Despite his track record as the longest-tenured, winningest coach in Navy football history, Ken Niumatalolo wasn't exactly expected to have the Midshipmen barreling toward a 4-0 start to a season that began with whispers of the dreaded word "rebuild."
Navy began 2017 with a quarterback who had only two career starts and three new starting offensive linemen after graduating 14 first-stringers in total. The team was picked to finish third in the West Division of the American Athletic Conference after finishing as its runner-up in 2015 and its champion in 2016.
Yet after a 42-32 win against Cincinnati on Saturday in which the offense finally clicked the way the coaching staff wanted it to — Navy had 569 rushing yards, three short of the program record set in 2007 against North Texas — Niumatalolo has Navy (3-0, 2-0 AAC) running like business as usual.
The Midshipmen will head to Tulsa (1-3) on Saturday in position to go 4-0 for just the second time in Niumatalolo's decade-long tenure and the third time in the past 38 years. The last time they started 4-0 was in 2015, when Navy finished with a school-record 11 wins.
Unfortunately for Navy, business as usual also means dealing with injuries.
Junior slotback Tre Walker is out for the season after an MRI exam Monday confirmed he will need surgery to repair his right knee, which he injured during a second-quarter kickoff against Cincinnati. Saturday was Walker's first career start as captain Darryl Bonner sat out with a high ankle sprain. Niumatalolo said Bonner is "very questionable" to play at Tulsa.
Even so, Navy enters the weekend as the second-best rushing team in the country, averaging 393 yards. (Georgia Tech is first.) It relied on a deep corps of slotbacks and a "next-man-up" mentality to seal a win after Cincinnati came within four points.
Niumatalolo credits that mind-set, as well as the continuity of the coaching staff, as much as he does his players for keeping Navy on track this season.
"This is a team that's going to be resilient. Hopefully guys don't get hurt, but it's part of football, unfortunately, part of sports. People get hurt. In life, people get hurt, so the next person has to step up," Niumatalolo said at practice Wednesday. "Really sad for Tre because he was having a phenomenal game, but I was happy for Josh Brown and John Brown III, who came in and did really well. . . . I was pleased with the young guys stepping up and doing well."
His team also has been steeled by its penchant for grinding out close victories. The Midshipmen played eight games decided by eight points or fewer last season, winning five; in their second game of this season they held off Tulane, 23-21.
"Our games are always close. I wish we could beat people like Alabama does, but we're the Naval Academy; our games are always close. We have to find a way to make sure we win games and don't lose them. That's why I'm such a stickler on ball security, penalties, missed assignments. . . . So I'm encouraged by us finding ways to win close games. It kind of builds your character, your mental toughness, and we know we're going to have a lot of those types of games."
Moored by their culture, Navy also saw on-field improvement Saturday.
Junior quarterback Zach Abey's ball security was a big issue in the first two games, and Abey worked with Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper during the bye week to tweak the way he had been holding the football (coaches noticed he had been palming it rather than applying pressure with his fingers). Abey finished Saturday's victory without throwing an interception or losing a fumble for the first time all season.
And in a game that required the team's younger ball carriers to step up, sophomore slotback Malcolm Perry rushed for 100 yards, his first-career 100-yard game. Slotback Josh Brown, who had two rushing touchdowns, said the win over the Bearcats felt like a step forward for this year's offense.
"I think rushing for 500-plus yards is a definite confidence booster, especially compared to our first two games," Brown said. "Hopefully we can just ride that wave throughout the rest of the season and just keep going up and up."