A Win With Shelf Life: Rutgers Review

Some college football collisions don't linger in the public memory, or endure in the hearts of a fan base. Some games are just notches in the belt, stepping stones on the way to bigger and better things as a season moves along. But sometimes, one encounters the kind of contest that means a little more.

Sometimes, the fight possesses a little more purpose. Such was the case this past weekend in Annapolis, as Rutgers came into town.

And when it was all over, Ken Niumatalolo had registered the first really important victory of his tenure as Navy's head football coach.

There were three overarching reasons why this head-knocker with the Scarlet Knights carried an additional bit of weight. They all combined to make this game something more than ordinary... and--as a result--magnify the importance of this tremendously hard-fought and richly-deserved victory.
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First of all, the upcoming run of tough teams on the 2008 slate--Wake Forest, Air Force, Pitt--made it that much more essential for Navy to establish a .500 record after the first third of the season. Having squandered a huge opportunity for a winning September at Duke the week before, the Midshipmen had to bounce back against Rutgers if this season was to deliver another bowl bid.

But while the need for this win was plainly evident on that fundamental level, there was another aspect to this contest that made it a little more urgent for Coach Niumatalolo and his team.

When a new sheriff takes over--even if it's the result of an in-house promotion by an astute athletic director named Chet Gladchuk--he has to come up with a conquest that affirms his place of authority and responsibility. When a large and wildly successful figure such as Paul Johnson (look what the man's doing in Atlanta with Georgia Tech) exits stage right, the successor has to do something to retain the winning aura surrounding the program. Ken Niumatalolo needed this game to affirm his hold on the program and assure the Navy football community that a positive identity would endure in Annapolis. And while it might have been far too early into a career (five games, and only four games into a first full season) to render a definitive verdict, one can't shake the sense that some small degree of concern--however subconscious or fleeting it might have been--had to have crept into the minds of this team and coaching staff. They wouldn't be human otherwise. This showdown with the Scarlet Knights would determine more than one season's record; it would set a tone for the development of the Niumatalolo era at the Naval Academy football program.

With all this having been said, however, there was a third reason why this bit of gridiron jousting carried a little more juice than usual. In Rutgers, the Men of Ken faced a team that has dealt Navy some big defeats in the past and has treaded a very fine line in terms of padding stats against the Midshipmen, especially last year in Piscataway on a Friday night where Ray Rice's Heisman campaign began far too prematurely... and excessively. But worse than the on-field stat-padding was the accumulation of ugly incidents in which Rutgers fans abused uniformed Navy personnel seated in the stands. Last year's journey to New Jersey gave Navy people everywhere--those wearing the shoulder pads, those in the stadium bleachers, and those in front of a TV for the national ESPN broadcast--a very sour taste. Whenever a gridiron dust-up leaves scars related to something more than the final score, that has to fuel the fire when a repeat engagement comes across the calendar.

Yes, for so many reasons, this game with Rutgers was personal for Navy football. It wasn't your typical college football game. This one was a keeper, a ballgame to be remembered and relished if the Men of Ken could capture a victory.

Now, turn to the field of play and considered what went down between the white lines against Rutgers. Consider the limitations and obstacles faced by the 2008 Midshipmen against a Scarlet Knight team whose surprisingly winless record actually made the boys from New Jersey an even more looming threat.

Against Greg Schiano's ballclub, Navy didn't rack up the rushing yards with familiar ease. Against their Big East opponent, the Midshipmen still lacked a fully healthy and fully settled Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada under center. A gritty and gutsy pitcher who lacked his best stuff, Kaipo proved to be powered more by will than by the athletic gracefulness that's been his calling card as the orchestrator of the triple-option offense.

Navy didn't light up the scoreboard, and didn't play this game in the catbird seat, which is how a run-first team always wants to play. Nothing came easily, and at no point did it seem that the Men of Ken had his game firmly under control.

But after 60 minutes of slugging it out with a team that, two years ago, narrowly missed making the Orange Bowl, Navy had prevailed, 23-21. Someway and somehow--in a manner reminiscent of past September escape jobs that laid the foundation for winning seasons in the Paul Johnson era--this ballclub, led by an unsung and unheralded defense that learned its lessons from the Duke debacle, fought its way to fulfillment and--truth be told--a nice little dish of Rutgers revenge, served cold.

This triumph over Rutgers--given the circumstances and the emotional weight involved--felt like Tiger Woods grinding out the U.S. Open on a bum knee. It felt like an exhausted pitcher willing himself through 6 2/3 solid innings while throwing change-ups and slow curves to improbably baffle opposing hitters. Perhaps this wasn't college football's equivalent of a championship event--no bowl executives were on hand in Annapolis, and this wasn't a Commander-in-Chief contest or a Notre Dame game--but the point that has to be emphasized is that on a day when a loss would have stung to an unusually deep degree, the Men of Ken refused to lose.

No better verdict could have been rendered about the long-term health of Navy football after the first four games of this season. No one's expecting these Midshipmen to sweep Wake, Air Force and Pitt in the coming weeks, but this team--with this particular win against Rutgers (who now stands at 0-4, a program that has not been able to maintain what it established a few seasons ago)--just made a very loud and emphatic statement: It's not about to go away. Ken Niumatalolo won't allow his players to cease to be a factor on the college football landscape.

The more you think about this immensely satisfying victory, the more you realize that, yes, it wasn't your ordinary college football win. This one will enjoy a longer shelf life as the unfolding drama of Navy football continues under the leadership of a new head coach who, this morning, has to feel much more comfortable in his own skin.

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