• Diane Roberts

Midshipmen Win Over Tulsa

by Diane Roberts

The US Naval Academy Midshipmen put together four quarters of competitive, effective football in their week nine meeting with American Athletic Conference rivals the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, winning 20-17 on the road against a team that played for the conference championship just last season.

The Mids got to celebrate big for just the second time this season, as a strong second half in their Friday night match-up led the way to victory.

"It was a great team win," Head Coach Ken Niumatalolo said.

It took an entire half to get the whole team on the same page. Late in the first half Navy was in danger of giving up a big play touchdown -- which has been their bane in 2021 -- as Tulsa's Anthony Watkins broke free and headed for the end zone. But, Navy senior defensive back Michael McMorris tracked him down like a heat-seeking missile and prevented to touchdown. Navy's defense then held firm and Tulsa settled for a field goal.

"Mikey, to me the play of the year," Niumatalolo said to media of McMorris's play, "making that tackle and held them to a field goal."

A Tulsa ball carrier is tackled by US Naval Academy defenders during their American Athletic Conference football game on October 29th, 2021 at H. A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, OK
A Tulsa ball carrier is tackled by US Naval Academy defenders during their American Athletic Conference football game on October 29th, 2021 at H. A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, OK

"It really all starts in practice," McMorris said. "Every play we emphasize, even if its a three-yard burst, 'We get to the ball.' What we've been emphasizing all year, since Coach [Ken] 'New' [Niumatalolo] has been here: 'elite eat.' So that effort kicked in. It was nothing new."

The Mids were 0-6 on third downs after the first two quarters and the score was tied 3-3 at halftime thanks to stellar defensive play.

"Our defense played well in the first half," Niumatalolo said, "allowed us to stay in the game."

But at the start of the second half it seemed like the same old special teams woes would do Navy in once more. That's when Watkins broke free again, taking the opening kickoff of the second half 97 yards. This time, no one would catch him, and the touchdown gave the Golden Hurricane a 10-3 lead.

"We didn't want to give up another kick return for a touchdown," Niumatalolo said. "That killed us."

But, Navy did not crumble. They answered with a nearly six-minute, 10-play drive capped off by senior fullback James Harris's 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game.

"I think those long drives where we put it together, moving the ball and seeing the progression down the field, it just boosts our confidence," Niumatalolo said.

Then, Navy's defense came up big during a 10-play Tulsa drive when Hurricane receiver Josh Johnson bobbled a pass from quarterback Davis Brin in the end zone. Navy freshman safety Rayuan Lane came down with it to stop the threat and notched his first interception.

"I just seen it," Lane said, "and I said 'It's gotta be me, I gotta go get it,' and that's how it went."

Navy sophomore quarterback Tai Lavatai and the Mids then marched 80 yards in just over eight minutes to take a 17-10 lead on a 1-yard rush from Lavatai.

"We knew we had to make adjustment at half time," Lavatai said. "We did. We found a scheme we felt like we could work on."

The second half wasn't without its drama.

With less than five minutes left and Navy 20-10, Tulsa went 65 yards in one minute to cut the lead to 3. Tulsa attempted to get the ball back with an onsides kick, but Navy recovered it and let the clock run out for the 20-17 final score.

Navy had 302 yards of offense, all on the ground. Not a single pass was completed in the game. That's the first time that has happened for the Midshipmen since November of 2018.

Next the Mids travel to South Bend in week 10 to take on the eighth-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This comes just three weeks after Navy played second-ranked Cincinnati, as Navy's tough schedule continues.

edited for web by Joe Harman