Niumatalolo Proves the Difference

I have seen a lot of amazing performances during Navy's current ten year winning streak in the Army-Navy game. I saw Kyle Eckel rumble through defenses, Reggie Campbell zip past defenders, and David Mahoney harass quarterbacks. On Saturday, however, I saw perhaps the most impressive performance yet in an Army-Navy game. I saw an up-and-coming coach outfox his mentor.

"Who's you're player of the game?" The question emanated from seats throughout the press box even before the Brigade had finished its chant of "I believe that we will win," and despite suggestions ranging from Kriss Proctor to Matt Warrick to Jon Teague, I couldn't' help believe the game's defining performance didn't come from a single player. It came from a coach.

Make no mistake about it. Ken Niumatalolo was the defining element in Navy's 27-21 victory against Army Saturday. And while much of the postgame attention has rightly been focused on terrific performances by fullback Alexander Teich and the inability of Army to capitalize on several late-game chances, Saturday's 27-21 win proves just how important Ken Niumatalolo is to the Midshipmen program.

That he proved it by outmaneuvering the man who recruited him as a player and a coach who he has long admired – Army's Rich Ellerson – makes it all the more spectacular.

Niumatalolo didn't hit the two game defining field goals in the second-half, and he didn't make nine total stops, including the game-clinching tackle for a loss to stop a desperate Army comeback. But throughout the game his hand was at work. From balancing a gameplan of aggression and restraint, to showing the trust and confidence in the players who ultimately helped lift Navy to its tenth straight win over Army, Niumatalolo just proved the better coach than Ellerson.

It started with the calls. From running well-timed "rocket sweeps" to slotbacks, to inserting the emotional Alex Teich at kickoff returner in the second half, Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper put together a gameplan which balanced aggression and restraint. With the game played amidst a crowd of more than 80,000 people in Washington D.C., it was perhaps the best way to minimize the emotional rollercoaster which comes with the rivalry. The decision to insert Teich as a kickoff returner to begin the second half – after Navy's Bo Snelson looked indecisive returning the ball earlier – was a subtle yet perfect example of how a coach can harness momentum for his team in a game. Teich, as he has proven all year, can provide a spark in a moments notice. That spark was needed coming out of the half after allowing two Army touchdowns in the second quarter, and by going to Teich, Niumatalolo made a statement about how his players were going to play in the game's latter half-hour.

But for all the adjustments made and play-calls, Niumatalolo was at his best in showing confidence with his personnel decisions – particularly with regards to quarterback Kriss Proctor and kicker Jon Teague.

I'd be lying to you if I told you there weren't more than a few observers and veteran reporters calling for Niumatalolo to replace Kriss Proctor on Saturday. After the senior quarterback fumbled at his own team's 42-yard line with the scored tied at 21, it looked like Army could take the lead and stab a momentum dagger into Navy's heart. But again, committing costly mistakes which included an illegal chop block and a delay of game, Army's offense short-circuited, punting the ball back to Navy.

The quarterback to come out on the next drive wasn't backup Trey Miller, as some whispers suggested it could be. Instead it was Proctor, who rewarded Niumatalolo's confidence by leading an 18-play, 75-yard drive that put Navy ahead 24-21. On that drive, Proctor converted a critical fourth-and-one on the Army 20-yard line. Not only was it a ballsy playcall from Niumatalolo to go for it in the situation, but to keep the ball in the hands of his quarterback – who lost two fumbles in the game already – showed remarkable confidence.

But a greater show of confidence may have come in Niumatalolo's handling of Navy's kicking game. Described so often as "an adventurer" from observers in the press box, the kicking game has let Navy down more times than not this season. More than a few onlookers were wondering if kicker Jon Teague would make the 23-yard attempt Niumatalolo asked him to make after Proctor drove Navy down to the Army two-yard line late in the third-quarter, but Teague nailed the kick to put Navy up by three.

Perhaps Teague's greater accomplishment – and Niumatalolo's best decision – came with 10 minutes, 36 second left in the game. That's when Navy's headman once again sent the much-maligned kicker onto the field. Asking him to hit a 44-yard field goal that would put Navy up by six – and force Army's offense to look for a touchdown on its next drive – Niumatalolo made the decisive call of the game, abandoning any pretext of trying to pin Army deep.

The gamble paid off, any by forcing the lead to six, Niumatalolo put his defense in a position to win the game by stopping an Army touchdown and not a field goal. That stop happened when Matt Warrick drilled Army's Trent Steelman in the backfield on the fourth-and-seven "play of the game" from the Navy 25-yard line, essentially preserving the Navy win.

There were many heroes for Navy in Saturday's win. But for the first time in the triple option era it wasn't a single player sparking the Mids to victory over the Black Knights. Instead it was a coach harnessing the intangibles of his players and the situation at hand, giving a special group of seniors a memorable ending for an otherwise forgettable season.

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