Navy's Bowl Win is a Banquet of Good Feelings

Ken Niumatalolo says that players, not coaches, win games. Well, he's half-right. As Navy celebrates the fact that it has been able to pull off back-to-back bowl victories following its 17-16 squeaker over San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl, it's nakedly apparent that the Midshipmen's players and coaches very much share in this special triumph for a program that overcame itself in 2014.


One of the best sports quotes of 2014 came from Ken Niumatalolo’s mouth after Navy edged San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Midshipmen’s immensely successful coach said in the postgame celebration, "This is for our seniors, this is the players, they win the games. I just go to banquets and eat food."

Aw, shucks, Ken. Yeah, you’re just a parent on a field trip or an extra body just tagging along to make sure everyone’s happy and has enough orange slices for the game. Suuuuure.

There’s nothing wrong with praising players and being richly generous to a bunch of young men that refused to slump their shoulders on a night when so much went awry. It’s genuinely endearing to see an accomplished coach step back from the center of an adrenaline-filled moment and so consciously, thoughtfully, allow his players to soak in the experience of a bowl win. Yes, Navy’s players won this game against the Aztecs – on that score, Niumatalolo is undoubtedly correct. However, it’s just as true that Navy’s head coach and defensive coordinator won this game as well, evoking memories from the recent and the more distant past alike.

On a broader scale, this Poinsettia Bowl did indeed turn out to be a lot like the 2013 Armed Forces Bowl. Navy didn’t fumble in an opponent’s red zone the way it did against Middle Tennessee in Fort Worth, Texas, but the Midshipmen’s acute case of “bowl fumble-itis” -- a disease which is always a point of concern during the holidays among football health workers – raged out of control once again. Navy has lost six fumbles in its last two bowl games, four of them last night, as the problem which dogged this team throughout the regular season did not vanish in the postseason. A demon haunted the Midshipmen on their cross-country trek from one port city in Annapolis to another in San Diego.

How can a team win two bowl games in which it loses a combined total of six fumbles (two against Middle Tennessee, four against San Diego State)? The Buddy System – that’s how.

For the second straight bowl, coordinator Buddy Green’s defense stood 50 feet tall in the red zone, cleaning up every mess the offense created and handling sudden-change situations like a championship unit. Yes, Navy did flinch a bit on defense in the final minute, allowing the downfield passes which put San Diego State in position to win on a last-second field goal, but as everyone in and around the program knows, Navy wouldn’t have been within shouting distance of a victory had the “Green Team” not limited the Aztecs to only one touchdown despite a boatload of short fields.

As mentioned above, Navy’s bowl fumbles did not occur in the red zone this year, a slight twist from the 2013 Armed Forces Bowl. The Midshipmen’s continued inability to secure the pigskin, combined with a shaky special-teams performance (one long kick return allowed and one fumbled punt), resulted in four plus-territory drive starts for San Diego State, two of them inside the Navy 30. The Aztecs began a fifth possession at their own 48. Even with that last field goal – the one that would have won the game for the home team playing in its own stadium – San Diego State wouldn’t have hit 20 points on Tuesday night. With all the short fields it enjoyed, San Diego State easily could have put this game out of reach well before the final minutes. It was a Festivus feat of strength for Navy to even be in the conversation heading into the final 30 seconds of regulation. Buddy Green watched his players get absolutely trucked by Arizona State in the 2012 Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. He and his last two classes of Midshipmen defenders learned well from that experience, because they’ve carried a mistake-prone offense to two straight bowl victories for the program.

It’s not easy being Green? No, it’s actually very easy to be Buddy Green today – his body of work looks ever more impressive after what we saw on Tuesday.


Then, when Green’s defense brought Navy to the point where it at least had a chance to win the game in the final seconds, Niumatalolo recalled a much more recent memory and reminded national viewers why coaching matters so much in football… and why head coaches don’t just eat bread at banquets but earn that bread with their decisions.

A lot of people think icing a kicker is pointless. Well, it can be pointless – just look at BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall burning two of his team’s timeouts with 45 seconds left in the Miami Beach Bowl before an extra point. Mendenhall and BYU could have used those two timeouts on BYU’s subsequent possession in a 45-45 tie. One can also recall various other examples in which a coach’s attempt at icing a kicker did not prevent a practice kick from taking place. The kicker was able to remove some nervous tension from his body and mind, setting up a much cleaner effort when the live-game kick arrived moments later.

The act of icing isn’t wrong or foolish in itself. It’s all in the way the icing is carried out. Coaches have to prevent kickers from getting in that practice kick – they need to call the timeout early enough to prevent the practice boot from happening. They also don’t need to give kickers extra preparation time on long kicks. On a long field goal, it’s hard enough for the kicker to properly calibrate the trajectory he wants to use and find instant accuracy. Giving him time to visualize how he wants to hit a long kick only serves to help him. It’s on a shorter kick – when there’s no real guesswork or no need to hit the ball extra hard – when it’s worth it for coaches to make opposing kickers dwell on the kind of kick they’ve hit many times in practice. Athletes cannot overthink, so icing gives a kicker a chance to overthink his easily manageable attempt… from 34 yards and the left hashmark.

Niumatalolo prevented the practice kick for San Diego State kicker Donny Hageman. He made a kicker who had already converted three field goals think about this fourth attempt. Like a Florida State special against Miami from the late 1980s, the attempt – not struck particularly well – drifted wide right. Not necessarily against the run of play (Navy controlled the line of scrimmage most of this game) but certainly against the grain of the box score and those four fumbles, the Midshipmen had managed to win consecutive bowl games for the first time since the 2004 Emerald Bowl and the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl. Navy completed a circle Paul Johnson began to draw nine years earlier.

Niumatalolo, with that astute timeout, managed to change a game for the second time in 10 days. His timeout – barely called in time before an Army snap on fourth and one in Baltimore on Dec. 13 – changed the entire trajectory of that contest. The fine line between winning and losing can be drawn in many ways and on many levels. One core difference between victory and defeat is the line between coaches who successfully intervene in tipping-point situations and those who don’t. Niumatalolo’s two interventions played central roles in getting Navy over the finish line against Army and San Diego State. Niumatalolo’s moves offer a reminder of how coaches – alongside players, not just as mere chaperones on bowl trips who dig in at the banquet table – matter so much in football.

Navy should be celebrating the resilience of its defense in yet another bowl victory. The program should also give thanks at the end of a fully salvaged season for a coaching staff that – on defense and in the realm of timeout management as well – knew when to change the flow of a game.

There’s so much to celebrate for Navy right now that Ken Niumatalolo should do something special: Throw a banquet and eat some food.

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