By Gene Wang
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 11:57 PM
IN SAN DIEGO After a practice in advance of Thursday's Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo told his players how gratifying this season had been, how being associated with Navy football and this team in particular was his privilege and that the health of the program was never more robust than it is currently.
Then the discourse turned to the senior class, and that's when Niumatalolo paused mid-sentence in order to collect himself in the emotion of the moment.
"I just want to win this game so badly for the seniors," Niumatalolo said as he choked back tears.
It's a sentiment not reserved just for the coach. Most everyone connected to the team has a special affinity for the players in the Class of 2011, which can become the winningest in Navy history and thus leave its imprint as perhaps the most accomplished ever at the academy.
The senior class enters the Poinsettia Bowl with 35 wins, one short of the school's modern-day record, and a victory would make it the first class in Navy history with at least 10 wins in consecutive years and just the second service academy to do so. While another signature achievement is its 4-0 record against Army, including outscoring the Black Knights 120-23 in that span, there's much more to this group than just beating its most bitter rival routinely and convincingly.
There's the three Commander-in-Chief's trophies, the three victories over Notre Dame and an opportunity to become the third senior class to win two bowl games. Then there are the individual milestones among a class that includes quarterback Ricky Dobbs and safety Wyatt Middleton, co-captains who have contributed as much to Navy football as anyone.
Dobbs holds some of the most meaningful scoring records at Navy and has many other single-season bests. At the top of the list are his 27 rushing touchdowns last year, the most in one season by a quarterback in NCAA history. Dobbs's 40 rushing touchdowns over two seasons are the most by a quarterback in consecutive years in NCAA history.
Wednesday, Dobbs added an honor to the list: the Lowe's Senior CLASS award for football. The honor - previously given to Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Tim Tebow of Florida - recognizes senior athletes who have excelled not only in their particular sport but also in the classroom and community.
Middleton, meantime, is in line to start his 48th consecutive game despite a sore shoulder. That would extend the longest active streak by a Navy player and be the 50th start of a career that includes being named MVP of the 31-17 victory over Army on Dec. 11. In that game, Middleton recovered a fumble at the Navy 2-yard line and returned it for a touchdown , the longest scoring play in Army-Navy history and the longest in Navy history.
"The thing for me to do right now is enjoy every moment," Middleton said. "Whether it's hanging out with the guys, or I'm in the game room beating people up on NCAA or whatever, enjoy every moment of it. It's kind of what I've really been doing because I know it's coming to an end. I've always known it's going to end sometime, but at points like these, you don't want to dwell on the fact that it's coming to an end. You want to get all that you can out of the experience."
Middleton was front and center in spurring his teammates when the Midshipmen reached desperate times following a 14-6 loss to Air Force on Oct. 2. In leading a players-only meeting, Middleton challenged the Midshipmen to rediscover their moxie. One game later, Navy produced an improbable 28-27 victory over Wake Forest thanks to a six-yard touchdown pass from Dobbs to senior wide receiver Greg Jones with 26 seconds to play.
Two weeks later, Navy logged perhaps its most thorough victory of the year by dismantling Notre Dame, 35-17, in a game that wasn't even that close. Dobbs ran for three touchdowns, and the senior class became the third in Navy history to have defeated the Fighting Irish for a third time, joining the classes of 1937 and '64.
This year's senior class comprises 24 players, nine of whom are starters. That number would be higher, except right tackle Matt Molloy and safety Emmett Merchant's seasons ended prematurely because of concussions. The Midshipmen also have seniors starting at place kicker in Joe Buckley and at punter in Kyle Delahooke.
"It's been quite a journey," said senior Tyler Simmons, a starting linebacker who forced the fumble that led to Middleton's touchdown return against Army. "Stuff like today, when we had a bunch of former players come back and talk to us, it really makes you realize how special this team is, the people that have gone before us and will go after us. It really hits home. It's like a heart-teaser, but we've got one more game to play, and I'm just going to enjoy it."