Military Bowl: Notes and Quotes
While the weather hurt Virginia’s passing game, the Cavaliers weren’t held to 175 yards of offense simply because it was cold. Virginia’s offense has had their share of issues this year, but plenty of offenses would have bad days against ACC defenses. They had plenty of bright spots, too. The Wahoos had 440 yards against Boise State, 439 against Miami, and 626 against the other American Athletic Conference team they faced, UConn.
Navy’s defense saved their best effort for last, shutting out the Cavaliers and never allowing them to get closer than 30 yards from the end zone. The Midshipmen hadn’t shut out an opponent in the second half since 2015 (Army). The last time the Navy defense held an opponent out of the end zone was also against Army, in 2014. Virginia’s 30 rushing yards were the fewest allowed by Navy since holding Rice to 21 yards in 2009. Virginia’s 175 total yards were the fewest allowed by Navy since giving up 167 to Louisiana Tech in 2009.
The Military Bowl was the culmination of a long, strange season for Dale Pehrson and his Navy defense. Pehrson introduced a new, high-pressure, man scheme in the offseason, and used it to great effect in Navy’s first two games. Once there was film on Pehrson’s new approach, though, teams were able to better prepare for it. Cincinnati threw for 389 yards, while Air Force put up 621 total yards. It took a few games for Pehrson to figure out how he liked to make adjustments within the framework of his new scheme, but Navy’s defense steadily improved over the second half of the season even if the results didn’t always match the progress.
“Our defense has played really well the last couple of games,” said head coach Ken Niumatalolo. “I thought we played well against Army. We held them to their lowest yards. We did some good things against Memphis, good things against Houston, good things against Notre Dame. But this game right here I thought was a masterpiece by Coach Pehrson and his defensive staff.
“[Virginia offensive coordinator] Coach Anae is a really good football coach and has scored a ton of points on people over the years. He’s really good at what he does. [Kurt] Benkert is a really good quarterback. I thought we kept them off-balance enough and did a lot of different things. Our defense played lights out.”
Hitting in Practice
Bill Wagner wrote an excellent article in the Capital earlier this week about how Niumatalolo changed his approach toward bowl game preparation for the Military Bowl. In the past, the veteran head coach treated bowl games as a reward for players and took things relatively easy, with non-contact practices in shells. This year, he opted to not only hit in practice, but lift weights every day.
While Niumatalolo was nervous about doing something different this year, it’s safe to say he was pleased with the result.
“I was a little afraid that our legs might be gone,” he said. “I was afraid that we might not be ready to go, but I thought that we came out physical. That’s what we wanted to do.
“We just had a physical game against Army a few weeks ago, then we had a week off. We came back with seven practices in pads and were lifting on the same day; we’ve never done that before. I just wanted our kids to be strong. Whether that was psychologically or mentally, I wanted us to feel like we were strong going up against an ACC team.”
Whether this will be a permanent change in postseason philosophy is difficult to say. It should be noted that this year’s Navy team was far healthier going into the bowl game than they have been in past seasons, which probably made the decision to hit in practice a little bit easier.
One-size-fits-all isn’t always the answer. A big part of leadership is knowing your people and figuring out the best ways to motivate them. Navy has won four of their last five bowl games, so it isn’t as if the old approach wasn’t working. Each team is different, and watching how coaches adapt their style to best match their teams' personalities is one of the underrated factors in college football success.
Niumatalolo raised some eyebrows in the postgame press conference talking about some of Virginia’s players walking through Navy’s pregame stretch lines.
“I’ve been coaching at this stadium for 20 years, and the only other team that did that was Rutgers back in 2000-something, and we got after them pretty good,” he said. “We’re a pretty respectful team, but you walk through our stretch lines, you better hold on, son.”
Niumatalolo was referring to the 2004 Rutgers game, which Navy won, 54-21. Not only did Rutgers players walk through Navy’s stretch lines that day, but Greg Schiano left them on the field for warmups longer than was scheduled, which delayed the march-on of the Brigade of Midshipmen. While there was no march-on before the Military Bowl, Virginia did have to be told twice to clear the field by the stadium public address announcer so that pregame festivities could begin; the parachutists didn’t exactly have the option of waiting.
The gamesmanship did not escape the notice of Navy’s players.
“Oh that definitely made us angry,” said linebacker and team captain D.J. Palmore. “They were talking trash the whole game, and I was like, ‘it’s the third quarter and you have five yards. Why are you talking trash?’ It definitely struck a nerve. We try to be polite and nice guys, try and keep it between the lines with nothing extra.”
It was not the kind of story that anyone expected out of this game, especially after the previous week had been filled with stories of mutual respect between the two programs, and particularly the coaching staffs. Ironically, Palmore himself might have inadvertently contributed to some of the discord between the two teams.
At the pregame luncheon on Wednesday, master of ceremonies Bram Weinstein asked both Palmore and Virginia quarterback Kurt Benkert what it would take for their teams to win. Palmore’s answer was that they needed to play Navy football, which caused an audible reaction on the Virginia half of the room. The Cavaliers seemed to take those as fighting words, perhaps thinking that Palmore meant that Navy just had to show up. When Benkert answered the same question with “make big plays,” one of Virginia’s players yelled out, “Come on, Kurt!,” apparently hoping for a more rousing response to match Palmore’s.
Anyone who has followed Navy football this season knows what Palmore meant. Penalties, turnovers, and uncharacteristic mistakes have plagued the Midshipmen this season; eliminating those things are what Navy coaches and players have referenced all season when talking about “playing Navy football.” Nobody with the Virginia contingent would have realized that.
Perhaps that wasn’t what actually inspired Virginia’s antics, but it seems worth mentioning.
Big Win for the American
Palmore mentioned something else at the luncheon that caught my attention, commenting on how the players wanted to be good representatives of the American Athletic Conference. I found that to be somewhat interesting since I wasn’t sure whether players paid attention to those sorts of things. Palmore obviously did, and he made that point clear after the game.
“It definitely shows that our conference isn’t cake,” he said. “We have a competitive conference. Today shows that.”
Niumatalolo also felt that his team’s victory was important for the American.
“It’s huge. For us to go against a Power 5 school, an ACC team, they’re a really, really good program. Bronco’s got them on the right track. I think it’s huge for our conference and for our program.”
Navy’s 42-point margin of victory was the largest by a so-called Group of Five school over a Power Five school in 2017. Navy joined USF, UCF, Memphis, and Houston as American teams with wins over schools from the autonomy leagues this season.
Navy last played in the Military Bowl in 2015, and some fans are wary about the game becoming too regular of a postseason destination for the Mids. Playing in the game on occasion, though, has real benefits. Striker coach Napoleon Sykes, who recruits the D.C. area for Navy, says that the local response has been tremendous.
“The kids love it,” he said. “It was one of those deals where we had so many kids from this area wanting to come to the game, but with NCAA rules, you can’t [pay for them to attend].”
Location isn’t the only thing about the game that is attractive to recruits. According to Sykes, the matchup against an ACC opponent is another significant draw.
“It’s huge for us to be able to go out on the road and tell guys, ‘look, we’re going to play in a big-time league, but you’re also going to have an opportunity to play in a really big bowl game against an ACC team right here at home where family can come up.’”
Quality bowl matchups constitute a significant selling point of the AAC. This season, there are only six bowl games that feature matchups between so-called Group of Five and Power Five teams, and four of them involve teams from the American.
For Sykes, the Military Bowl held personal appeal as well.
“There’s a lot of connections to this game for us,” he said. “For me personally, Micah Kiser played at my high school. I’ve recruited a bunch of kids that are on that team, like Richard Burney and Quin Blanding. It’s been nice to see all those kids again.”