FORT WORTH — The résumé for the Navy football team’s senior class includes an undefeated mark against Army, three Commander-in-Chief’s trophies and a 30-20 record. What’s missing is a bowl victory, so the Midshipmen have been preparing for Monday’s Armed Forces Bowl against Middle Tennessee State with an elevated sense of urgency given their recent struggles in the postseason.
Navy has lost five of its past six bowl games; the past two have not been competitive.
The Midshipmen lost, 62-28, to Arizona State in last year’s Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. In 2010, they lost to San Diego State, 35-14, in the Poinsettia Bowl.
“Last year we got our butts whooped,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said following practice at Kennedale High School in Fort Worth. “I don’t know any other way how to say it. I mean I don’t know if we had practiced for two months if it would have mattered. Last year we didn’t play very well. I don’t know if there’s one thing or another.”
Several players mentioned that the lack of focus in recent bowl games has come from the emotional investment leading to the showdown with Army. The Midshipmen’s final regular season game annually is against their most contentious rival, and the preparation is so intense that having to play afterward sometimes can yield a letdown, even if it is in a bowl.
Last season, for instance, the Midshipmen’s 17-13 win against Army went down to the wire. Navy escaped when the Black Knights moved to the Navy 14 but fumbled on a sloppy exchange between quarterback Trent Steelman and running back Larry Dixon.
Three weeks later, Navy traveled to San Francisco and surrendered touchdowns on the Sun Devils’ first nine possessions in the most lopsided bowl loss under Niumatalolo.
Circumstances were so out of hand that Niumatalolo rested starting quarterback Keenan Reynolds in the fourth quarter.
The sophomore has 29 rushing touchdowns this season, breaking the NCAA single-season record for a quarterback. Navy’s Ricky Dobbs and Kansas State’s Collin Klein both had shared the record with 27.
“I don’t want to make excuses, but I feel like maybe a little hangover from the Army game,” Navy senior co-captain and linebacker Cody Peterson said. “Finals, guys start to get a little bit complacent with the semester ending and being home. That’s why I just really want to emphasize us getting the most out of these short practices and film sessions and not getting too distracted by all the festivities.”
Another distraction the Midshipmen have been managing this week is the absence of starting defensive end Paul Quessenberry. The junior was suspended for a violation of team rules, Niumatalolo confirmed last week.
Quessenberry started all 12 games and led the Midshipmen with five quarterback hurries. He also ranks second among defensive linemen with 25 tackles and had three tackles for loss, one sack and one fumble recovery.
“There’s a lot of things involved, being an officer and a student here, so it was a hard thing to do because he’s one of our best defensive linemen,” Niumatalolo said. “He’s one of our best players. Still he’s a great kid. What he did, 123 other teams would probably have made him get up in the morning and run a couple extra laps, but we’ve got to hold our kids to a different standard.”
Will Anthony is set to take Quessenberry’s place. The sophomore leads Navy defensive linemen with 26 tackles despite coming of the bench all season. Niumatalolo also indicated junior Aaron Davis will play more and starting nose guard Bernie Sarra may move to that position.
Navy enters the game ranked 62nd in total defense (401.9 yards per game) and 58th in scoring defense (25.9).
“We don’t want to go out with the bad taste we had in our mouths last year,” Reynolds said. “It would be good for getting some momentum going into the offseason workouts, spring ball and all that good stuff. We just want to finish hard and cap off the season with a ‘W.’ ”