Navy is usually the team that finds a way to win close games. The Milestone Midshipmen usually find their finishing kick at the right time, outfoxing and outfighting opponents precisely when they need to. But on this night in Southern California, the boys from the Mountain West Conference were the ones who had the answers in the game's most defining moments.
After little more than 30 minutes, Navy--thanks to a 17-point run--had established a 10-point advantage. With an electric Niumatalolo firing up his offensive linemen, the Midshipmen were beginning to take the fight to the Utes, who had been stymied by Navy's sensational rushing defense. Through the game's first 35 minutes and even in portions of the fourth quarter, Navy's front seven contained Utah's running game and held its own in the trenches. A physical showing from an often soft defense (especially against North Texas) enabled Niumatalolo and Navy to gain a noticeable upper hand early in the third quarter. It was up to Utah to change momentum the way Navy had done in so many second halves throughout the 2007 season.
Sure enough, a Ute Movement took flight... literally.
Utah and head coach Kyle Whittingham deserve a lot of credit for refusing to be stubborn against Navy. The lads from Salt Lake City were having reasonable success running the ball, but not enough to overwhelm Navy's defense. With Irv Spencer, Ross Pospisil, and Michael Walsh (among others) delivering strong sticks and filling gaps for defensive coordinator Buddy Green, Utah had to realize that its beefy offensive front would only be able to do so much against Navy on the ground. While blessed with a size advantage, the Utes failed in their early attempts to power the ball past a newly sturdy Midshipmen defense. Whittingham and his staff would need the guts to try something slightly different, and to their credit, they did.
Utah resorted to a short passing game, throwing on most downs despite the ever-present temptation to stick with the power rushing attack. Everyone in the ballpark soon realized that Utah's offensive line had much more of an advantage within a context of pass blocking, not run blocking. The yards began to flow from the Utah end, and Navy's defense--which wasn't overpowered in the second half so much as it was figured out by the Utah braintrust--couldn't adjust. Walsh, an energetic defensive end, did make a gutsy fourth-and-goal stand against Utah running back Darrell Mack (after a horrible call by the officials, which was outrageously upheld by replay), but for the most part, the second half was a joyride for Utah's offense, with Johnson--a versatile and savvy quarterback--frustrating the Midshipmen at every turn. Utah's offensive balance controlled the tempo of the second half, before a late Navy flurry--helped by a perfect onside kick from Joey Bullen--fell just short in the game's final minutes
If there was a truly unfortunate aspect of this contest, it was the fact that, for the second straight year, Navy's Reggie Campbell made crippling mistakes that came back to haunt his team. Campbell--a decorated player who won the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl for the Midshipmen, and who will always be remembered as one of the greatest players in the history of the Army-Navy Game--committed three goofs that Navy couldn't afford. He dropped a long pass in the first quarter; fumbled on the Utah 2 later in the first quarter; and slipped short of a first down when trying to make a cut on his own 7 with roughly three minutes left in regulation, during Navy's crucial drive with the score 28-25 in favor of the Utes. After his late fumble caused Navy to lose to Boston College in the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl, Campbell put together another stellar season of football in Annapolis. But on one night in San Diego, bowl-game demons resurfaced for Campbell, as Navy's star player proved to be snake-bitten yet again in postseason play. Sadly yet undeniably, Campbell's crushing mistakes made a major difference in this contest... the kind of difference no one on the Navy sideline is used to seeing.
Weirdly, however, Campbell's nightmarish performance only underscores how well the rest of the Milestone Midshipmen competed in their final game of 2007. Navy's defense--which had already picked up the pace against Army--remained physical and strong against Utah, forcing the Utes to beat them through the air and not on the ground. Navy played with passion and energy that was sustained for most of the game's sixty minutes. Against an opponent with more beef and brawn, the Midshipmen--who were sluggish at times and left points on the field--still racked up more than 30 points. Niumatalolo acted like a man fully in charge of his team, and his players acted like a group of young men who fully bought what their coach was selling.
It's never fun to lose a bowl game, but if a postseason defeat was ever easy to take, this game would be defense exhibit A. Navy--with one of its stars struggling mightily--still played a solid team on even terms before losing in the game's final minute. Poise, swagger and enthusiasm filled the Navy sideline. A defense that had lurked in the shadows for so much of 2007 made its presence felt, even in a losing effort.
It's really rather simple: if Navy plays like this in 2008 and beyond, the Midshipmen will make Niumatalolo into a very successful head coach, and Annapolis football will pick up where Paul Johnson left off. This Poinsettia Bowl was a poignant pigskin passion play, a painful defeat for a team that battled hard. But if this program fights and scraps in future seasons the way it did against Utah on Thursday night, there's little question that more good times will come to the Navy football family. The Midshipmen--after this valiant just-miss loss in San Diego--have every right to expect that if they put in the hard work that defined the Johnson era, they'll have a Happy New Year in 2008 under Ken Niumatalolo.