Navy looks for a rewarding bowl result

Navy's lengthy layoff since its win over Army, above, will end Thursday in the Texas Bowl in Houston.
Navy's lengthy layoff since its win over Army, above, will end Thursday in the Texas Bowl in Houston. (Drew Hallowell/getty Images)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 29, 2009

HOUSTON -- When Navy takes the field against Missouri in the Texas Bowl on Thursday afternoon, nearly three weeks will have elapsed since the Midshipmen's last game. In that time, they will have held a total of seven practices, and most of them will have looked like the one they staged on Monday afternoon in the shadow of Rice Stadium.

Players were not in full pads, and they moved crisply and quickly through one drill after another. They finished practice in less than 75 minutes.

"If we don't know what we're doing by now, we're in trouble," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "This is our 14th game. We're just trying to be smart, trying to be efficient."

Unlike some programs, which use bowl game practices as a way to prepare for the future by giving extra work to younger players, Navy (9-4) treats this time as a reward for its players. Thursday's game is important, to be sure; with a victory, the Midshipmen can tie the school record for wins and claim their first bowl victory since 2005. But the Midshipmen are trying to have some fun, too.

"We're trying to enjoy everything. We want to go to every function," said Niumatalolo, whose team arrived in Houston on Saturday. "I want our guys to be able to enjoy everything, from the rodeo to everything they have. And hopefully at the same time, try to blend in and have a mix of getting ready for the football game."

Added junior safety Wyatt Middleton, "You have to enjoy yourself, but at the same time, you came down here for one reason: to win. . . . You got to enjoy yourself and relax a little bit -- we get down here pretty early, so you can't stay focused 24-7. But when the clock starts ticking down, that's crunch time."

This is Navy's seventh consecutive bowl game; only 16 teams in the country -- including 14 that play in BCS conferences -- currently have longer streaks than the Midshipmen. Navy has won two bowl games in that stretch -- against New Mexico in the 2004 Emerald Bowl and against Colorado State in the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl.

Navy's school-record bowl game streak began, incidentally, in this same city in 2003. That year, the Midshipmen were thrilled to be making their first bowl appearance since 1996; it marked a turning point for a program that won only three games in the three previous seasons combined. At the time, Navy was only the sixth team in NCAA history to go from a winless season -- it was 0-10 in 2001 -- to a bowl game in two years or less.

"I just remember the players, the sense of accomplishment that they had laid the groundwork for the teams to follow, getting to that first bowl game," said defensive coordinator Buddy Green, who held the same position in 2003. "It was a great experience to come here and play a great team that put up huge numbers offensively -- it's very similar to what we have this year."

In 2003, the Midshipmen faced a pass-happy Big 12 team (Texas Tech) that featured a prolific quarterback (B.J. Symons) and a future NFL star at wide receiver (Wes Welker). Navy lost, 38-14, in front of 51,068 at Reliant Stadium.

This year, the Midshipmen play a pass-happy Big 12 team that features a prolific quarterback (sophomore Blaine Gabbert, who has thrown for 3,302 yards, 23 touchdowns and just seven interceptions) and one of the top wide receivers in the nation (senior Danario Alexander, who has 107 receptions for 1,644 yards). Missouri is 8-4 and finished second in the Big 12 North.

"I was going to ask [Missouri Coach Gary] Pinkel what he's feeding their guys," Niumatalolo said earlier this month at the bowl's introductory news conference. "I mean, their quarterback [the 6-foot-5 Gabbert] is bigger than our defensive end. But we're ecstatic to play such a great program."

In between all of the off-field events -- such as the Best Buy shopping spree, the Rodeo Bowl, the team bowling tournament -- there are little reminders that this is a business trip for the Midshipmen. Texas -- and the Houston area in particular -- is a fertile recruiting area for Navy, so several high school coaches and players lined the field to watch the Midshipmen practice on Saturday and Monday.

"Everybody's got the same goal in mind," Navy junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs said over the weekend. "Our officer representative for the football team told us we're going to do it like the fleet -- when you leave your families at home, you come back and report for business, and that's what we're doing. We get to go back [to our families] after the game, so we have to put that on hold, and be here with this family, and we've got business to take care of."

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