Just 12 days removed from getting hammered by BYU, the Mids found themselves staring down the barrel of another blow out loss against Tulane. Then, cornerback Cam Kinley intercepted a pass in the red zone with 41 seconds left in the half. And from that point forward, those not familiar with the program began to understand what we mean when we say Navy Football is built different.
In last week’s preview, I covered the three big fixes Navy needed to beat Tulane. The logical follow up would be to circle back and close the loop on that discussion. So I’ll make it quick. The offensive line began controlling the line of scrimmage, the quarterback play was more consistent, and the defense asserted itself with authority.
But I’m more interested in what caused the Mids’ shift in their mindset that resulted in the comeback. Those were definitely the same players that took the field in the second half. It wasn’t the same team though. And that’s what I want to explore. First, it might help to take a look at just how bad the situation had become.
BYU – The Sequel?
That sounds funny, but it’s exactly what I was thinking during the first half. In fact, Coach Niumatalolo said it was like watching the third half of the BYU game. The offensive and defensive lines had all kinds of trouble matching Tulane’s speed.
The end result was the triple option failing to generate over 50 rushing yards in the first half for the second straight game. The defense still had some rust to knock off too. Opposing rushers ran through several tackles on their way to piling up over 200 yards on the ground.
Things did not look good. At halftime, ESPN side line reporter Quint Kessinich asked Coach Ken if there were any positives that he could draw upon in the second half. The response from Niumatalolo was a very blunt, “No, there are no positives.”
Surely, this isn’t what “Built Different” looks like. So what happened in the locker room that resulted in such a historic second half turnaround?
As I began looking for answers, I found out three things after the game that pointed me in the right direction. And none of them involved what you might typically expect.
Accountability Cuts Both Ways
After the BYU game, Coach Niumatalolo held himself fully accountable for not having the team prepared to play Navy Football. So there was no way he was going to let that happen going into this game. The big question was whether or not the Mids could get ramped up in time.
It’s true that coaches have to do everything in their power to get their teams ready. But at the end of the day, it’s still the players that have get out there and play.
Bill Wagner from the Capital Gazette asked Coach Ken what he said to the team at halftime to give them a spark. It turns out he didn’t say much of anything. He told Wagner, “There really weren’t any speeches.’
And before I heard the post game interview, I came across a tweet from Coach Jasper’s daughter. She asked him what he said in the locker room at halftime. He said, ” . . . we are going to run our base stuff and see what happens.”
My takeaway from these two examples was that the coaches had done their best to get the team ready for this game. Now it was up to the players to play.
Finally, when Bill Wagner asked linebacker Diego Fagot about their mindset at halftime, he had this response. “There was no halftime speech . . . Something just rose up inside us. We were just telling each other, ‘Hey, it’s 0 – 0. Do your job. Do your job. One play at a time.’ And things worked out in our favor.”
The short answer here is the players held themselves accountable for their play, and then they went out and did something about it. That’s why Tulane saw a completely different team in the second half.
Now That’s What I Call “Built Different”
The change was pretty clear on the Mids first possession of the half. The offensive line executed their blocks so well that no one even touched Jamale Carothers until he was seven yards past the line of scrimmage. The gain went for a first down.
It would be more of the same as the game went on. So I wanted to take some time to point out exactly what “Built Different” looks like. And I’m going to focus on players whose names might not be that familiar to us now, but their play would indicate we’re going to see plenty more of them.
Mark Walker (WR)
The sophomore from Paterson, NJ came up big with two great catches. It included the 44 yard strike from Morris that set up the Mids’s first touchdown. He was fully extended on both receptions, showing excellent concentration as he hauled them in. Walker also took the free kick after the safety and went for 34 yards to help set up the team’s game tying drive.
Justin Smith (SB)
The reason Dalen Morris even had the chance to throw that 44 yard pass to Walker was because of Justin Smith. The senior slotback was spotting Tulane defensive end (and NFL prospect) Cameron Sample four inches and over 80 pounds. But he got just enough of a piece of him to give Morris the time he needed to make the play. If Smith doesn’t slow Sample down, there’s no way Morris would have had the chance to complete the throw.
And on the Mids’ final drive, Smith delivered an absolutely critical block. On a pitch to Chance Warren, he took out Green Wave safety Chase Kuerschen, which wound up springing Warren for a 20 yard gain. Nine plays later, Bijan Nichols’ kick split the uprights for the win. Justin Smith came up big in this game, living up to the slotback mantra “A’s Make Plays.”
Tama Tuitele (LB)
This guy was everywhere on Saturday. The sophomore from Aurora, CO led all defenders with 11 tackles (9 solo), including one for a loss. Tuitele was derailed by a season-ending injury last year, but looks like he’s wasting no time getting back into form.
He also played a big role in the Navy defense securing that safety at the end of the third quarter to cut it to a one possession game. After Cam Kinley kept the Tulane ball carrier from bouncing to the outside, Tuitele stayed on him as Evan Fochtman came up and drove him out of the back of the end zone.
That’s when I figured the Mids had a pretty good shot at winning the game. We’ll talk more about that play later.
Pierce Banbury (C)
Banbury quickly put a mental miscue from the first half behind him. And he spent the rest of the game giving Tulane’s 330 pound nose guard Jeffrey Johnson all he could handle.
The Navy center succeeded several times in getting the leverage needed to take Johnson right out of the play. He and Pete Nestrowitz executed their blocks perfectly on Jamale Carothers 48 yard run to set up the Mids’ second score. You can go to the 2:33 mark of the highlight video to check out the play.
Daniel Davies (P)
The Mids’ have a knack for finding good kickers. And Daniel Davies looks like another one. He was called on seven times during the game and averaged 41 yards per kick.
But the most critical punt came at the end of the third quarter. Davies nailed a 63 yarder that rolled to a stop on the Tulane one. The safety came on the very next play. And it couldn’t have happened without the sophomore punter’s outstanding effort.
Two Big “Built Different” Plays
I can point to several plays that had a role in the Navy comeback. Kinley’s interception at the end of the first half was huge because it helped stop the bleeding and gave the defense some life.
The next two touchdowns got the Mids within 10 points, but it was still a two score game at that point. Davies punt did pin the Green Wave back on their own one yard line. But if they produced a sustained drive and even tacked on a field goal, it would be pretty tough sledding for Navy the rest of the way. So when the defense came onto the field with Tulane having to line up on their own goal line, they had to figure that this was their chance.
Fagot Makes the Read
In the post game interview, Diego Fagot credited Coach Newberry with coming up with the schemes that set the defense up for success. On the safety, Fagot was in a spot where he could read the right guard’s hand position opposite him. Based on that, he anticipated they would run what he referred to as Tulane’s “belly play.” So, he alerted his teammates to be ready.
Click here and go to the 3:07 mark to see the safety. On the snap, Tulane’s right guard pulled, and their tackle and tight end blocked down on Navy defensive end Jackson Pittman. The receiver’s assignment was the striker, John Marshall. But Marshall defeated the block and plugged the hole. This forced the ball carrier further to his right.
That’s when Fagot shot the gap between the receiver that was supposed to block Marshall and the pulling guard. You’ll see him explode into the backfield, making contact with Cam Carroll and knocking him backwards.
It strung the play out even more. Cam Kinley held the edge and got into Carrol’s legs while Tama Tuitele and Evan Fochtman converged on him. Tuitele met him three yards behind the goal line. He held Carroll up long enough for Fochtman to get there and drive him out the back of the end zone.
Now it was a one possession game. And the Mids still had the entire fourth quarter left to play. Later, with less than two minutes to go, the offensive line and Jamale Carothers put them in the position to close the deal.
The Last Drive
The Mids took over on downs with 4:41 left to play. They were intent on ending the game with that possession. On 3rd and 8 from the 33, they sat just on the edge of Bijan Nichols range.
Obviously, any positive yardage improved the odds on making the field goal. But even if they made it, Tulane would get the ball back with about a minute and a half to go. The offense was determined to get that first down.
If the Mids managed only a short gain, they may have even considered going for it depending on where they got stopped. Thankfully, it never came down to having to make that decision.
Jamale Carothers took the straight hand off from Morris. Right guard Pete Nestrowitz pulled to his left. He and left tackle Justin Self sealed off Tulane nose tackle De’Andre Williams.
This gave Carothers the lane he needed. But he was still three yards short of the first down when he collided with two Green Wave defenders. And to me, what happened next is a textbook example of what what “built different” truly means.
Linebacker Chase Kuerschen got low and put a pretty decent hit on Carothers. But he couldn’t wrap him up. The Navy fullback got knocked back, but kept his legs driving forward.
Not only that, but he kept his pad level low. And Navy ball carriers know that when they take on a defender, the guy with the lowest pad level usually wins.
Carothers met linebacker Marvin Moody at the 28 yard line, got underneath him, and didn’t stop churning his legs until he got to the 24. It took two players to stop Carother’s forward motion and push him out of bounds. First down, Navy.
Four plays later, Nichols’ 33 yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired. The Mids had completed their biggest comeback in program history. And Tulane left the field in a complete state of shock.
That, my friends is why we say Navy Football is built different. The players had plenty of chances to mail it in against Tulane. But they never gave up and clawed their way back to achieve an unlikely win.
It was a huge victory, no doubt. But there are still a few questions surrounding the 2020 Navy team. Coach Ken often speaks to each one he has coached taking on a specific identity, but I don’t know that that looks like just yet.
There is one thing I do know. The coaching staff is going all in with Dalen Morris as the Mids’ quarterback. He’s shown he can bounce back from a bad game, he can throw, and he’s pretty freakin’ tough.
On the two point conversion to Devin Matthews, Morris just got hammered by a helmet to helmet hit. It earned the defensive player an ejection. It also earned Morris even more respect from the entire team when he got up off the deck and led them to their historic win.
Look, I have absolutely no idea how things are going to play out the rest of the season. Considering how strange a year it has been, I’m just happy to see the players out there competing.
And while this year’s edition of Navy Football may not have the same look as the 2019 version, it’s totally fine with me. Because this group definitely has the skill and talent to give us plenty to cheer about. We just need to buckle up and see how things go.
Until next time . . .
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Navy and St.Mary’s are the only two rugby programs in the country that have produced two Rudy Scholz Award winners. The award for the collegiate rugby player of the year was first given out in 2016.
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cRA Div. 1 National Championship Highlights
I am a Navy veteran and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. The idea to start this blog actually came from my classmates. I hope you enjoy reading this content as much as I enjoy writing it. Go Navy!! Beat Army!!