midshipmen territory or within 8 yards of midfield.
Navy lost both of its starting safeties (Mitchell West and Kevin Brennan) during the course of the game. Star linebacker Diego Fagot also played through pain of his own, according to Niumatalolo.
5. Special teams struggles are becoming a trend.
Early into the fourth quarter, Navy gifted the Falcons two points when long snapper Cole Williams sailed the ball over the head of the punter and out of the back of the end zone.
It was only part of a string of errors on special teams that included a muffed punt that started an Air Force possession in the red zone, a 19-yard punt that gave the Falcons excellent field position to start their first touchdown drive, and a roughing-the-punter penalty on fourth-and-22 that extended another Air Force touchdown drive.
Poor special teams play is a trend of this young season. The Midshipmen had a punt and a field goal blocked one week earlier.
Update: Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper was reportedly fired after the Mids’ 23-3 loss to Air Force.
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