• Diane Roberts

0-3 Start A First For Midshipmen Under Niumatalolo

by Diane Roberts

It was the first week of conference play for the Navy Midshipmen, and the opportunity to right the ship after dropping their first two games of the season.

Unfortunately, the Mids could not get it done, and lost to Houston 28-20. They fell to 0-3 in the season as their grueling schedule continues.

It was a tale of two halves. Navy quarterback Xavier Arline found the endzone on just the third play of the game and the Mids started fast and furious.

"I thought we did a lot of good things," Navy's Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game. "I think we played Navy football in the first half, the best we have in a while."

But, special teams woes reared their ugly heads again as Houston's Marcus Jones returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown near the end of the first quarter to tie the game at seven.

Navy didn't let up, and didn't give up. In the second the Midshipmen scored first on a Bijan Nichols 30-yard field goal, then another touchdown on an Isaac Ruoss 1-yard run which capped off an 89-yard drive. At the half it was 17-7, Navy.

Navy fullback Isaac Ruoss attempts to push through two University of Houston Cougars defenders while carrying the ball in a football game September 25th, 2021 at TDECU Stadium in Houston, TX

Then, the wheels came off in the second half for the Mids.

Neither team resembled who they were before halftime. In fact, after putting up 224 yards on offense in the first half, Navy only added another 71 the rest of the game. A Navy penalty led to a Houston touchdown in the third quarter, while Cougar halftime adjustments led to points . . . and momentum.

"Obviously teams do change at halftime," Navy senior linebacker Diego Fagot said to reporters after the game, "and so they started running things that they thought would work better against our defense. We just need to respond better."

The Cougars scored three second-half touchdowns, one of which after Navy shot themselves in the foot -- again -- with a fumbled snap.

"Those are the kind of things that you can't do," Niumatalolo lamented after the game. "It's hard enough to do the right things and go to the right people and do that, [but] when you have stuff like that -- you just drop the snap between the center and quarterback -- that's both their faults."

"I think minus a couple of plays we executed it pretty well," senior striker John Marshall said. "We kind of messed up on some of the assignments, and [Defensive Coordinator] Coach [Brian] Newberry talked about it all week: 'eliminate the big hits' . . . and we gave up a big hit."

After the strong start, Arline ended with just 64 yards rushing on the day. He didn't gain a single yard in the second half.

"Everyone thinks we suck but us," Arline said, "so that kind of lights a fire under our butts. Everyone's down against you, you want to prove people wrong."

One unit that would like to do just that is special teams. They've suffered a myriad of miscues through the first three games, including a blocked field goal, a muffed punt return and a snap over the punter's head. Niumatalolo said in his Monday press conference that the issues on special teams will receive more emphasis.

"What's moved to the top of the crisis bucket for our team is: we can't have all those major blunders on special teams," Niumatalolo said. "We're looking at anything and everything, as far as personnel, the way we coach it . . . the whole thing."

Navy heads back to Annapolis for their next game, Saturday October 2, as they host the University of Central Florida. A true freshman will be under center for the Knights, as Mikey Keene takes the reigns from Dillon Gabriel who is out indefinitely with a broken clavicle.

The 2-1 Knights are coming off of a bye week and UCF Head Coach Gus Malzahn said it was extra time to prepare for the Midshipmen's triple option.

Navy will need to better execute that offense to lead to a win.

edited for web by Joe Harman