• Graham Knight

Where Have All the Navy Juniors Gone? with Bill Wagner

by Graham Knight

We started the season, in many ways, with Bill Wagner. So it's only fair that we end up the season with Bill Wagner.

Graham Knight: The Army-Navy Game is now in the history books, the 17-13 victory, Navy over Army.

Bill, let's talk about the game first, in two articles by you: in the Capital Gazette and The Baltimore Sun. So let's talk about the fake punt first. What's your take? It surprised everybody.

Bill Wagner: Well, it surprised Diego Fagot, who was the player that ran the ball in the fake punt because he didn't know it was coming. It was a mistake, Graham, the long snapper misunderstood a check. He told me after the game when I spoke to him outside the Navy locker room. His name's Ethan Nguyen, freshman, and he could not hear what Diego was saying as he called a check. Navy had installed a fake punt into the game plan and Nguyen just assumed that Diego had seen the look that he wanted to go with that fake punt and that's what the check was. In fact, Diego was checking the blocking schemes and assignments because there was an overload. Army was overloaded to one side, so when he spotted that he checked the blocking schemes. The long snapper misunderstood, snapped the ball directly to Diego, who told us that he wasn't even looking at the center and certainly not expecting the ball, he was actually looking at the man he was assigned to block.

So it was a complete shock, and it was remarkable that Diego caught that ball. What amazing reactions, reflexes. He snared the ball right before it hit him in the helmet. It could have been disastrous for Navy; they were deep in their own territory at the time.

It was fourth-and-one, and I would not have been surprised for a fake punt if it was closer to midfield. But it was just too risky of a place for Coach Niumatalolo to actually call a fake punt. But Diego made the play of the game. He caught that ball and proceeded to run over an Army defender and then jump over another, and he gained four yards, picked up the first down. Navy wound up possessing the ball for close to seven minutes, taking a lot of time off the clock finished with a Bijan Nichols field goal … that was kind of the clinching points.

Graham Knight: I also saw another article by you in Capital Gazette, and I'm just going to tell all the viewers here, if you're not following Bill with the Capital Gazette or the Baltimore Sun or on Twitter, you need to, great reporter.

Was [Navy senior cornerback Michael] McMorris's tackle game-saving? How do you compare those two plays? Because McMorris came up big, he had two great pass coverage plays, and then he had the big tackle of [Army fullback Jakobi] Buchanan, who's not easy to stop.

Bill Wagner: Well, absolutely. What Michael McMorris did was critical to preserving the victory. That was Jakobi Buchanan, the 260-pound fullback for Army. And you know, we just spoke about Diego Fagot making a great play, but he made a bad decision on that particular play that you're referencing. He [Fagot], on his own, called a run blitz that was not called by the coaching staff. He made a command decision that he was going to run blitz on a fourth-and-short play, and he made a mistake. He ran into a line, and he tried to jump over and was not successful. And the bottom line is the ball didn't go up the middle where he run blitzed and Buchanan slipped out the back side. And once he got through the line of scrimmage, there was no one there because that's the gap that Diego was supposed to fill, and he wasn't where he was supposed to be.

And Michael McMorris, the cornerback, he's about one hundred and sixty five pounds soaking wet. And Buchanan, as we mentioned, 260, and Michael, he knew we couldn't bring him down if he went up high. So he just drove down low and got him around the ankles and held on tight until his teammates could rally there and help him get the guy on the ground. But Buchanan had nothing but green grass between him in the end zone. Now, it would have been a footrace, and he's a big guy, so it's possible that a Navy defender might have run him down. But for sure Army would have had the ball, probably, in the red zone with an opportunity to go in for the winning touchdown.

Graham Knight: A great game! So I'm just curious, you've been a beat writer following Navy for at least two decades now. You've been with Capital Gazette for 30. How does this game stack up in terms of the other games you've seen? You said earlier when we interviewed you that it was moments in games that stood out to you most. How does this game stand out to you compared to the others you've seen?

Bill Wagner: You know, it was one of the more exciting games and there are a lot of factors that made it unique. Obviously, playing in New York, MetLife Stadium, the first time held at this particular facility. The Army-Navy game has been at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey, before, but not at the MetLife Stadium, and I thought the folks at MetLife Stadium, the New Jersey and Sports and Exposition Authority, everyone involved did a great job. I thought they put together a fantastic Army-Navy game.

So that was one factor, obviously, the backdrop of recognizing the 20th anniversary of 9-11, and there was a lot of stuff that happened before and during the game that recognized 9-11. So there was that element.

But the biggest thing to me was this has been such a difficult season for Navy. You know, we've talked about the toughest schedule in the modern history of Navy football, not even close, 11 of 12 opponents bowl eligible, a high RPI in terms of the strength of schedule and health and difficulty.

So obviously, there's been a lot of events that happened early in the season. After the Air Force game, the whole saga with Ivin Jasper being dismissed as offensive coordinator, then rehired as quarterbacks coach. Just a lot of negatives that occurred and Navy persevered.

And they did improve over the course of the season, I feel. And so to win this game was just absolutely so critical and just so uplifting. It was really a game-saving, a season-saving victory was what it was.

And there's not been many times over the years that Navy's been in that position. Army was a lot. During the time the Navy had the historic 14-game winning streak in the series, a win over Navy would have been season-saving for an eight-four Army. But that has not been the case as much for Navy, and this was, in particular, was a season that just was desperate for a victory over Army.

And what I really thought was compelling, Graham, was that the Navy seniors, you referenced Michael McMahon, we referenced Diego Fagot, Chance Warren with that determined run that set up a touchdown on which he ran through a tackle attempt by Andre Carter, who just was named an All-American today, an Associated Press All-American. So the seniors for Navy, I thought, really stepped up and basically said, "We are not losing this game!" They drew a line in the sand and they were not going to be denied. And I could sense that during the game and the plays they made certainly attested to that.

Graham Knight: Yeah, they certainly did. Let's talk a little bit about the seniors who are leaving. And the young freshmen, there were a number of freshmen who played in the game. I think Navy is maybe a little bit more unique than some of the other academies in terms of putting freshmen in. It might be, you know, necessity is the mother of invention here, but at the start of the season, [Head] Coach Ken [Niumatalolo] was super excited about this team, felt really good about the season, felt really positive. Is his enthusiasm maybe just a year or two early, in the sense of how the season went and how young his team is?

Bill Wagner: Well, there is no question that no one that's on the Navy coaching staff ever thought they would be playing so many sophomores and freshmen. And a lot of it's been due to injury. You know, season-ending injuries to safeties Mitch West and Kevin Brennan, season-ending injury -- as it turned out, although we never knew it -- to Will Harbor, who was a starting inside linebacker, season-ending injury to Marcell Gleeton, a wide receiver, other injuries that forced them to, you know, juggle the lineup.

But the bottom line is the junior class is almost missing for Navy. The players that should be juniors right now, a lot of them are gone, and it was a product of the pandemic. None of us realized how miserable it was at the Naval Academy during the 2020 spring semester and fall semester.

They were on lockdown. They were basically quarantined to their rooms and it was horrible and it was . . . nobody enjoyed it. And they came back to school not certain . . . and especially when people are making decisions as to whether they were going to leave Navy, that's going to happen in the summertime, and they didn't know if was going to be another semester of that. And the bottom line is, a significant number of Navy players who would have been members of the class of 2023, they would have been juniors this year, they're gone. Go look at the roster. There's very, very few juniors. There's hardly any of them on the depth chart, and the senior class is rather small. There was 68 recruited players in the class that is going to graduate in 2022. They were down to twenty-five seniors on Senior Day, and about 12 of them are key contributors.

So that is why so many freshmen and sophomores had to play, out of necessity. They had holes in the lineup, on the depth chart that had to be filled now. The good news is a lot of those players are talented. You know, Rayuon Lane, the safety, he's good! He played well. Inside linebacker Tyler Fletcher has played well and done some good things. So you just go on and on and there's a lot of youngsters. Marquel Haywood, the kickoff returner, he played more than he had all season at slot back against Army and he made plays, a great catch, a very critical catch, I think a 24-yard pickup.

So yes, the future bodes well, provided they can keep the players here because, you know, this is the era of college football, the transfer portal makes it easy to leave and there's been far more transfers from Navy football than I'd ever seen previously, ever since the portal came into vogue and made it so much easier for guys just to leave. You know, I would caution a lot of players, by the way, and I‘m not just speaking to Navy players, but players in general: think twice before you enter the transfer portal, because there's no spots available. Because of super-seniors -- the NCAA giving players extra years of eligibility for two years running. There's no roster spots, anywhere. You enter the portal, you're risking not being anywhere. And trying to go down isn't easy because the Football Championship Subdivision schools are getting flooded with transfers, and they also have players that have been extended due to COVID.

So it will be important for the Navy coaching staff to retain these young players that have stepped up and showed well this season.

Graham Knight: Yeah, well, let's talk about the coaching staff for a second. How big of an impact, and was it positive or negative, did the firing of Coach Jasper have on the team and then the rehiring? Did you get any sense of how that changed the morale?

Bill Wagner: I think, you know, I never have really spoken to anyone about this other than in the immediate aftermath, and we heard some players went to social media and whatnot, but I think it galvanized the coaching staff and the players and they were rallied in defense of Ivin Jasper.

And frankly, it's a good thing they kept Ivin Jasper, because he played a critical role in the improvement of Navy football. Number one, he coaches the quarterbacks and clearly we saw sophomore Tai Lavatai improve over the course of the season. He was, I thought, Tai was outstanding in the Army-Navy Game. He really showed a lot of command, a lot of poise. He directed the offense well, scored a couple of touchdowns, played tough, played smart, no turnovers, took care of the ball.

So obviously, coach Jasper did a good job of coaching up Tai over the course of the season. And you know, there's, you know, I know he wasn't considered the offensive coordinator anymore, but he was still involved with game planning play calling. If you remember the game in which coach Niumatalolo got hurt along the sideline when he got bowled into by a defender, he was, he could barely stand. He stayed out there on the sideline, but barely. He had to turn the play calling over to Coach Jasper. Thank God Coach Jasper was there to do what he knew how to do and call plays for the rest of that game.

So I think it was a galvanizing moment in a lot of ways, and you've got to give Ivin Jasper a lot of credit. He could have just mailed it in for the rest of the season and said that, 'I've been disrespected and why should I give myself to this program anymore?' But he's a pro and, you know, he cares about his players and coaches, and that's, in the end, what was at the forefront of his mind. And he continued to coach the way he was expected to coach, and he was a crucial part of the improvement.

Graham Knight: Let's talk about the quarterbacks for a second. Navy came out early on with both Lavatai and Xavier Arline, and Xavier pulled a, I believe, a hamstring and Coach Niumatalolo talked a little bit about, at one of the postgame interviews, about how he had to basically throw half of his game plan away. Are they moving to a two-quarterback system? Was that just a setup for this particular game? Any take on what the future of what Navy quarterbacks looks like?

Bill Wagner: Well, I think Tai Lavatai has absolutely seized the job. He is the starter. This was a one-time thing.

The coaching staff developed a game plan in which they were going to go into the pistol formation, that's what I call it because the quarterback was in shotgun and had a back behind him. It was actually a slot back instead of a fullback, but that's a pistol formation. And that really fits with Xavier and what he does. He’s got, you know, he's quick and and fast and good, good moves. So I think that they wanted to use Xavier in that pistol formation because they thought he'd be very dangerous and elusive, and he had a 10-yard run on the play that he pulled his hamstring.

So yes, they had a game plan in which they thought Xavier would be a little more effective than Tai. Now they continue to run some pistol formation stuff with Tai, and he did a good job with it. But he's just not as quick and fast and elusive as Xavier, and therefore he doesn't hit it as quickly. And that's what you need in that pistol, you want to fake it and then make a quick move and hit it really quick.

So I think that was a one time thing. I do believe Tai Lavatai has clearly seized the starting job, but Xavier is a talented backup who brings a different element to the field, and I certainly think he can be used in spots. And obviously, if Ty goes down, you're happy to have a veteran guy who's played in big games.

Graham Knight: Yeah, we'll talk about Tai Lavatai going down. I mean, I was thinking about his season, he played through a knee injury, played through concussion protocol, played through, I don't know if it was a shoulder injury or a stinger exactly what happened there, but continued to come back. The highest compliment I heard him paid was, you know, he is one seriously tough player.

Bill Wagner: Oh, absolutely. And, you know, 6'2", 210 pounds, an option quarterback's going to get hit. They take a lot of pounding now. You know, you got to be like Keenan Reynolds who learned how to, you know, not absorb the brutal blows. Keenan became a master at making sure that he did not take the brutal blows, but Tai has absorbed a lot of punishment over the course of the season.

And as you mentioned, he went down with a leg injury, a lower body injury, and then he had the shoulder and the concussion. So he has been beat up and toughed it out throughout the season then got better, so kudos to Tai, for sure.

Graham Knight: As we wrap this up, I just want to kind of put the season in perspective. You know, as I asked Coach Ken in a recent press conference, you know, was his team peaking at the right time?

Both you and he described it as improvement over the season. But in some ways I think that the season was a trial by fire, if you want to call it that. It really prepared them for this game. You know, had they not have had as tough a season, maybe more victories come in. Just talking about Michael McMorris in the post-game presser he talked about, you know, how he was really up against some really talented receivers and used to dealing with, you know, a couple of different moves and tracking them as as he did his coverage. And it seems like it's that those losses that really prepared them for this victory. Any take on how the ended up being four and eight on the season, how that really set them up for this game?

Bill Wagner: Well, there's no question that, and more than ever before, the records were not indicative. Army was favored by eight and a half points. At one time, it went down to seven and a half, but Army played a much weaker schedule then Navy. At one point several metrics rated Navy's schedule the toughest in the nation. Those same metrics, I think at the end, had it number three.

But that's unbelievable that they're not even a power five conference school, and they're up there in all of Football Bowl Subdivision in one of the toughest schedules. There's no question that playing such a demanding, challenging schedule prepped Navy for this game in particular.

And you know, there's what I say, I just wrote a column that's going to appear in our paper in which I said this one victory over Army puts an entire different complexion on this season. You lose to Army and you're three and nine, and you can talk about playing on a tough schedule and you can talk about it showing improvement over the course of the season, but in the end, you got a bad taste in your mouth and you're going into the off season on a down note because you've been swept by your service academy rivals and you're three and nine.

Four and eight with a victory over Army changes everything. Now you're going into the off season on a positive note, you're going in with momentum. You've beaten the Army and it just changes everything about the whole outlook of this season. It's just, no win could have meant so much and changed things more drastically than this. And so I mean, this was clearly a season altering victory over Army for Navy.

Graham Knight: Just to dive into that just a little bit deeper. I've heard it said a couple of different times, in a couple of different ways now, that you can win all your games but lose your rivalry match and the season's a disaster, hearing some rumors that that was a conversation that [Army Head] Coach [Jeff] Monken had with the CBS announcers before the game, don't know if that's true or not. How true is it? I get your point about the victory over Army being a game-changer in terms of momentum, but does a win over your rival in the academy change the dynamic? I mean, does that make a season that would have otherwise been a disastrous success?

Bill Wagner: There's no question and I mean, Coach Monken said in his postgame press conference that it's hard to consider this season a success when you lose this game. And so they've had a great season. They are eight and four and going to a bowl game, going to play Missouri, and that's what he said. It's just, "It's difficult to feel like this was a good season when we lose this game," that is his exact quote. "This is a devastating loss." So, yeah, absolutely. It meant so much for Navy and puts a positive spin on an otherwise difficult season. And for Army, it's devastating and puts a negative note to an otherwise successful season. So it is a dramatic capper on either side.

Graham Knight: And then last season, coach, last question. I'm sorry, last season/last question. Coach Ken‘s two back-to-back losing seasons given the victory over Army. How big a deal is that?

Bill Wagner: Well, I think Navy does have to take a long look at some things. This is actually three losing seasons out of four, and the one successful season was 2019 when Malcolm Perry played Superman and rushed for over 2000 yards and was just amazing. And that was a great season, eleven and two, swept Army and Air Force, won The Commander in Chief's Trophy, upset Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. I mean, but three out of four losing seasons is a trend.

So now a lot of it is the by-product of being in the American Athletic Conference, which has gotten so incredibly competitive. But if you're Navy, you can't just say, "Oh wow, we play in the American Athletic Conference against all these good teams. We're just going to have to start living with losing seasons." You know, you got in the American Athletic Conference to win it. And in the early years of being in the AAC, Navy was constantly in the mix for the West Division Championship. They played in American Athletic Conference Championship game against Temple one year.

So that's not really an excuse to me. This is the conference you're in and you need to do what it takes to be successful and beat these teams. Now, obviously, the AAC is changing. Gone are Cincinnati, Houston, Central Florida, three of the heavyweights, the consistent heavyweights of the conference will be leaving. And I don't know when that's going to happen, but they're going to be replaced by schools that Navy played when they were an independent. The likes of Rice, Texas-San Antonio, Florida Atlantic, those are schools, the type of schools, they had on its schedule when it was an independent.

So the things are going to change in the American Athletic Conference. And if you're Navy, you say, "Yeah, these are teams we're more likely to beat." I mean, you know, in the current situation where Cincinnati and Central Florida are, how often are you going to beat them on a year in, year out basis? Houston's been a tough program for Navy to beat over the years. So things are changing. But yes, they have, Navy has to take a long, hard look at what's happening with the program because three out of four losing seasons is unacceptable.

Graham Knight: Right. Well, listen, Bill Wagner, it's been an absolute pleasure. Tracking the Navy midshipmen with you throughout this year, we started in, I think, early February and have been touching base with you throughout. So really appreciate your time with us and I'm going to encourage everyone watching this to rush out, get a subscription to the Capital Gazette and also the Baltimore Sun. You're not going to be complete without both.

Bill, thank you for all you've contributed. I look forward to seeing you next season.

Bill Wagner: Thanks, Graham. Good to be with you.

edited for web by Joe Harman