Tested by tough schedule, Navy awaits matchup with Army

At the beginning of the season, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo declared this would be the toughest schedule in all his years with the Midshipmen.

It’s largely lived up to that expectation — and that’s taken a toll on Navy’s record.

“If Georgia would have won, we would have played two teams that would be in the final four. Or if Iowa would have won,” Niumatalolo said. “I’ve been encouraged. I’ve been seeing us improve a lot. … But sometimes your schedule doesn’t allow that.”

Navy’s schedule this season included matchups against Cincinnati and Notre Dame — a playoff team and another that barely missed the cut. The challenges don’t end there. When the Midshipmen play their annual showdown with Army this weekend in New Jersey, that will be the 11th bowl-bound opponent for Navy. Nobody in the country will have faced more.

“We’ve been improving,” Niumatalolo said. “But like if you’re a boxer, and you’re fighting Floyd Mayweather, you’re like, ‘I think I got better.’ But then you got six black eyes. But who else has beaten him? I thought we played well against Notre Dame and Cincinnati, who got one loss in between them.”

Navy plays outside the Power Five, but the presence of two playoff contenders made its schedule tough. In AAC play, the Midshipmen (3-8) also took on a Houston team that is currently in the Top 25 and an SMU team that was ranked when it faced Navy.

At the bottom of the league, Navy beat Temple (3-9) in its most recent game, but Tulane (2-10) and South Florida (2-10) were not on the schedule. When the Midshipmen did play their toughest opponents, they were often competitive, losing to Houston by eight, SMU by seven and Cincinnati by seven. Against Cincinnati, Navy recovered a late onside kick, but an interception ended its chance of spoiling the Bearcats’ unbeaten record.

“I think we had the closest game against Cincinnati,” Niumatalolo said. “We had the ball at the end with a chance to beat them. I was going for 2.”

The question now is whether Navy’s schedule has sharpened the Midshipmen enough to help them beat Army (8-3) this weekend. The Black Knights obviously have a better record than the Midshipmen, but Army has victories over Bucknell of the FCS, plus Connecticut (1-11) and Massachusetts (1-11).

The Black Knights have also played good teams tough, however, losing to Wisconsin by six and to Wake Forest in a wild 70-56 affair.

“We’ll be ready for those guys. I’ll just tell you that,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ll be ready for those guys.”

Army won last year’s matchup with Navy 15-0, and in seven of the last nine meetings, neither team scored more than 21 points. These teams are in many ways mirror images of each other because of their option-based offenses.

“I feel like for this game, it’s always about the eyes. Your eyes will carry you to all your keys that you need to read, and really, your job’s just really simple. What you get that job done, you’ll have success defensively against the triple option,” Navy cornerback Michael McMorris said. “Obviously, it’s heavy run game, and the few pass plays that will occur will be game-changing moments. It’s just really different.”

No matter how the rest of the season has gone, a win this weekend would give Navy cause to celebrate. That’s just the nature of the rivalry with Army — and this year in particular, Niumatalolo believes the Midshipmen have made strides that haven’t shown in their record.

“The season’s not what they wanted, but I’ve been impressed with them working the whole year, the whole season,” Niumatalolo said. “They recognize for the seniors, winning this game would change everything for them, and catapult us into the offseason.”

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Follow Noah Trister at https://twitter.com/noahtrister

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