In the days following his team’s 24-6 win over Middle Tennessee State in the Armed Forces Bowl, Niumatalolo was unable to enjoy the victory. His attention was already on the next challenge, even though it was nearly nine months away.
“As soon as we won the bowl game,” Niumatalolo said, “you’re thinking the next game you’re playing is Ohio State.”
Navy’s meeting with the Buckeyes, one of college football’s elite programs, loomed over its entire offseason. Niumatalolo said it forced the Midshipmen to take everything they did during the summer to “the 13th degree,” from the way they ate to the way they stretched to the way they studied in team meetings.
Then, in 3 hours and 19 minutes Saturday, it was over. No. 5 Ohio State pulled away in the fourth quarter to win, 34-17, in front of a mostly scarlet-clad crowd at M&T Bank Stadium.
The Midshipmen now have to move on from their highly anticipated opener to the rest of their season, beginning Saturday in Philadelphia against Temple.
“Last game, we prepared for eight months,” Niumatalolo said. “This game, we’ve got six days.”
Not all college teams begin their seasons with the pageantry and hype that Navy did this year, playing a top-five team in an NFL stadium. But it’s a blueprint Niumatalolo’s program has traditionally used. Since his first full season as head coach in 2008, the Midshipmen have scheduled season-opening games against the likes of Indiana, Notre Dame, Maryland and Ohio State, among others.
They have lost all of the aforementioned openers, except last year’s 41-35 victory over Indiana.
Starting a season against a power-conference opponent can set a standard for the rest of the season, but it also has its drawbacks, including a likely loss right off the bat.
“I think it can be good and bad,” junior quarterback Keenan Reynolds said. “Good in the fact that we found out that we can hang with those types of teams, that we can play with anybody. And then also bad, as in we invested so much into this game and it didn’t come out how we expected.”
In 2012, Navy faced its toughest opening schedule in years: a “home” game against Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland, followed by a meeting with Penn State in Happy Valley. The Midshipmen lost those two games by a combined score of 84-17, but they went on to win seven of their final eight regular-season games, capture another Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and secure a bowl appearance.
“Playing those two big-name teams two years ago, I felt like that helped us for today,” Navy co-captain Parrish Gaines said Saturday. “I was playing in that [opening] game, and also there were some other seniors that were playing in that game. I feel like they knew how we had to compete in practice to start out in a game like, and they got everybody else ready.”
As the Midshipmen look ahead to Temple, which crushed Vanderbilt, 37-7, in its season-opener, they will do so with several positives to build upon.
They racked up 370 rushing yards against a stronger, faster Ohio State group and carried a lead midway through the third quarter. Their defense pressured new Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett on several occasions, sacked him once and forced one interception.