McCain Watches as Mids Upset Rutgers, 23-21

With presidential candidate John McCain looking on, Navy upset Rutgers 23-21 in Annapolis on Saturday to improve to 2-2. Matt Harmon kicked a 26-yard field goal with just over two minutes to go in front of a record crowd, and Navy's Ross Pospisil intercepted a Mike Teel pass thirty seconds later to seal the victory. Eric Kettani rushed for a career-high 133 yards and one TD for the Mids.

Prior to the game, Sen. McCain, a 1958 Naval Academy graduate and avid Navy football fan, spoke to about the importance of the Rutgers game if the Mids hope to qualify for a bowl game.

"I'm sure they can [win six games].  They've lost some good players as we all know, but I think [Ken Niumatalolo] is a very fine coach, and I think we have a good solid basis.  It's going to be a long season and we need to win this one today.  I'm very proud of this team," said McCain.

There's a good chance Sen. McCain was even prouder after the game as Navy came back from a 14-6 deficit to beat the Scarlet Knights in front of a Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium record crowd of 37,821.

The much maligned Midshipmen defense got off to a good start on the day as they forced Rutgers (0-3) into a three-and-out on their first possession.  On Navy's first offensive drive, Shun White, the second-leading rusher in the country, set the tone for the Mids with back-to-back first down runs of 17 and 23 yards to put the Mids at the Rutgers 30-yard line.  Two plays later, Navy senior fullback Eric Kettani broke free for what appeared to be a 27-yard touchdown; however, the Mids were called for a holding penalty apparently after the runner crossed the goal line.  The drive stalled from there and the Mids settled for a 36-yard field goal by Matt Harmon.

Rutgers answered the Navy field goal with a 12-play, 66 yard drive that featured several big gains by Jordan Brooks, and ended with a five-yard Joe Martinek touchdown run.  Brooks had a big day for the Scarlet Knights, carrying the ball 22 times for 134 yards.

Navy then got a big boost on special teams from John Angelo as he ran back the ensuing kick-off 57 yards to the Rutgers 34-yard line to help set-up another Harmon field goal with 24 seconds left in the first quarter to pull the Mids within one point.

After the Navy defense forced another Rutgers punt, the Midshipmen offense, on their next possession, found themselves in a fourth and short from near midfield – a scenario that Navy's former head coach, Paul Johnson would almost always go for it.  However, first-year coach Ken Niumatalolo, who saw his Mids fail to convert a critical fourth down last week against Duke, decided to punt the ball away.

"[Last week] we gave our defense some short fields, so today it was more about field position.  Today it was a tough defensive battle and anytime you are in a defensive battle, it's all about field position.  All the kids on offense wanted to go for it, but football is about field position and I didn't want to take that gamble today," said Niumatalolo.

The decision backfired as Rutgers' Devin McCourty blocked the Kyle Delahooke punt, giving the Scarlet Knights the ball at the Navy 15-yard line.  It took Rutgers only three plays to score on a six-yard touchdown run by Brooks.

With the score 14-6 in favor of the Scarlet Knights, and facing another fourth and short in their own territory on their next offensive possession, Niumatalolo once again elected for his team to punt the ball away.

After this Delahooke boot, Rutgers quickly raced into Navy territory highlighted by a 29-yard run by Martinek.  However, with under a minute to go in the half, the Navy defense once again rose to the challenge.  After Mike Teel found Tiquan Underwood for a 14-yard gain, Navy safety Wyatt Middleton stripped the ball free and Emmett Merchant recovered the fumble. 

"That kind of stopped their momentum a little bit.  That was huge on the defense's part," said Middleton.

The Mids ran out the clock and went into half-time only trailing the favored Scarlet Knights 14-6.

Navy got the ball first in the second half and for the first time this season, senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada was still under center.  Last week, the Mids' starting signal caller had to sit-out the last two quarters due to heat exhaustion, after missing Navy's first two games with a hamstring injury. 

According to Niumatalolo, Kaipo's presence on the field in the second half was a big boost for the team.

"He's been in a hostile environment.  He's been at Notre Dame when 90,000 people are yelling.  Not taking anything away from Jarod [Bryant], but Kaipo just has had the experience and that's a hard thing to replace."

And while Kaipo did not have a big impact, from a statistical standpoint in the first-half, that was about to change.

Facing a third and long on their first possession after half-time, Kaipo threaded a long pass in between two defenders and into Tyree Barnes hands for a 41-yard completion.

"Kaipo put it in a good spot.  It might not have looked like it at first," said Barnes of the pass.

Kaipo, however, politely disagreed with his teammate's assessment of the play.

"He made me look good."

After a 14-yard pass to Mike Schupp and a quarterback keeper, Kaipo once again found Barnes.  This time the senior wide receiver was in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown catch that pulled the Mids' within one point again.

The Navy defense, which had given up 884 yards in the past two games, once again stopped Rutgers on their first possession of a half – forcing the Scarlet Knights to punt.

However a booming punt by Rutgers gave the Mids the ball at their own six yard line.  If Navy was to score a touchdown on this drive, it would be the longest one since their historic 24-play, 96-yard drive against New Mexico in the 2004 Emerald Bowl.

No problem.

Highlighted by a 44-yard run by Kettani and an 18-yard run by Kaipo, this drive only took the Mids nine plays and 4:28 to pull ahead of Rutgers.  This time it was Kettani running it in from the two-yard line to make the score 20-14 in favor of the Mids.

After the teams exchanged punts to end the third quarter, Rutgers put together an impressive 12-play, 84-yard drive, capped off by a 12-yard touchdown by Jordan Brooks – his second of the day.

Navy got the ball back with just over seven minutes to play, and its offensive line and fullback took it upon themselves ‘to finish' the game the right way for the Mids – a theme put forth all week by Niumatalolo.

"Our big mantra this week has been ‘finish' – we had been ahead in the last two games and we didn't finish.  I told the guys at halftime…that we were going to finish this game."

Kettani ran the ball five times for 42 yards on the drive, helping to set-up a 24-yard field goal by Harmon.

"I knew Rutgers didn't have any timeouts left, so I knew they couldn't ice me," said Harmon referring to the game-winning kick. "I could just go out there and get set.  It felt good."

However, the outcome of the game was very much still in doubt as Navy's defense, which was playing its best game of the season by far, was forced to defend a short field after Jon Teague booted the kick-off out of bounds, giving Rutgers the ball at the 40-yard line with just over two minutes to play.

After a short completion from Teel to Kenny Britt gave the Scarlet Knights a 2nd and 9, the Midshipmen defense sealed the victory when the Rutgers quarterback ran a play Navy linebacker Ross Pospisil had seen before – a quick pass to tight end Kevin Brock.

"I took a peak inside and [Teel] was locked on him.  He was zooming right in on [the receiver]; probably assuming I was going to make the same mistake as the first time."

However, this time Pospisil intercepted the pass, sending the crowd into a delirium and the Mids into the Wake Forest game next week with some momentum.

For Niumatalolo, the win for the Mids was significant.

"Don't look at their record. That is a great football team that we played today.  That's as big as it gets.  I have been here a long time – 11 years – that win is up there, and I couldn't be more proud of our young men."


 Be sure to look for more from David Ausiello's exclusive interview with Sen. John McCain on in the coming days. Top Stories