During their football careers at Navy, seniors Matt Aiken and Cody Peterson have contributed to one of the most prosperous runs in program history, having gone to multiple bowl games, beating Notre Dame and going undefeated thus far against Army.
So when the co-captains step onto the field for the final time at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, both said the experience will carry significance well beyond a typical regular season game. Aiken and Peterson have combined to play 24 games on their home field, where Navy (5-4) not only will honor the senior class Saturday but also can secure a berth in the Armed Forces Bowl by beating South Alabama.
“Some guys don’t talk about it. It’s like taboo, so don’t talk about it,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said of becoming bowl eligible. “I mean, why hide it? That’s one of our goals. If we have a chance to become bowl eligible this week against a good football team, our seniors can go undefeated at home, so there’s goals we’re trying to reach.”
Aiken’s path to this point has been especially rewarding, he said, given how the start of his junior year unfolded. The wide receiver injured his right knee during a preseason scrimmage, and although initially Aiken had hoped to be out for only several weeks, he wound up missing the first four games.
During that time, Aiken sought a redshirt season, which is granted at the academy in only the most extenuating circumstances. The request was denied, and in the end, not sitting out benefitted Aiken, who managed to get on the field for the final nine games last year, with Navy winning five straight at one point.
“It’s definitely extremely emotional, being the last time we’re going to play at the stadium,” Aiken said. “Just sit down and look back at the four years, think about all the games we’ve played and all the times we’ve had with our brothers. It’s extremely emotional.”
Peterson echoed those thoughts earlier this week after the linebacker matched his career high with 14 tackles, including eight solo, in Navy’s 42-28 win over Hawaii on Saturday in Annapolis. Peterson is averaging 7.3 solo tackles per game, the second most in the country, and is tied for 10th in total tackles (10.9).
Peterson’s individual acclaim aside, Niumatalolo acknowledged the defense needs to play with more conviction the rest of the way. Navy has surrendered at least 28 points in four of five games, including a combined 66 points over the last two weeks.
Particularly troubling is Navy’s third-down defense, which is ranked 118th out of 123 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. But the Midshipmen are ranked 77th in total defense, 65th in scoring defense and 43rd in red zone defense, underscoring coordinator Buddy Green’s attention to ensuring his Peterson-led unit buckles down when opponents move inside the Navy 20-yard line.
“I talked to some of the seniors after this last game, and we were like, ‘Man, it flew by.’ We have one game left at Navy-Marine Corps,” Peterson said. “It’s humbling, and I know that we’re definitely going to make the most out of it this weekend.”
A victory would produce Navy’s first undefeated home record since 2004. That year, Navy went 6-0 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium to finish 10-2, matching the most wins in a single season in school history.
The Midshipmen also are seeking their 10th bowl appearance in 11 years. Prior to 2003, Navy had been to nine bowls games in 122 seasons.
“It’s definitely fitting that our last home game a lot lies on it,” Aiken said. “We definitely want to get it done in front of our families, in front of our fans.”