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Navy’s defense was the real hero of the Liberty Bowl and the Mids’ overall success in 2019

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The Navy Midshipmen defense quietly dominated the Kansas State Wildcats in the 2019 AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Despite a new coordinator and young players, this unit thrived the entire 2019 season.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

On New Year’s Eve, the Navy Midshipmen took down the Kansas State Wildcats, 20-17, in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl.

This victory came as a surprise to many, given that Navy was considered an inferior, Group of 5 opponent, and made up of smaller, less athletic service academy athletes. For those who watched the game live, saw highlights afterwards, or even just followed along on their Twitter feed, Malcolm Perry was the star of the show. During the game, the senior quarterback set the NCAA single-season rushing record for a quarterback, and finished the year with 2,017 yards. This record — which was previously owned by Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch with 1,920 yards in 2013 — will likely be held for many years to come.

Although Perry’s performance was instrumental in Navy’s success over Kansas State — and really the entire 2019 season — the Midshipmen offense actually under-performed in this match.

Navy’s offense averaged just under 40 points per-game before their bowl game against the Wildcats. Their only two games in which they didn’t score over 30 points were against Memphis and Notre Dame, where they scored 23 and 20 points, respectively. So, how exactly was Navy able to tie their season low of 20 points and still beat this Big 12 offense?

Kansas State beat Oklahoma — a College Football Playoff team — by winning an offensive shootout, 48-41. The Wildcats had 426 yards of total offense in that game.

Perry had a great game, but the real credit for Navy’s victory belongs to coach Brian Newberry and the incredible play of the Mids’ defense.

The Navy defense only gave up 10 points to Skylar Thompson and the Wildcat offense, for seven of Kansas State’s points were scored on a punt return early in the second quarter. Led by sophomore linebacker, Diego Fagot, the Midshipmen allowed just 170 total yards and 10 first downs. Furthermore, despite the Wildcats’ continuous efforts to run the ball, they only managed to average 1.7 yards per carry for a total of 46 yards on the ground.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive turnaround

Head coach Ken Niumatalolo led his team to a decade of excellence with only one big blemish: 2018. Last year, the Midshipmen went 3-10, with losses to Air Force and Army, and were defeated by last-second efforts in their games against SMU and Tulane. Between the end of the 2018 season and the start of 2019 fall camp, Niumatalolo made one monumental change; the defensive coaching staff. Niumatalolo parted ways with people who he considered family for the good of the football program.

Brian Newberry was hired to be Navy’s defensive coordinator and Brian Norwood was brought on to supplement the younger coach. Norwood, a veteran defensive mind, had been a coordinator at a handful of Power 5 schools, including Baylor (under Art Briles) and Kansas State (under Bill Snyder). He also spent time five years with Navy as well. Norwood was the perfect man to assist Newberry, who was in his first season coordinating an FBS program and his first stint working at a service academy. Newberry came from Kennesaw State, where he helped take the school from not having a football team to playing in back-to-back FCS quarterfinals in just four years.

With Newberry came a number of young coaches added to the staff. The only two coaches on the Navy defensive staff that remained from last year were Steve Johns and R. B. Green. Coach Johns is a great defensive mind that has been with Niumatalolo for the vast majority of both of their coaching careers. R. B. Green played defensive back for the Midshipmen in the 1990s, and after his final years as a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Marine Corps, he was hired as a defensive assistant. While Green’s exact role on the staff has evolved over the years, one of his biggest attributes is his ability to inspire and relate to the players. Many of the Midshipmen respond well and look up to Green, especially because of their shared backgrounds playing at and attending the Naval Academy.

This newly formed staff developed a much more aggressive mentality than that of Navy’s defenses in previously years. The defense had much more pre-snap movement, corner blitzes, and overall quarterback pressure. Of course, this came with the risk of big plays, which opposing offenses occasionally took advantage of.

Furthermore, Newberry installed the goal to “Get 6” in each game. The thought is that if the Midshipmen could get a total of some combination of six 3-and-outs, fourth-down stops, or turnovers, then the offense would be in an ideal situation to score enough points to win the game. Naturally, Navy didn’t “Get 6” in every game. However, this effort did lead them to some impressive team defense statistics.

The Midshipmen were 10th in the country in rushing defense, allowing an average of only 105 yards per game. Additionally, Navy was 16th in the country in total defense. While these numbers are exciting, next year’s squad has a great chance to be even better.

NCAA Football: Army at Navy James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Early look at the 2020 season

Seven of Navy’s eight leaders in tackles this season are coming back next year. Four of those seven players are merely sophomores. And, Navy’s entire starting secondary will be returning. The top two forces on this year’s unit were Diego Fagot and Jacob Springer.

Fagot, a sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, led the Midshipmen in tackles, solo tackles, and defensive touchdowns. He was named the AutoZone Liberty Bowl Defensive Player of the Game due to his leadership at the inside linebacker position and his team leading seven tackles and two sacks. Fagot is the unquestioned leader of this defense and Navy is fortunate to have him for two more seasons.

Jacob Springer plays one of the more unique positions on Newberry’s defense. Springer is officially listed as a “Striker” which is essentially an outside linebacker role. However, what many don’t know is that he was transitioned to this position from playing defensive back. Because of his roots as a coverage man, Springer can cover great amounts of grass, causing huge issues for opposing quarterbacks attempting to read the defense. Additionally, his quickness helps him get past slower offensive lineman, which is exactly why Springer led the team in sacks (8) and tackles-for-loss (16).

Malcolm Perry will graduate in May and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper will look to someone else to lead the offense in 2020. On the other side of the ball, Newberry and his young squad of tough, disciplined players on defense will look to improve upon their stellar first year together.

NCAA Football: Liberty Bowl-Navy vs Kansas State Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports