The scene inside the Navy locker room at Ford Stadium was predictably jubilant following a 24-17 win against Southern Methodist that kept its bowl aspirations afloat, and the celebration continued even longer after Mustangs Coach June Jones presented the team with the Frank Gansz Trophy, awarded to the winner of this game since 2009.
Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo accepted the trophy after Jones made some especially kind remarks about the Midshipmen, urging them to win next week against San Jose State and continue on the road to a bowl game. Moments later, Niumatalolo commended the defense for one of its most inspired performances in limiting the county’s 15th-ranked passing offense to its third fewest points this year.
Leading that charge was senior defensive end Jabaree Tuani, whose contributions included three tackles for losses and a sack. Tuani harassed quarterback J.J. McDermott frequently when the game was still in the balance, and his defensive mates backed him up with a several critical plays.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys,” Niumatalolo said. “Our defense has taken some criticism this year. Starting with our defensive coordinator [Buddy Green] and the coaches, they’ve just continued to battle. Come to work everyday, come early, don’t worry about what the critics or the skeptics are saying. Just come with that work mentality, and it rubbed off on our kids.”
For a second week a in row, Green called the game from the press box instead of his regulars spot on the sideline. Last week it paid dividends in a 42-14 victory over Troy, and this time there was more of the same against a team that scored 45 points last week and had rolled up at least 38 in five other games.
The defense’s most meaningful stands came on consecutive series after Navy took a 17-10 lead on slotback John Howell’s one-yard touchdown with 5 minutes 17 seconds left in the third quarter. The Midshipmen forced a punt first when linebacker Brye French sacked McDermott and third and two but had to come right back onto the field following a muffed punt by returner Matt Aiken, who fumbled trying for a fair catch.
The Mustangs took possession at the Navy 25, and running back Zach Line ran for seven yards on first down before losing two yards on second. McDermott threw incomplete on third down, and on fourth, French batted down a pass intended for wide receiver Cole Beasley. That play set up Navy at its 21, and the eight-play drive concluded with slotback Mike Stukel’s five-yard touchdown run for a 24-10 margin with 12:20 to play in regulation.
Also critical was holding Southern Methodist without a point twice in five red zone opportunities and to 4 of 12 on third down.
“Just coming out there and playing with emotion,” Tuani said. “The whole defense I felt like did a great job, especially in the first half making them one dimensional. Stopping the run and making them throw the ball when they didn’t want to. Obviously those red zone stops were a big key for us to win this game.”