• Diane Roberts

Optimism Abounds at Navy, But Week 1 Brings A Tough Test to Annapolis

Reporting by Diane Roberts

edited for web by Joe Harman

For Navy, last season was a bit of a shipwreck.

The Midshipmen suffered a blowout loss in game one and losses to Academy rivals Army and Air Force by a combined score of 55 - 7. While there were a few glimmers of hope on the defensive side of the ball, last year left a bitter taste in the wake of a 3 -- 7 season.

But with the start of a new season, there is optimism in Annapolis.

Hard work and practice is what Mids say will help erase the bad taste of a frustrating 2020. Physical practice--in pads, unlike the last year’s COVID season--is the difference.

Last year, there was no-contact practicing and the results showed it.

But now . . .

"It's just completely different," Navy head Coach Ken Niumatalolo told reporters in late August, "I'm just impressed because we're back. And, guys, it looks like Navy football."

Mychal Cooper, senior wide receiver and team co-captain, says he sees the team's focus. "In going through these summer workouts, going through four quarters, going through the off-season, guys have that fire in their eyes, guys have that purpose and guys have that 'want to'."

Navy football means a tradition of winning. Coach Niumatalolo has had ten winning seasons in his 13 years at the helm, including three double-digit win seasons. Part of the reason for his optimism this year is a quarterback trio that gives him triple option offense . . . well, options!

"What we do on offense, you need more than one quarterback," he has said.

Navy's Sophomore QB Xavier Arline enters 2021 as the favorite to start behind center for the Midshipmen. Photo courtesy of USNA.

Xavier Arline is the incumbent, having started three games as a freshman last year. "There's nothing like game experience," the 5'9", now-sophomore QB relates. "It's fast. It's quick. It was just good to get live looks, game speed, game clock . . . just the whole game scenario. I'm blessed for those reps and I'm going to carry that into this season."

Tai Lavatai, also a sophomore, and junior Maasai Maynor are also in the quarterback mix for a team that, traditionally, has been among the leaders in the nation in rushing offense. Coach Niumatalolo says not to expect him to announce his game one starter until game day.

Game one promises to be a challenge. The Thundering Herd of Marshall boasts a defense that gave up the second fewest yards per game in the nation last year, and their new coach, Charles Huff, was the running backs coach for defending National Champions, Alabama, a season ago.

Marshall's new Head Coach, Charles Huff, right, with RB Lawrence Papillon
Marshall's new Head Coach, Charles Huff, right, with RB Lawrence Papillon

The Herd finished first in Conference USA last season, so Navy's Head Coach knows better than to look ahead to game two against Air Force.

"If we do that we're going to killed by Marshall," Niumatalolo said in an interview on August 24. "Obviously the Air Force game is a huge game for our program, but if we look towards them the first game's going to get ugly. I mean, they [Marshall] are picked to win their league, [they have a] really good coaching staff. They're a really good football team. They got some transfers, some Power-5 transfers, and it's going to be a tough game."

If that isn't enough, there's a poignant reason why Navy chose Marshall for the first game of this season.

Retired Navy Athletics Director and Former Marshall Head Football Coach Jack Lengyel

Navy's game against Marshall will honor retired Navy Athletic Director Jack Lengyel, who served as AD from 1988 to 2001. Lengyel was also the coach who took over as Head Coach at Marshall in 1971. That year was the season following the tragic crash of the plane carrying the Thundering Herd football team, killing 37 players and eight coaches in November 1970. It was the story captured in the 2006 film We Are Marshall, in which Lengyel was portrayed by Matthew McConaughey.

On Saturday, September 4, 2021 the echo of that Thundering Herd will reverberate off the stands at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.