Jeff Blake-US PRESSWIRE
I didn’t know what to expect when walking into the postgame conference on Saturday night. I had covered Navy losses – even heartbreaking ones – before, but the 24-21 defeat to 10th ranked South Carolina went beyond heartbreaking. At least, that’s how it looked from the press box, where a stunned collection of South Carolina beat writers sat wide-eyed and confused. They should have known better.
As I walked into the postgame conference featuring Ken Niumatalolo and a handful of Midshipmen players, it was clear that surprise was not a word that they’d adopted from the roughly three hour contest which had just ended. Perturbed might be putting it lightly, at least if one let the stern, indignant face of fullback Alex Teich to speak for teammates.
And why not? A picture says a thousand words, and even before the questions were raised to Teich and his teammates, the point was driven home by the fiery disposition of Niumatalolo speaking to the media, and the angry face of a brooding Kriss Proctor in the background. Despite whatever those SEC beat writers would have you believe, Navy expected to win on Saturday, and failing to do so wasn’t going to cause anyone to pat themselves on the back and say, “well played, young man.”
“We were ready for them,” said Niumatalolo when I asked him if his team was intimidated by the SEC atmosphere of nearly 80,000 fans.
“There’s no doubt in my mind we were ready,” he repeated.”We played that song all week. We were ready…we were prepared for it.”
They were ready, and they came prepared to win. From Brye French’s relentless pursuit from the backside, to Kwesi Mitchell selling out to take on the Heisman trophy candidate Marcus Lattimore late in the game, Navy’s players did something underdogs just don’t do. They didn’t play not to lose, they played to win. There coach even said as much.
"We came here with great respect for this program, but we didn't fear them," Niumatalolo said. "We didn't come here to play South Carolina close. We came here to win.”
It’s a view not likely to be adopted by those same SEC fans in attendance or those beat writers in the box, but Niumatalolo’s statement reveals just how far the Naval Academy football program has come in the nearly decade since the “Triple Option Era” began. Restrained yet fiery, overlooked but potent, Navy’s players have adopted not only a mindset of winning, but they adopted Niumatalolo’s edge. They don’t just expect to win, they expect to win against anyone. Even, it’s clear, against the teams from the conference which holds itself to be so far above all others, that a service academy should never upset one of its flagship programs.
From the hushed curses overheard in the highly partisan press box to the dismissive attitudes of scores of Gamecock fans when watching the “tiny,” Mids running down the field, it’s clear that very few people in attendance expected much from the Mids. Explanations for the near upset have ranged from the usual chorus of trying to prepare to the triple-option, to the familiar if not worn out and unintelligent complaints of Navy holding. And who can overlook my personal favorite – the self-deprecating, you-ain’t that-good-but-neither-are-we explanations that adorn internet message boards and sports talk radio?
You can buy these explanations if you want. But I’m not, because, after watching the evolution of Navy football over the last decade, I’ve come to realize that these Mids don’t say what they don’t mean. And if Ken Niumatalolo, his coaches, and most of all his players said they came to win, they’re not just tooting their own horns.
The rest of the country – heck, even some of their own fans – might dismiss them, but Niumatalolo and his Mids aren’t going to be satisfied with three votes in the Top 25 poll and a fat check. They came to beat the SEC favorites on Saturday, and in nearly doing just that, they’ve given the SEC and its programs a well-timed gut check, and reaffirmed the edge that they’ll need to recapture the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy.
AdamNettina – at – gmail.com