Coming into the 2019 season, changes were certainly expected for a team that went 3-10 last year and brought in seven new coaches. Getting FCS opponent Holy Cross to kick things off, we wondered not only how the team would perform with a new defensive system and new offensive wrinkles, but also how much of the changes would actually manifest themselves in a game Navy was expected to win with ease. Coach Niumatalolo is always quick to point out that Navy cannot afford to overlook any opponent, and given the way last year ended, it’s fair to say that mentality rings even more true in 2019.
However, we expected Navy would still be able to take out the Crusaders without too much difficulty and this led us to wonder just how much of the new elements like the run and shoot we would see.
It was a steady dose of your standard option football at the beginning of the game, resulting in a nine-play drive and Nelson Smith’s first rushing touchdown of the season. A good mix of tosses, quarterback keepers, pitches to the slots and fullback dives brought glimpses of the efficient Navy offenses we are accustomed to seeing.
On the defensive side of the ball, some big early plays from cornerback Cameron Kinley including a tackle for loss of four yards on the first drive and a six-yard sack on the second kept the Crusaders off the board for the first quarter.
One of the bigger question marks coming into this season was who would start at kicker and would have to fill the big shoes of Bennett Moehring, who ended his career as the record holder for most points by a kicker in Navy history. Turns out the first guy to run out there was freshman Bijan Nichols and there didn’t appear to be any nerves for the Plebe as he converted a 44-yard attempt on his first kick of his college career to put Navy up 10-0.
A muffed punt by Jacob Springer looked like it was going to give the Crusaders the ball near the Navy red zone, but a personal foul call actually helped Navy out and pushed Holy Cross back to the Navy 47 and the defense held yet again.
Malcolm Perry fumbled the first snap of the second quarter and Holy Cross took over on the Navy 33, but once again the defense held strong as pressure from Walter Little on quarterback Connor Degenhardt forced an errant throw and kicker Derek Ng missed a 24-yard attempt off the right upright.
Navy used another great mix of A-back and B-back play that was capped off by a 16-yard touchdown run by CJ Williams to give the Mids a 17-0 lead at the halfway point of the second quarter.
Holy Cross put together its best drive of the first half by far after that and ended up finding paydirt to get the score back to 17-7, but some big hits from Diego Fagot and Jacob Springer continued to highlight an intensity and physical style of play that has to make Navy fans excited about what Brian Newberry has brought to that side of the ball.
Mychal Cooper has been a name the coaching staff has mentioned since he first got to fall camp last year as a freshman. He showed flashes of his potential multiple times last year and with just under a minute to go until halftime, the sophomore wide receiver hauled in a 44-yard pass from Malcolm Perry and took it to the one-yard line. Perry would cash in two plays later to put Navy up 24-7 at the break.
The Navy defense picked themselves right back up at the start of the third quarter, with Nizaire Cromartie getting a sack, forced fumble, and fumble recovery, and Malcolm Perry and company wasted no time in getting Navy back on the scoreboard as Nelson Smith rumbled in from one yard out for his second touchdown of the day to put the Mids up 31-7.
Holy Cross moved the ball well on their next drive, getting across midfield and to the Navy 25 yard line, but they decided to go for it on fourth and 14 and the Navy defense stood strong yet again.
The ensuing Navy drive saw another heavy dose of the slotbacks, which is such a good sign for a group that was almost non-existent at times last year. Keoni-Kordell Makekau made a tremendous grab down the sideline on a ball Perry threw off his back foot, and sophomore fullback Isaac Ruoss got his first career touchdown on his first career carry to put the Mids up 38-7.
It can’t be emphasized enough just how important it was to see the slotbacks making plays all day for the Navy offense. A balanced triple option attack is so much more lethal and has been a focus going into this season. After just three quarters of play, the A-backs had already racked up 202 yards on the ground themselves on the day. Add in three rushing touchdowns for the fullbacks and another for Perry and the balance was evident from beginning to end of this one.
Another important factor coming into this season was whether or not Malcolm Perry would be able to improve in the passing game. Perry, who was subbed out at the very end of the third quarter, ended his day six for eight with 103 yards through the air. He definitely overshot some throws and had some help on some nice grabs from his receivers, but overall it was definitely a positive sign for the offense in the early going.
Who would be QB2 has been another question mark heading into the year. Offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper has said previously that there was really no separation between the next three guys, and coming into the year we expected it to be Dalen Morris’s job to lose. However, it was Tyger Goslin who got the first shot at backing up Perry and he took over during the next drive which saw Nelson Smith absolutely explode through the hole for a 49-yard TD, his third on the day. But then Coach Jasper decided to mix things up while he was calling plays from the sideline for the first time in his career as offensive coordinator. He started rotating all three backup quarterbacks, sending a new guy in with the next play every single down, and getting reps for Goslin, freshman Perry Olsen, and junior Dalen Morris.
That rotation would continue as Navy ran the clock down and cemented the victory.
All in all, it was a solid first showing for a Midshipmen team that came into the season looking to get the bad taste of last year out of their mouth. The defense played with intensity and got more tackles for a loss (7) than they had in the last few seasons. The offense looked balanced, with the slotbacks and fullbacks making a ton of plays. We saw glimpses of solid wide receiver play. And at the end of the day, even if it was against an FCS opponent in Holy Cross, any time you put up 428 yards rushing it’s a good day. Add in a 103 yard passing day for Malcolm Perry and 531 yards of total offense with a bye week coming before ECU and it’s a solid start to what Navy fans hope will be a terrific turnaround 2019 season!