- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Here’s what Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo did know: the Midshipmen’s preparation for their bowl game would be different after a heart-wrenching loss to Army on Dec. 9. The misery resulting from that one-point defeat had to be shoved aside, not allowed to merely subside via time.

So, Navy practiced with pads on in preparation for the Military Bowl on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium against Virginia. It lifted weights the same day it practiced in pads. The only thing lacking in the resemblance to dreaded two-a-days was summer heat and an entire season ahead.

Here’s what Niumatalolo is not sure of: if it will work.

“Something we’ve never done before,” Niumatalolo said Wednesday. “So, we got after it. We got after it from a physical standpoint, which is totally the opposite of my approach to bowl games because our guys go through so much, I try to use that as a reward, but we’ve got a bad taste in our mouth. We’re trying to get rid of it. Probably as tough of bowl practice — it’s almost like two-a-days the way we practiced. We’ve never done this before, practiced and lifted every day. It’s a new thing. We’ll see if it works [laughs]. If our guys are beat up and have no legs, it was a bad plan.”

Outside of preparation tactics, the Cavaliers and Midshipmen share a flood of common ground. Both are 6-6, which means they barely arrived bowl eligible. Both were 5-1 before late-season failings dropped them back to .500. Navy opened the season with five consecutive wins before closing by losing six of seven. The Cavaliers were 5-1 when their 1-5 slide commenced.

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall coached Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a, when Mendenhall was in charge at BYU. When Mendenhall left BYU to take the job at Virginia two years ago, Niumatalolo was one of the leading candidates to replace him. Navy defensive line coach Shaun Nua also played for Mendenhall at BYU. In addition, the staffs of each side have exchanged ideas and consulted with each other in the past. The two defenses share multiple schematic traits as a result. The two coaches share an affection for each other. Pitting them against each other in a bowl game, one that would be a first checkmark for Mendenhall in his rebuild at Virginia and a pile-on to Niumatalolo’s rosy legacy at Navy, has a hint of unfairness to it.

“There’s some people in the profession, they earn your respect over time by who they are as a leader, but also how they run their program, then sometimes just by which institution they represent,” Mendenhall said. “In this case, it’s all of those reasons for me. I think Kenny and I both feel the same way. Right up until the time the ball is kicked off, our relationship is normal, then it goes right back to that the time the last whistle blows. Just kind of one of the things professionally that we do.”

Mendenhall’s first two seasons in Charlottesville will be complete when that final whistle blows. He came into a program that had gone flat, putting together four consecutive losing seasons before he arrived to replace Mike London.

In his head, Mendenhall saw similarities to when he took over at BYU. Three consecutive losing seasons had preceded his arrival there. BYU went 6-6 his first year, starting a run of 11 bowl appearances in a row. That timeline at Virginia seemed feasible.

Instead, his first season was rough. Virginia finished 2-10 and was picked to finish last in the ACC this year.

This season, quarterback Kurt Benkert threw for more than 3,000 yards to help the turnaround that landed Virginia in its first bowl game since 2011.

“The first year was significantly behind where I had anticipated, but it was also a necessary set point of what our program really looked like and what the league really looked like,” Mendenhall said. “What I had anticipated, we were significantly below that, really, in every facet of the program. So after year one, then having acknowledged and taken in all that new information, to be in the bowl game year two, that’s faster than what I had anticipated. I thought after year one, I thought it would then take longer. So, probably missed targets on both ends. Started beneath what I expected, accelerated in Year Two a little bit faster than what I anticipated.”

The acceleration extended the season by a month. Mendenhall has used it to prepare for next season, when life after Snikert begins, and the bowl game, when life against the triple-option kicks in.

Niumatalolo is trying to use the extra game as a salve. He is already Navy’s all-time winningest football coach, with more regular-season and bowl wins than anyone in the 133-year history of the program. He can’t change what happened at the last second in the snow against Army or the feeling that followed. He can just hope he’s right about the formula he used to snuff out the dejection is enough to prepare them for Thursday.

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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