Navy’s football program had hit an unaccustomed lull over the past few seasons. The Midshipmen entered this year with two consecutive losing seasons.
To some programs, that isn’t unusual, but Navy had gone two decades without having consecutive losing campaigns. From 1998 through 2002, Navy had five consecutive losing seasons but then had just two from 2003 through 2019.
Then came a 3-7 mark in 2020 followed by last year’s 4-8 record.
Navy then lost its first two games this season, but on Saturday, the Midshipmen reversed course earning a 23-20 double overtime win at East Carolina in an American Athletic Conference matchup.
While some may suggest East Carolina hasn’t exactly been a football power lately, the Pirates were on the upward curve. There was a 7-5 record last season and the first bowl berth and winning season since 2014. (ECU was supposed to play Boston College in last year’s Military Bowl, ironically, held at the Midshipmen’s home venue – Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The game was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols within the Boston College program).
ECU was supposed to be better this season and nothing changed that opinion after the Pirates almost (and should have) upset North Carolina State in the opener for both teams. In the game, ECU missed a PAT kick. Later, a game-winning 41-yard field goal attempt with five seconds left went wide right.
ECU then beat Old Dominion and Campbell by a combined 88-31 score and appeared ready to keep it rolling against Navy.
So while this might not be like beating Cincinnati, it was still a really good win for Navy.
The Midshipmen opened with a 14-7 loss to Delaware, which is one of the top FCS teams in the country, but an FCS team nonetheless. Then came a 37-13 loss to Memphis, which could find itself contending in the AAC.
Navy’s big problem was getting the offense rolling, although the defense didn’t exactly distinguish itself against Memphis. The Midshipmen run the triple option and when they have trouble moving the ball on the ground, the alternative isn’t always very pleasing.
So what happened against ECU?
Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai completed 7 of 10 for 152 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions.
Here is the stat that raised more than a few eyebrows against ECU – Navy averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and was still able to win.
No matter what Navy does in the air, the Midshipmen won’t enjoy sustained success by averaging under three yards per carry.
Of course, maybe luck is finally arriving for Navy. Senior Daniel Davies, who never attempted a field goal in his career, went 3 for 3, including a 29-yarder in the second overtime.
ECU’s Owen Daffner then had his 37-yard field goal go wide left and Navy had survived. It was Haffner’s 54-yard field goal as time expired, that gave ECU a 38-35 win over the Midshipmen last year in Annapolis.
That defeat last year to ECU was one of four that Navy lost by eight or fewer points, so the Midshipmen were frequently competitive. Plus, the Midshipmen upset Army, 17-13 in the season finale, so there were some big moments last year, just not enough to avoid the losing season.
Back to this year, another highlight in the ECU win was the play of junior Vincent Terrell Jr., who entered the game with one career catch. He had three receptions for 114 yards and a 65-yard touchdown.
Terrell was another player who turned in a career-best performance.
Regardless of how the win was secured, Navy in the worst way needed a W, and one against what should still be considered a good team.
With what occurred the previous two seasons, people may forget how much success Navy has had under Ken Niumatalolo.
The Midshipmen played in the AAC title game in 2016 (losing to Temple, 37-10). As recently as 2019, the Midshipmen were 11-2, capping the season with four straight wins, including a 31-7 win over Army and a 20-17 triumph over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl.
Niumatalolo has produced 10 winning seasons in his first 14 years.
The big challenge for Navy is to now keep the momentum going. The schedule won’t make this very easy. Navy visits Air Force (3-1) on Saturday.
Plus here is how the Midshipmen end their season – at Cincinnati, vs. Notre Dame, at UCF, and against Army in Philadelphia.
There are plenty of other challenges in the schedule.
So getting to the .500 level will still be difficult, but for one game, Navy looked like the team that has set high standards under their veteran coach.