After his team’s embarrassing loss to Hawaii to open the season a week ago, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo had a tough time finding an explanation for his team’s flat start in his home state.
“Maybe it was the palm trees,” he said earlier this week, no doubt figuring he might as well laugh rather than cry.
There were no palm trees anywhere in sight Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. Instead there was rain, which came down in sheets for most of the afternoon.
Perfect Navy weather, as it turned out.
The Midshipmen trailed Memphis by 12 early in the fourth quarter. They already had forced three turnovers, but it hadn’t been enough because the Tigers had too much speed — or so it seemed — for Navy.
But a fourth turnover gave Navy life, and thanks to the heroics of quarterback Malcolm Perry (166 yards on 36 bruising carries) and a gutsy performance by the defense, the Mids somehow escaped with a 22-21 victory that 31,762 people — the announced attendance — will claim they saw, even if less than half of them were still there to watch the rain-soaked climax.
“What a game,” a clearly drained Niumatalolo said. “That’s a really good team we beat. It took all our resolve and toughness to find a way to win.
“Last week was about as bad a loss as we’ve had in a long time. For our defense to come back and play that well after last week was really something.”
He paused. “Things looked bleak a lot of times today. But our kids are fighters. They proved that today.”
There wasn’t any reason to believe the Mids could bounce back from the 59-41 loss to Hawaii and beat Memphis, the team favored to win the American Athletic Conference West Division. While Navy was traveling halfway around the world and back to open at Hawaii, Memphis played a walkover home game against lower-tier Mercer.
The Midshipmen didn’t get back to Annapolis until Monday. Their pads didn’t make it back until Tuesday night. By then, they had gone through a practice so sluggish that Niumatalalo had to give his players a tongue-lashing, regardless of jet lag.
“I told them we had to remember that we’re the Naval Academy and that means we have to play mistake-free football regardless of the opponent,” he said. “If we don’t come out absolutely ready to play, we lose. We come out anything less than ready, we’ll be 0-2. It’s that simple.”
The Mids looked comatose in Honolulu, starting with the coin toss. Niumatalolo had told defensive captain Sean Williams to take the ball if Navy won the toss. “Normally we defer,” he said. “But against their offense, I wanted to start with the ball.”
The Mids won the toss. “We defer,” Williams said, mind-blanking for an instant.
By the time Navy had a chance to breathe, Hawaii was up 35-7.
On Saturday, Memphis won the toss. One potential hurdle cleared. Given the conditions, it wasn’t that surprising when the first half ended with Navy leading 9-7.
But Memphis took control in the third quarter on two long touchdown runs by 5-foot-9, 200-pound jet Darrell Henderson, who finished the game with 212 yards on 13 carries. The only real question was why he didn’t carry more often.
When the Tigers took possession up 21-9 with 12:29 left in the game, many of the hardy souls remaining headed for dry land. But on the second play of the Memphis drive, running back Patrick Taylor got hit by Juan Hailey, and defensive end Jarvis Polu jumped on the ball at the Memphis 27-yard line.
One play later, Perry appeared to dodge about 14 Memphis tacklers, spinning, darting and weaving for 19 yards and a touchdown. Suddenly, stunningly, with 11:06 still left, it was 21-16 and still a ballgame.
“We had two choices when we got down,” Perry said. “We could just fold and go home or we could line up and keep playing.”
Navy kept playing. After Perry’s highlight-reel touchdown, the defense forced a three-and-out. Then the Mids pieced together a classic Navy drive, going 56 yards in 13 plays, including a fourth-and-one conversion on a Zach Abey run from the Memphis 18. By the time Abey scored from two yards out, the clock was down to 2:37.
Abey was the starting quarterback until late last season. He plays mostly wide receiver this year. But he’s a unique weapon. On the Mids’ first touchdown drive, he completed a 17-yard pass to Perry on a reverse, throwback pass. He is also Navy’s version of the “heavy” offense, coming in when the ball is close to the end zone.
“It’s not like people don’t know he’s coming,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s not rocket science. But he still makes the plays.”
Abey’s touchdown made it 22-21, but Memphis had plenty of time to get into field goal range. Three plays got the Tigers to the Navy 34. But they never advanced another yard. The key play may have been a deep pass from quarterback Brady White to wide receiver Sean Dykes on the goal line. It was broken up by third-string safety Noruwa Obanor, who was in the game because Williams, who played superbly, had been injured and, one play later, Jacob Springer, his replacement, lost his helmet and had to come out.
“What a huge play Obanor made,” Niumatalolo said. “He might have saved the game.”
Niumatalolo never takes credit for Navy’s success. It’s always the players and the coaches. He once referred to himself as “a fat guy who gets to stand at the middle of the field.”
That’s far from the truth.
On Friday night when his team gathered, he reminded his players they were far from the palm trees — and the debacle — of Hawaii.
“I just told them we’re a very tough team to beat here,” he said. “We’re 17-2 in here the last four years. We should play with confidence, confidence that somehow, someway, we’ll find a way to win.”
That’s exactly what they did Saturday. “It reminded me of the Air Force game [last year], the Houston game,” two years ago, Niumatalolo said. “We’re mudders. We like to win ugly. I don’t know if my heart can take much more of this. I better lose some weight.”
The weather was, no doubt, as ugly as it gets Saturday. And things looked ugly in the fourth quarter. But by the time the players lined up to sing “Navy Blue and Gold,” no one felt the rain.
When all was said and done, it was a beautiful day for the Midshipmen.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.