Navy Navigates Rough Waters For Special Season

By Troy Phillips

It’s a season résumé few teams in college football’s Group of Five could match.

Advanced to a conference championship. Rose to 19th in the College Football Playoff rankings. Wins against Houston, Memphis, Notre Dame and Tulsa in a six-week stretch.

Third-most rushing yards per game (327.5) in the FBS. Last credible threat to undefeated Western Michigan (13-0) for a New Year’s Six postseason spot in the Cotton Bowl.

And all with a backup quarterback.

Did we mention a service academy team did all this?

For Navy (9-4, 7-1 American Athletic), it was a scintillating 2016. The Midshipmen pierced the top 20 for the second straight season, last doing so in consecutive years in 1954, ‘55, ‘56 and ‘57.

They’ll next face Louisiana Tech (8-5, 6-2 Conference USA) in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl at TCU’s Amon Carter Stadium on Dec. 23 at 3:30 p.m. CT.

Getting there was at times costly. There were injuries at quarterback, running back (multiple), linebacker, safety, cornerback, offensive guard and kicker – several seasonending.

Despite playing at Annapolis in its first conference-title game in only two seasons of non-independence, Navy fell short against Temple, 34-10. Until 2015, Navy was an independent for 134 years.

Navy took the bad with the good, but it was a regular season of mostly the latter in 2016.

“To be able to overcome all of those injuries and still experience the season that we have, I couldn’t be more proud of these young men or more happy for them,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “The senior class was able to be the winningest class (37-14) of all time. That’s a tremendous accomplishment because we won a lot of football games over the years.”

The New Year’s Six’s loss was the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl’s gain, especially in keeping with the preference of title sponsor Lockheed Martin to keep service academies in the mix. Navy won its previous Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl appearance in 2013 and signed on for a return engagement this year as its time as an independent expired.

“I told everyone I was pulling for Navy, regardless (against Temple),” Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said. “They’re partners and friends of ours. I want what’s best for them. It actually hurt a little bit to see them lose, see their players get hurt. Obviously, we’re proud to have them in our game.”

Opposing coaches talk about the discipline academy teams display, but Navy lived it this season. It led the FBS in fewest penalties per game (2.5), penalty yards (21.3) and third-down conversion success (55.7 percent).

At quarterback, Will Worth stepped in for starter Tago Smith (torn ACL) in September. All Worth did was throw for nearly 1,400 yards, run for nearly 1,200, along with a combined 33 touchdowns and only three interceptions.

A foot injury against Temple ended Worth’s season, so Zach Abey is next in line.

“His learning curve has got to be pretty quick,” Niumatalolo said. “As guys have been injured, guys have stepped up. It’s part of the game. It’s unfortunate. But we don’t make excuses.”

It’s just another challenge for a team of future Naval officers, their latest in a season that stacks up on the field and paper.

Troy Phillips is a Fort Worth-based freelance writer and former reporter and copy editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has covered nine of the past ten Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowls.