Ken Niumatalolo: Victory Against Army Will ‘Catapult Us To Great Things’ In 2022

Even though the Navy football team finished 4-8, head coach Ken Niumatalolo believes the 17-13 win against Army Dec. 11 will “catapult” the Midshipmen into the offseason and serve as a launching point for the 2022 season.

Prior to its win against the Black Knights, Navy had competed well against quality opponents but struggled to get over the hump, losing one-score games to Cincinnati, Houston, SMU and East Carolina. Cincinnati is headed to the College Football Playoff, while the other three programs will face Power Five opponents in bowl games.

But Navy was able to beat an Army team that entered the game at 8-3. The Black Knights had won four of the past five matchups against Navy as well.

“I really believe this is going to catapult us to great things,” Niumatalolo said on Glenn Clark Radio Dec. 15. “Winning the games that we won the last couple games and seeing us move forward, I think it’s just going to catapult us. We’ve got a ton of guys coming back. They were able to taste what it’s like to beat those guys and what it takes to win.”

Chief among those returners is quarterback Tai Lavatai, who will be a junior next fall. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound quarterback out of St. Johns, Fla., rushed 20 times for 62 yards and two touchdowns and completed 4 of 6 passes for 82 yards against Army. For the season, Lavatai ran for 371 yards and seven scores while throwing for 449 yards and five touchdowns on 55.7 percent passing.

After starting the final nine games of the season at quarterback, Lavatai will presumably enter next fall as the starting signal-caller. Niumatalolo credited quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper with helping Lavatai develop in Navy’s triple-option system.

“I’ve been really hard on that kid. He never flinched. He continued to keep going,” Niumatalolo said of Lavatai. “Coach Jasper has done a tremendous job of coaching him and developing him. Just proud of him. That’s the goal of our program, to beat Army. To be the quarterback that led us to victory is something that he’ll never forget.”

Niumatalolo was particularly impressed by Lavatai’s touchdown run that tied the score at seven in the first quarter:

“The first touchdown play that he had, the quarterback draw, I think that established us pretty quickly,” Niumatalolo said. “Both safeties hit him at the 2-yard line and he still scored.”

Navy is, however, losing all of its seniors. While many college football seniors will have a chance to return for an extra year due to the COVID year in 2020, that’s not the case at a service academy. Navy’s 25 seniors will serve their country after graduation, though linebacker Diego Fagot may have an NFL future.

Niumatalolo was effusive in his praise of the contributions of seniors and team captains Fagot, Kevin Brennan, Mychal Cooper and Chance Warren.

“After a tough loss, come Monday, just to see them, they were the same. They didn’t flinch. They didn’t change. They kept leading from in front,” Niumatalolo said. “I was impressed. I was just like, ‘Wow.’ Here are my seniors, here are my captains showing me a great example. I’ve been doing this for 31 years, I’m 56 years old, but I was learning from them.”

Fagot closed out his career in style, making nine tackles and converting a fake punt to extend a drive that ate up much of the fourth quarter. Fagot wasn’t expecting the snap to come to him, but long snapper Ethan Nguyen thought Fagot checked to a fake. Fagot got the first down anyway:

“I’m still trying to figure out how he caught that snap. That thing came back like a bullet,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m just grateful he caught it, much less started running. To have the wherewithal first of all to catch it and second of all to start running immediately … that play will go down in the archives as one of the great plays in Navy football history, but his performance will also be the same.”

Navy qualified for bowl games in all but one season from 2003-2017, but the Midshipmen have gone 21-27 during the past four seasons. Navy had also lost four of its past five games to Army prior to the win earlier this month. But Niumatalolo said that the win served notice that Navy hasn’t ceded anything to Army.

“I think for me and for our players, to beat these guys … it kind of just set things straight like, ‘No, we haven’t gone anywhere. We’re still Navy. If we had your schedule, we’d have the same record,'” Niumatalolo said. “We haven’t gone anywhere. We wanted to show them that we haven’t gone anywhere.”

For more from Niumatalolo, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Navy Athletics

Luke Jackson

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