Navy football players have spent the better part of the past two weeks with the singular focus of preparing for Army, insulating themselves as best they can from distractions. For record-setting senior quarterback Keenan Reynolds, that means staying off social media while paying no mind to chatter from outside the program so he can devote full attention to the game plan.
But less than 48 hours before kickoff, the Midshipmen found themselves faced with the news that their coach was planning to speak with Brigham Young athletic officials Monday about the Cougars’ head coaching vacancy.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo informed the team of his intensions Thursday following practice, and Navy Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk acknowledged Friday night when reached by telephone that he had given BYU permission to speak with the winningest coach in program history. The Cougars’ job has been open since former coach Bronco Mendenhall agreed Dec. 4 to leave for Virginia.
“We’ve talked a lot about it. We’ve chatted a lot about it,” Gladchuk said. “But in all honesty, it’s nothing but a pure, unadulterated distraction. That’s what it is. So hopefully we can beat Army and then on Monday get back on track here, find out what Kenny’s thinking is and what his ambitions are.
“In the meantime, I’m doing everything in my power just to try to keep these guys glued to the task at hand.”
Niumatalolo, 50, has a 66-37 record in his eighth full season as Navy’s head coach. He signed a long-term contract extension in 2011. He is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a prerequisite for candidates at BYU. His son, Va’a, is a sophomore linebacker at the school.
Players were not available to comment until the postgame news conference Saturday evening at Lincoln Financial Field, the site of Reynolds’s first win against the Black Knights in 2012. Reynolds, major college football’s career rushing touchdowns leader and Navy’s all-time leading rusher, is aiming to become the first quarterback in series history to go 4-0.
That record, Reynolds said, would rise above all others he owns, given not just the significance of the rivalry but also in light of recent events overseas and in the United States that remind players for both sides that they soon may be in harm’s way.
“What we need to do to win doesn’t change,” Reynolds said after practice Tuesday in Annapolis. “It’s still football, and when you start to think about it as more than that, that’s when you start to play tight, and you make a lot of mistakes.”
Also at stake for the 21st-ranked Midshipmen is reclaiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, following a one-year hiatus. Navy has won the trophy, signifying service academy football supremacy, in nine of the last 12 years but relinquished the hardware last season following a 30-21 loss to Air Force in Colorado Springs. It remains Reynolds’s only loss to a service academy opponent in seven games.
This year, Navy (9-2) became the front-runner to win the CIC after beating the Falcons, 33-11, at home Oct. 3. Air Force would retain the trophy with a Midshipmen loss because it beat the Black Knights, 20-3, this season. Navy, meanwhile, has beaten Army (2-9) 13 straight times.
“We really don’t talk about it,” Niumatalolo said last week of the streak. “The media talks about it. Our fans talk about it. Alumni talk about it, but we don’t talk about it at our football building, at our complex, on the field because we realize none of the games from 2014 and before have any bearing on this game. We’ve got to get ready for this year, this team and this game. That’s always been our approach.”
Many of the same players, however, are set to participate for both teams. Among the notable starters back for the Midshipmen in addition to Reynolds is Jamir Tillman. The junior wide receiver caught a nine-yard touchdown pass from Reynolds in the first quarter of last year’s 17-10 win.
Tillman is also coming off a career-best 162 yards and a touchdown on five catches in Navy’s last game, a 52-31 loss at No. 18 Houston on Nov. 27, when Reynolds passed for a career-best 312 yards on 13 of 16 completions while throwing one interception. The defeat cost the Midshipmen a berth in the American Athletic Conference title game, in which the Cougars defeated Temple, 24-13, last Saturday.
But it also allowed Navy an extra week to prepare for the Black Knights, who are ranked eighth nationally in rushing offense (254 yards per game) and have lost six games by a touchdown or fewer this year.
“I can’t tell you. I can’t reveal the secrets,” Tillman said when asked whether Navy may lean more than usual on the passing game. “But we’re going to take shots if they give them to us, and that’s what we’ve been doing all year. We’re not going to change anything. We’ve been doing what we’re supposed to do. We’ve been winning, and so we’re just going to carry that game plan through Army.”
When: Saturday, 3 p.m. Eastern
Where: Lincoln Financial Field
Don’t underestimate: Niumatalolo conceded that in this age of social media that players can’t help but notice the Midshipmen are overwhelming favorites to beat Army for a 14th straight time. But senior co-captains Reynolds and Bernard Sarra have been reminding teammates to pay no attention to oddsmakers given the close recent history in the rivalry, with Navy winning three of the last four meetings by a touchdown or fewer.
Defense seeks bounce back: Stout for the majority of the year, Navy’s defense yielded a season-high 555 total yards its loss at Houston. That unit has been eager to get back on the field and put that performance in the rearview mirror. Navy has not surrendered more than 17 points against Army in the last nine games. In five of those games, the Midshipmen have permitted a touchdown or fewer.
Playing while ahead: The Midshipmen are 55-4 under Niumatalolo when leading going into the fourth quarter and 48-5 when scoring first, although this season Navy has won four of the five games in which the opponent scored first. Last year against Army, the Midshipmen rallied from a 7-0 deficit in the first quarter to win, 17-10, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.