Navy (1-3) earned its first win of the season Oct. 2, rallying from 13 points down after three quarters to beat visiting Central Florida, 34-30, in front of 30,871 fans at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The Knights had been the only American Athletic Conference team the Midshipmen had yet to defeat since joining the league.
1. Navy desperately needed this.
Navy was a football team that badly needed to win, so it was understandable that the Midshipmen enjoyed themselves more than a little bit after rallying from 13 points down to upset visiting UCF.
“We needed that so bad. The locker room right now is drenched like there was a monsoon in there,” head coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We needed to celebrate. I wanted our guys to see that this is us, this is what it feels like. But it all started with the hard work.”
The frustrating 0-3 start to the season included a drubbing from service academy rival Air Force that resulted in a chaotic firing and re-hiring of offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. It also included squandering a double-digit halftime lead at Houston one week ago.
The Midshipmen overcame a pair of fumbles that gifted 14 points to the Knights. They rallied to outscore UCF 17-0 in the final quarter, taking their first and only lead of the game on a 4-yard touchdown run by senior fullback Isaac Ruoss with 3:09 left.
“Obviously, they’re a really good team and we were able to eke out a win. I’m just proud of our players, proud of their resolve,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m proud of our players and everything they’ve been through. Our guys came back to work everyday. We have great leadership in our seniors.”
2. Tai Lavatai played Navy football and earned the starting job in the process.
The sophomore quarterback had not played since suffering an injury early in the second half of Navy’s season opener against Marshall Sept. 4. The Midshipmen did not declare a starting quarterback in the preseason because neither Lavatai nor sophomore Xavier Arline had taken command of the job.
Lavatai started against UCF and never came off the field. He operated the triple-option offense efficiently throughout the afternoon, rushing for 57 yards and two touchdowns and completing a pair of passes for 58 yards.
“I thought Tai earned the job today,” Niumatalolo said.
Slotback Carlinos Acie led the rushing attack with 85 yards, more than doubling his previous career total. Ruoss rushed for 84 yards and a score and fellow fullback James Harris II gained 52 yards.
“Everything starts in there. Everything in our offense always starts with the fullback,” Niumatalolo said. “When the fullback gets going, it’s a sign that the O-line is playing well, too. I was proud of our O-line.”
Navy gained 406 yards on the day, with 348 coming on the ground, and possessed the ball for 39:18.
3. Special teams, which had been an issue all season, were a strength.
In its season opener, Navy had a punt and a field goal blocked against Marshall. A week later, the Midshipmen saw a bad snap sail over the punter’s head and out of the back of the end zone for a safety during the loss to Air Force. That game also included a muffed punt, a shanked punt and a roughing-the-punter penalty against Navy. Last week, Houston returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown.
But against UCF, the Midshipmen flipped the script and were the ones blocking kicks. Senior cornerback Michael McMorris blocked a Knights’ punt that senior slotback Daniel Taylor recovered in the end zone for a Navy touchdown late in the second quarter. Earlier in the first half, the Midshipmen blocked an extra point, helping to create the decisive four-point margin that mandated UCF try for a fourth-and-15 in the final minute rather than being able to attempt a game-tying field goal.
“We had to do that. Against a team like UCF, you can’t give them anything,” Niumatalolo said. “Unfortunately, we gave them short fields on those two turnovers, but we had to win special teams and we finally did. We were 0-3 on special teams in the first three games. We wanted it today.”
4. Diego Fagot inspired a spectacular fourth quarter from Navy’s defense.
In addition to holding the Knights scoreless the entire fourth quarter, Navy forced a pair of turnovers in the final period to make the comeback possible. Senior linebacker Diego Fagot forced a fumble with 8:28 remaining. Taylor Robinson recovered to set up the game-winning touchdown drive. Robinson intercepted a UCF pass in the end zone in the game’s final minute to secure the win.
“We didn’t really play very well the whole game,” Fagot, who registered a team-high 11 tackles, said. “But I really liked how we responded in the fourth quarter. We were able to get the ball back in the offense’s hands.”
UCF converted just two of nine third-down attempts and went 0-1 on fourth down.
“That’s all [defensive coordinator Brian] Newberry. There’s a reason we hired that guy,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s as smart of a football coach as I’ve been around.”
5. The Midshipmen overcame errors that could have proved costly.
Navy turned the ball over twice on a pair of fumbles by Lavatai. Both times, UCF scored a touchdown the very next play.
“There’s always stuff to fix. I missed a couple of reads, I fumbled the ball a couple of times, I didn’t call the right play sometimes,” Lavatai said.
Navy entered the game as the least penalized team in the nation, but that discipline went out the window Saturday. The Midshipmen were called for eight penalties totaling 72 yards.
Photo Credit: Phil Hoffmann/Navy Athletics