Sep 10, 2022; Greenville, North Carolina, USA;  East Carolina Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers (12) throws the ball against the Old Dominion Monarchs before the game at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Against struggling Navy, East Carolina aims to open AAC slate with a win

Quarterback Holton Ahlers and East Carolina will aim to start their conference schedule on a positive note when Navy visits Greenville, N.C., on Saturday afternoon.

East Carolina (2-1) has been humming after a heartbreaking one-point home loss to then-ranked No. 13 NC State in Week 1. The Pirates beat Old Dominion 39-21 before last week’s 49-10 romp over Campbell, an in-state opponent from the FCS.

Ahlers threw for three touchdowns last week and is already up to 800 yards and seven TDs on the season while completing 67 percent of his passes. Earlier this season, Ahlers became the American Athletic Conference’s all-time career leader in completions with 879.

The fifth-year quarterback has been a part of several East Carolina-Navy games before. The Midshipmen lead the all-time series 7-2, but ECU broke a five-game skid last year with a 38-35 win in Annapolis, Md. Ahlers racked up 405 yards and three touchdowns on 27-of-32 passing, outscoring a Navy attack that gained 345 rushing yards.

“He looks like an NFL quarterback,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “You don’t realize how big he is (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) until you see him on the field. He’s bigger than our outside linebackers. He’s a big dude, smart, composed. … I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a shot on Sundays. He’s got all the tools.”

Navy (0-2, 0-1 AAC) is coming off a bye week after a 14-7 loss to FCS Delaware and a 37-13 setback to Memphis, both at home. Only one team, New Mexico State, has had a worse scoring offense in all of FBS than the Mids’ 10 points per game this season.

But like every coach in the conference, ECU’s Mike Houston has spent extra time scheming against Navy’s triple-option offense — increasingly a rarity in FBS football.

Houston said longtime assistant Roy Tesh, currently the Pirates’ defensive tackles coach, has experience coaching against the triple when they ran it at previous stops together, including The Citadel of FCS.

“I think that’s what we hang our hat on, is being a physical football team,” Houston said. “But that’s what Navy hangs their hat on too. … Ken very much believes in a lot of the same things I believe in as far as how you win consistently.”

–Field Level Media

Delaware's Drew Nickles (51) and Artis Hemmingway (right) pressure Navy quarterback Tai Lavatai in the third quarter of the Blue Hens' 14-7 win at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

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Demoralized in opener, Navy meets Memphis in AAC kickoff

Navy’s season got off to the most discouraging start possible: a lost fumble on the first play from scrimmage and a home defeat at the hands of Delaware, an FCS team.

The Midshipmen try to turn things around in a hurry when they host Memphis in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams on Saturday in Annapolis, Md.

Navy (0-1, 0-0 AAC) outperformed Delaware in several categories. The Blue Hens were held to 202 yards total offense and outgained by Navy 184-13 in rushing yards. But the Midshipmen couldn’t translate those advantages into points, lost three fumbles and went 0-for-3 on fourth downs in the 14-7 defeat.

Quarterback Tai Lavatai accounted for two of the lost fumbles, putting the ball on the ground three times in all. Lavatai went 5-for-13 for 135 yards and gained only 34 yards on 18 carries, running in Navy’s only touchdown.

“We’ve got to make sure we don’t have those mesh fumbles anymore,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said, mentioning Lavatai by name. “It’s hard enough to take care of the rock but when you have those self-inflicted type of turnovers, I mean, those were all mesh fumbles.”

Memphis (0-1, 0-0 AAC) opened its season at Mississippi State and fell behind 28-3 at halftime on its way to a 49-23 loss. Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers torched the Tigers for 450 passing yards and five touchdowns.

The Tigers’ defense now must do a 180 from coping with Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense to defending a service academy triple option.

“I told our guys, ‘Hey, that’s in the rearview. Flush it, let’s go.’ … because it is a completely different scheme,” Silverfield said. “To really narrow in and hone in on a different offensive attack, it will be good for our defense. A different challenge, for sure.”

Seth Henigan guided the Memphis offense with 19-of-30 passing for 165 yards and a touchdown against Mississippi State.

Memphis holds a 4-3 edge in the all-time series against Navy, including victories in each of the past three seasons. In last year’s 35-17 win, Henigan threw for 215 yards on just 8-of-12 passing thanks in part to a 74-yard touchdown play.

–Field Level Media

Dec 11, 2021; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; Navy Midshipmen fullback Isaac Ruoss (32) carries the ball against the Army Black Knights during the second half of the 122nd Army-Navy game. Mandatory Credit: Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Army-Navy game to be played in five different cities

The prestigious Army-Navy game will be played in five different East Coast locations from 2023-27, the two military academies announced Wednesday.

The 2023 game will be played in Foxborough, Mass., and the 2024 contest will be held in Landover, Md. Baltimore will be the site in 2025, followed by East Rutherford, N.J., in 2026 and Philadelphia in 2027.

“Our destinations over the next five years provide the Academies with an opportunity to share the economic impact, history and tradition of Army-Navy with a number of communities in diverse geographic areas,” Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk said in a news release. “We are certain that each location will present a uniquely accommodating experience for our fans and will make for an incredibly memorable event for our midshipmen and cadets. Our gratitude goes out to all the cities that showed interest and congratulations to the recipients of the games.”

Army athletic director Mike Buddie issued similar comments about the five games, which will be televised by CBS.

“The Army-Navy game is a great showcase for both service academies,” Buddie said in a news release. “We are looking forward to the pageantry and tradition to be on display for the fans in these cities while providing an opportunity to support the Cadets and Midshipmen. We had great interest from many regions and thank the cities who participated in the bid selection process. We cannot wait to have this game played at some incredible venues in great cities.”

The Army-Navy game has never previously been held in the Boston area and it will mark just the second contest in the Washington D.C. area. The first was in 2011 when Navy prevailed 27-21.

Baltimore will be host of the game for the seventh time and the Meadowlands in New Jersey will be the site for the sixth time.

Philadelphia is hosting this season’s game. It will be its 90th time as host and the game will be played on Dec. 10. No. 91 will come at the end of the rotation in 2027.

Navy leads the series 62-53-7. Navy won last season’s game 17-13 at East Rutherford, N.J.

–Field Level Media

ECU Pirates quarterback Holton Ahlers throws the ball against the Memphis Tigers during their game at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021.

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Holton Ahlers, East Carolina ready to exact revenge vs. Navy

Being sidelined while in COVID-19 protocol for last season’s game against Navy was a tough break for East Carolina quarterback Holton Ahlers. Making it harder to stomach was watching his replacement struggle in a 27-23 home loss.

A year later, Ahlers and East Carolina (6-4, 4-2 American Athletic Conference) are ship shape for Navy (2-7, 2-4), Saturday in Annapolis, Md. With last week’s uplifting 30-29 overtime victory at Memphis, the Pirates have won three straight and are bowl eligible for the first time in seven years.

In his third year as head coach, Mike Houston has guided a successful transformation of ECU.

“When I took this job three years ago, I kind of wrote down some goals,” Houston said. “One of the top goals was to get us bowl eligible and I kind of put a date on it. We made it. It was this year.”

Two years ago, when Houston entrusted the quarterback job to Ahlers, there were some low points, especially early in the 4-8 season. The worst came in Annapolis, where Navy throttled ECU 42-10 loss as Ahlers threw for a season-low 138 yards.

Two years later however, Ahlers has progressed. And with a balanced attack that includes AAC rushing leader Keaton Mitchell, who has rolled for 983 yards and a 7.1 average per carry, the Pirates are on the upswing. They can clinch their first winning season since 2014 with a victory over Navy.

A winning season is not in the cards for Navy. After making a bowl game in 11 of his first 13 years in Annapolis, Ken Niumatalolo has gone 5-14 the last two seasons as his magic touch with quarterbacks has faded.

In its run-heavy triple-option offense, highly dependent on the ball-handling, decision-making and speed of its quarterbacks, Navy has struggled with sophomores Tai Lavatai and Xavier Arline. The Mids rank last in the AAC in scoring (16.8 points) and offense (270.7 yards).

A week off following a 34-6 loss at Notre Dame could serve Navy well as it strives for its sixth straight win in the series. To accomplish that, the offense will have to stay mistake-free.

“Our offense is not built to play from behind the sticks,” Arline said. “We’ve got to clean that stuff up. If we can, we’ll be a lot better.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 23, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Jack Coan (17) looks to hand off to running back Kyren Williams (23) in the third quarter against the USC Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame-Navy game moved to Dublin for 2023

The annual rivalry game between Notre Dame and Navy will return to Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 26, 2023, the programs announced Friday.

The Fighting Irish and Midshipmen were scheduled to play in Dublin in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to scrap the trip and, ultimately, the game. It was the first year the two teams didn’t meet on the gridiron since the rivalry began in 1927.

It will mark the third time Notre Dame and Navy play in Ireland. Aviva Stadium, a rugby and soccer stadium in Dublin, will host the game. It previously hosted in 2012, and prior to that they faced off at Croke Park in 1996.

Notre Dame gave up a scheduled home game in order to reschedule the Dublin showdown. Typically, the Fighting Irish host Navy in South Bend, Ind., in odd-numbered years while the teams play at neutral sites around the country in even-numbered years.

Navy and Notre Dame also announced the extension of their series contract through 2032.

“We’re thrilled to be able to provide another opportunity for our team and fans to experience the culture and hospitality of Ireland,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a statement. “This trip overseas continues to strengthen our academic and athletic presence around the globe. Bringing a Notre Dame football home game atmosphere to Ireland has been a goal of ours and we couldn’t be more excited to partner with the Naval Academy to make it happen.”

“The Navy fan-based support and enthusiasm for this game in Ireland is already overwhelming and with the ongoing support of the Prime Minister and the Irish government, it will again be an extraordinary experience,” Navy AD Chet Gladchuk said in a statement. “We look forward to our visit and a competitive contest against Notre Dame in a country that knows no bounds for hospitality.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 23, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Kyren Williams (23) runs the ball as USC Trojans safety Xavion Alford (29) defends in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Running games in spotlight as No. 8 Notre Dame faces Navy

No. 8 Notre Dame will resume its long-standing football rivalry with Navy on Saturday in South Bend, Ind., after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the 2020 edition.

Brian Kelly, the winningest coach in Fighting Irish history, is 8-2 against Navy and is plenty familiar with the Midshipmen’s grind-it-out, triple-option offense.

“You want to make sure that you’re putting yourself in good position, but you don’t want five- or six-minute drives either, because that shortens the game and that kind of plays into their hands as well,” Kelly said. “So that efficiency is on both sides: We have to coach efficiently, and we have to play efficiently.”

While Kelly spoke about Notre Dame (7-1) needing to take its time on offense, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said he wants to see more explosive plays and quicker scores.

In the past, the Navy offense pushed the tempo with dynamic quarterbacks such as Keenan Reynolds and Malcolm Perry running the show. But this season, Navy (2-6) ranks fifth in the FBS in time of possession (35:30 per game) and second-to-last in yards per play (4.06).

“People have been OK to give us 3 or 4 yards and just play that way and let us bleed it out and see if we can execute it that long,” Niumatalolo said. “But we have to get more explosive plays.”

The Midshipmen got one in the form of a 64-yard Carlinos Acie run that set up a field goal in last Friday’s 20-17 comeback win over Tulsa. It marked the first game this season that Navy did not complete a pass, but the running game gained 302 yards on 60 carries.

Navy’s defense also is gaining confidence after yielding its lowest scoring output of the year to Tulsa, one week after holding No. 2 Cincinnati to 27 points.

“Facing Notre Dame, I feel like if we limit those mistakes and stop beating ourselves and make it us versus them, not us versus us, we’ll have a great game against them,” senior cornerback Michael McMorris said.

Kelly praised Navy defensive captain Diego Fagot, who leads his team with 71 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss.

“He’s probably top five (in) linebackers that we’ve played against, and that’s the honest truth,” Kelly said. “He could play for anybody in Power Five.”

But Fagot and company will have a big challenge Saturday coping with a suddenly awakened Notre Dame running game.

In Saturday’s 44-34 win over North Carolina, Notre Dame had 293 yards on the ground, with rushing touchdowns from three different players, buoyed by Kyren Williams’ 91-yard touchdown dash in the fourth quarter.

Williams finished with 199 yards on 22 attempts. Kelly praised the entire unit, from the receivers’ perimeter blocking to Williams himself.

“Kyren’s playing really well,” Kelly said. “Maybe he was trying to do a little bit too much earlier in the year, but he’s really settled in nicely, seeing things really well and then making things happen. The big 90-plus-yard run was indicative of a guy just refusing to go down.”

Notre Dame is a 20.5-point favorite to win as of Tuesday. That doesn’t mean the Irish are sleepwalking into the rivalry game. Kelly warned that while it might look the same on TV, it’s never the same old Navy offense from the game before.

“There’s gonna be a double pass and there’s gonna be something that we haven’t seen before, a formation,” he said. “And we keep the book on them. … We try to research all this stuff, and then there’s always something different.”

–Field Level Media

Oct 23, 2021; Annapolis, Maryland, USA;  Navy Midshipmen head coach Ken Niumatalolo reacts during the first half Cincinnati Bearcats at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Desperate Navy looks to end skid at Tulsa

After a third straight loss, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo this week described mixed emotions in his team’s locker room Monday following yet another missed opportunity against an imposing foe.

The Midshipmen will be eager to use those emptions to turn their season around when they travel to Oklahoma to face Tulsa on Friday night.

Navy (1-6, 1-4 American Athletic Conference) led No. 2 Cincinnati for much of the first half last Saturday before the Bearcats pulled ahead 27-13 midway through the fourth quarter. Navy strung together a long touchdown drive and recovered an onside kick in the final minute before Tai Lavatai threw an interception with 25 seconds to play.

Navy previously challenged another unbeaten conference foe, current No. 19 SMU, before losing by seven on Oct. 9. Niumatalolo insisted a 28-20 loss on Sept. 25 to Houston, which is now 6-1, belongs in the category of missed opportunities, as well.

“We just had our team meeting. Guys are disappointed but also encouraged,” Niumatalolo said. “Basically three top 25 teams have been one-score losses. But you still lose the game, you know what I mean?”

The 15th-year head coach is using the losses as learning moments for his players to rectify mistakes and botched plays that have contributed to Navy’s dismal record. The Midshipmen must win out to become bowl-eligible and avoid their third losing season since 2018.

“I told them at the beginning of the year, this was the hardest schedule since I’ve been here. … But I also told them I really believe we had a chance to beat everybody — but everybody had a chance to beat us,” he said.

Tulsa (3-4, 2-1) is coming off its bye week after winning two straight, most recently a 32-31 squeaker over South Florida on Oct. 16. Senior running back Shamari Brooks ran in the winning touchdown for the Golden Hurricane in the final minute.

Tulsa is 3-1 in its last four games, with Brooks notching at least 22 carries, 126 yards and a touchdown in each win. Those efforts quickly turned the Tulsa native into the AAC’s fourth-leading rusher on the year (561 yards).

“I do think our running game has really picked up pace in the last several weeks,” coach Philip Montgomery said. “I think there’s more continuity right now. Offensive line-wise, we’ve got to try to stay healthy there. … Shamari has carried a lot of the load.”

Tulsa will honor alumnus and Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Drew Pearson at halftime of Friday’s game.

The Golden Hurricane defeated Navy 19-6 in last year’s meeting, snapping Navy’s five-game winning streak in the series.

–Field Level Media

SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai (8) lets go of a pass during Saturday's game against ACU at Gerald J. Ford Stadium in Dallas on Sept. 4, 2021. Mordecai threw an SMU-record seven touchdowns as the Mustangs won 56-9.

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No. 24 SMU visits Navy, hopes to remain unbeaten

Among 17 unbeaten teams in FBS this season lurks No. 24 SMU, which quietly made its season debut in the Associated Press poll this week.

After going 33 years without cracking the Top 25, the Mustangs (5-0, 1-0 AAC) have earned a ranking in three consecutive seasons under coach Sonny Dykes.

SMU’s next test comes Saturday in Annapolis, Md., against Navy (1-3, 1-1), which is coming off an upset victory for its first win of the year.

“It’s just hard to win. There’s a lot of parity,” Dykes said after the Mustangs’ 41-17 win over South Florida, per the Dallas Morning News. “Everybody plays hard and everybody is well-coached. It’s just a smaller margin for error now than there ever has been in college football.”

SMU has scored at least 35 points in each of its five victories, thanks largely to quarterback Tanner Mordecai. The junior has thrown for 24 touchdowns, tops in the country, and leads the conference with 1,569 passing yards.

Mordecai is in his first season at SMU after transferring from Oklahoma, where he had backed up the likes of Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts and Spencer Rattler.

“He’s done an unbelievable job,” Dykes said of Mordecai. “I think that’s the thing I’ve been most impressed with is just how well he’s handled being the guy. I think he enjoys it. He’s really good at it.”

SMU is 22-6 since the start of the 2019 season. Given how the conference standings are shaking out, the Mustangs could end up being the final ranked opponent that No. 5 Cincinnati must overcome in its quest to be the first Group of Five team to make the College Football Playoff. The two teams will meet Nov. 20.

Navy was a home underdog by up to 16 1/2 points going into last week’s game against UCF, but the Midshipmen scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to pull off a 34-30 upset.

Eight players combined to gain 348 rushing yards for Navy, with new starting quarterback Tai Lavatai running for 57 yards and two touchdowns.

Navy went with Lavatai over former starter Xavier Arline against UCF. Lavatai had returned to full health after missing the start of the season with a lower-body injury.

“The way he ran is kind of how we expected,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said of Lavatai. “We’ve seen that, the third-and-shorts, the fourth-and-shorts where he’s able to get the first down. Those are huge for us just to keep the sticks moving. … It fits into kind of our power running option game, to keep the sticks moving.”

Famous for its triple-option offense, the Midshipmen had 76 total rushing attempts against Central Florida and just four pass attempts.

Navy leads the all-time series 13-9, but SMU has won two of the past three meetings. The Mustangs dropped 51 points on Navy in last year’s victory in Dallas.

–Field Level Media

Sep 25, 2021; Houston, Texas, USA; Navy Midshipmen quarterback Xavier Arline (7) runs with the ball during the second quarter against the Houston Cougars at TDECU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

UCF plots to keep Navy’s offense in check

Central Florida has faced Navy and its triple-option offense before, but first-year Knights coach Gus Malzahn did not see that style too often during his Southeastern Conference days as the coach of Auburn.

Luckily for UCF (2-1, 0-0 American Athletic Conference), the team had an open date last week, providing extra time to prepare for the Midshipmen’s run-heavy attack ahead of the Knights’ league opener Saturday at Annapolis, Md.

Malzahn said Navy’s offense “presents challenges,” even though the Midshipmen average the fewest points per game in FBS (10.0).

“It’s an offense you don’t see the entire year,” Malzahn said. “I know Travis (Williams, UCF’s defensive coordinator) has worked hard during fall camp, even some on Sunday nights preparing for this. Hopefully having that week will help us with that defensively.”

The Knights will kick off their conference schedule against Navy after a reasonably successful September. They stormed back for a Week 1 win over Boise State and trounced FCS opponent Bethune-Cookman before hanging close with Louisville on Sept. 17. Saturday will be the Knights’ first chance to wipe an awful taste from their mouths after Dillon Gabriel gave up a last-minute pick six in a 42-35 road loss to the Cardinals.

Gabriel is out indefinitely after breaking his clavicle, but he won’t need surgery. True freshman Mikey Keene will make his first collegiate start against Navy (0-3, 0-1 AAC).

Keene will get to face a team still searching for its first win. Navy saw its first conference action last week and took a 17-7 halftime lead over Houston but allowed three touchdowns in a 6:08 span and lost 28-20.

Starting quarterback Xavier Arline is Navy’s leading rusher (171 yards, two touchdowns) as well as its leading passer (5 of 14, 109 yards) on the season. Arline was happy with the progress his unit showed last Saturday but hopes to do better in finding his passing lanes.

“I think taking pre-snap reads will help, being that I’m more of a shorter guy,” said Arline, who is 5-foot-9. “Taking pre-snap reads and anticipating where guys are going to be on the field before it happens will give me a better opportunity to get the ball out of my hands. …

“If we can just put all the pieces together, I think we’re going to be a really good football team.”

UCF is 2-0 all-time against Navy. The programs haven’t met since 2018.

–Field Level Media

Nov 28, 2020; Annapolis, Maryland, USA; A general view of the Navy Midshipmen logo on a water tower near the stadium is seen before the game between the Navy Midshipmen and the Memphis Tigers at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Navy offers reprieve to one coach, another out over lack of vax

The United States Naval Academy football program has endured a wild couple of days of coaching drama following a 23-3 loss to Air Force on Saturday.

Navy fired longtime offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, reinstated him in a reduced role, and had another assistant coach — Billy Ray Stutzmann — allege that he was let go for refusing to take the COVID-19 vaccine.

Over the weekend it was revealed that Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk had fired Jasper after the poor performance against the Falcons on Saturday. Jasper, who had been the team’s offensive coordinator since 2008, was also the team’s quarterback coach, a position he had held since 2002.

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo met with Gladchuk and reversed that decision on Monday, saying Jasper would be retained in a reduced role as quarterbacks coach only, the role he held from 2002-07. Niumatalolo plans to call the plays himself.

“Losing him was not the right answer,” Niumatalolo said in his Monday news conference. “We’re better with him. He’s the best option coach around.”

Gladchuk mirrored that sentiment, calling Jasper an “outstanding quarterbacks coach.”

Navy has struggled on offense this season, continuing a trend from 2020 in which the team averaged just 275 yards a game, among the worst in the FBS. This year, the team has averaged just 233, also near the bottom of the national rankings.

The loss to Air Force represented a low point for Navy’s offense, as the Midshipmen amassed just 68 total yards, their lowest total since 1966.

Those struggles have followed a stellar season in 2019, when Navy ranked 12th in the country in points per game and went 11-2 behind quarterback Malcolm Perry.

“This is a frickin’ ruthless profession,” Niumatalolo said.

That was on display on social media again Monday as another Navy assistant, Stutzmann, revealed he was let go for not adhering to the Academy’s COVID-19 protocols, which now mandate vaccination.

“After applying for a religious exemption and attempting to further negotiate alternative working arrangements, I was ultimately relieved of my duties here at Navy,” he said in his statement.

Stutzmann was in his third season as an offensive assistant. Niumatalolo said Stutzmann left the staff for “personal reasons.”

–Field Level Media