ANNAPOLIS | As Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo climbed to the makeshift podium outside the locker room at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, he was filled with a mix of appreciation, awe and relief at his team’s 33-27 overtime victory Saturday night.
He wasn’t the only one. Behind the ongoing press conference, EagleBank Bowl organizers realized they had reached a milestone for their first-year game. The Midshipmen (6-3) had solidified a date in the Dec. 20 matchup, an anticipated development but one crucial to the bowl’s success.
Navy is contractually obligated to sell 15,000 tickets, although the Mids’ goal is to bring 30,000 fans to RFK Stadium, which is expected to have a capacity of about 45,000 for the event.
“For year one, it makes a big difference having the Navy family coming to Washington, D.C.,” bowl co-founder Sean Metcalf said. “To bring 25,000 to 30,000 with them makes a big difference.”
This was the plan all along, especially since the bowl possesses the No. 9 selection from the ACC. While the conference did not produce nine bowl-eligible teams in its first three years as a 12-school league, Navy is just 30 miles to the east and is an ideal anchor for the inaugural game.
But there were some harrowing moments in the past two months. The Mids lost two of their first three, then upended Rutgers and Wake Forest to stabilize their season. But the early ups and downs weren’t as intense as Saturday’s.
Navy trailed 27-7 early in the fourth quarter, when a steady stream of lights could be seen fleeing the parking lots. Yet Navy produced 20 points in the final 9:16 of regulation, then finished off Temple in overtime.
Seconds after Ricky Dobbs’ 1-yard touchdown run clinched the victory, the bowl logo flashed on the scoreboard. Later, the Mids officially accepted the invitation in the locker room, becoming the first team in the country to know its postseason destination.
“It is a relief that they have their six wins and we know they’re coming,” bowl co-founder Marie Rudolph said. “Navy’s a proven commodity [with] six straight bowl games, and we know the way their fans travel. Their fans are loyal, and we’re excited.”
Of course, only half of the matchup is set - and Navy’s opponent probably won’t be determined for more than a month. Not long after the Mids formally accepted a bid, Metcalf turned to his mobile device and scanned scores from the ACC.
Four ACC schools are already bowl eligible, and five more need just one more victory to qualify for the postseason. That makes it likely the EagleBank Bowl won’t have to look elsewhere for Navy’s opponent.
Until then, the game’s most pressing matter is attracting fans. Metcalf said nearly 1,000 tickets have been sold, a figure he deemed “brisk” since Navy’s considerable fan base wasn’t fully in the fold until this weekend.
“It’s a testament to college football and the sport itself,” Metcalf said - before considering Navy’s sales begin in earnest this week. “I would hope we would see a huge jump.”