The most deathly-serious coaches often have the best senses of humor too.
Ken Niumatalolo was giving a tearful press conference after his Midshipmen upset the 6th-ranked Houston Cougars 46-40 in 2016, praising his outfit in the highest terms possible. “I’m so fortunate and so blessed to work with these coaches and players,” he said while drying his eyes.
Then he suddenly flipped his head upward at the assembled media.
“Even though all of you wanted me to fire the whole offensive staff last week,” he deadpanned, referring to the aftermath of a loss to Air Force the previous Saturday.
Navy has a way of bouncing back from bad losses, and it’s evident again in 2019. Midshipmen appeared Crisco-fingered on offense and hapless on defense in a 52-20 Week 12 loss to UND that pretty much ruined the Middies’ chances at a New Year’s Six berth. But as of Week 14 coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team is back in the Top 25, having beaten Southern Methodist in a classic at Annapolis.
Houston has been a tough out for Navy over the years, but the host Cougars are 4-7 and out of bowl contention as action pulls visiting Navy’s point spread above a TD for a Saturday evening clash in Space City.
Who: Navy Midshipmen at Houston Cougars
When: Saturday, November 30th, 7 PM EST
Where: TDECU Stadium, Houston, TX
Lines: Navy (-8.5) at Houston (+8.5) / O/U Total: (60)
Houston beat Navy’s double-digit winners in 2015 with an almost-cruel game plan. Knowing that the Midshipmen would have to play cushion-ball against top-notch talent on the outside, the Cougars threw flair passes and swing-screens over and over again. With the short pass working as an extended set of “run” options against a overwhelmed academy defense, Tom Herman’s favored charges got out to an early lead and held on to it.
Quick screens and runs-after-catch are concept right up current Houston skipper Dana Holgorsen’s alley. But the spread-offense guru is having a hard time building-up his passing game for the time being. QB Clayton Tune attempted only 12 throws and did not reach 100 yards through the air in last weekend’s 24-14 win over Tulsa.
There were brighter days in mid-season. Tune sang well in a 34-31 loss to SMU in which the Cougars netted 400+ yards through the air. But the health of a grinding ground game would decline along with an injury-decimated OL.
Chillingly for this week’s Houston-takers, the team’s head coach is making the ultimate excuse in the papers…and was already speaking of the season in past-tense as of mid-November:
Some of UH’s problems have been self-inflicted with high-profile players, headlined by quarterback D’Eriq King and wide receiver Keith Corbin, opting to redshirt this season. Some issues have been out of the Cougars’ control, like the laundry list of injuries that have wiped out the offensive line and left little-to-no depth at linebacker and running back.
To begin the season, the Cougars played four games in the span of 19 days, drawing the constant ire of Holgorsen for the way the schedule set up. The gauntlet has also included No. 20 Cincinnati, No. 25 SMU and possibly a sixth ranked opponent with current No. 24 Navy in the season finale. Central Florida climbed as high as No. 15, while Tulane has received votes in the national polls. The potential for six ranked opponents would match the most the 1977 season for the most in school history.
“The schedule did not set up very well for us this year,” Holgorsen said. “Hopefully that changes next year. I can assure you I’m going to do a lot of complaining in our meeting. (Athletic director Chris Pezman) has heard it from me a good bit. This schedule sucked.”
It’s not getting any easier this go-around. Navy is now a Top 25 program, and the Naval Academy added to its stock with a victory over SMU on Saturday. Faced with a 28-28 deadlock in the 4th quarter, Malcolm Perry streaked for a long go-ahead touchdown prior to Niumatalolo Jedi-mind tricking Southern Methodist into playing too fast and using up all of its time-outs. The coup-de-grace came with Perry got the Mustang defense to jump offside on a fake 4th-down “gamble,” causing Sonny Dykes to melt down and take a 15-yard penalty for barking at the referees.
The key is a defense that’s as athletic as a mid-tier Power-5 unit. No Flexbone team has really enjoyed that advantage since Navy began running the playbook decades ago. Memphis overwhelmed the Middies with 200+ return yards and a crushing field-position advantage. Notre Dame ran a ground game that forced 8 men into the box, connected on half of a dozen laser-precise deep throws, and stripped the football from Navy 5 or 6 times. Other than those 2 losses, the Midshipmen have startled a tough lineup of opponents with Perry’s speed and a better-than-average defense.
Given how the injuries and slumps have affected all 3 units at Houston this autumn, it’s hard to imagine the Cougars putting a Senior Night effort together that matches the best days of the Fighting Irish and the Tigers.
There are 2 ways to look at the likely O/U outcome here – Navy could wind-up having to play wide-open on offense and score 5-6 times to win, in which case fireworks will follow the Mids’ electric QB. If Houston’s offensive line (2nd-string offensive line) continues to struggle against good defenses, though, the Midshipmen may be content to stay ahead by 2 touchdowns and not run Perry into the dirt with Army still looming on the December schedule.
Safer betting can be found on Navy’s (-8.5) spread. Houston has been busy packing it in as of weeks ago.