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Preview, How to Watch: Navy opens season at home vs. Marshall

Against the Thundering Herd, the Mids are hoping to start the season off on the right foot, putting the issues of 2020 completely behind them.

NCAA Football: Temple at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

New year, new Navy.

At least, that’s what fans are hoping for.

Because the majority of last season was an excruciating grind for the Midshipmen. 2020 was one of the worst seasons ever for Navy under the watch of longtime head coach Ken Niumatalolo. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — which, thanks to the Delta variant, still ain’t over — the Mids limped to an absolutely disappointing 3-7 record. That campaign started with a humiliating blowout home loss to BYU, featured a 33-point lopsided defeat at Air Force, and was capped off with a frustrating shutout by Army. Navy’s lone wins came against Tulane, Temple and East Carolina.

Here’s the good news: Toward the end of last season, Navy looked really impressive on defense. Brian Newberry’s refocused unit allowed just an average of 14.6 points per-game over Navy’s final three contests. Problem was, the offense continued to play disjointed football.

But eight of 11 starters return on defense for Navy. And the offense, while it will feature several new faces, has had a full offseason together to build chemistry and get things clicking.

When Navy opened last season against BYU, it was apparent how valuable that time could be. In 2020, that preparation was taken away from the Mids because of the pandemic. The offense looked lost and soft, and the defense, at times, looked like it didn’t know how to tackle. The defense — as previously stated — rounded into form, but the offense never did, at least not on a consistent basis. Far too often, and especially against BYU and Air Force, the Navy offense looked like a Pop Warner unit with an ongoing carousel at quarterback.

While the defense will be led once again by Diego Fagot, Kevin Brennan and co., control of the reins of the offense are still a bit undecided. Under-center for Navy will be one of two sophomores: Xavier Arline or Tai Lavatai. Surrounding them are veterans, like Chance Warren, Mychal Cooper, Carlinos Acie and Pierce Banbury. Arline started in three games last season, rushing for 210 yards. Lavatai has yet to play a snap of college football, but must’ve really shown the coaches something in camp to be in consideration for the starting job.

Against Marshall — a formidable opponent from Conference USA — we should learn a lot quickly about this Navy team. We’ll learn if the defense has carried its momentum over. We’ll learn if the offense is competent. We’ll learn who the starting quarterback is. And we should get some sort of indication that this Navy team will be better than the one that took the field in 2020.

The Basics

  • When: Kickoff is at 3:30 p.m. EST on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021.
  • Where: Annapolis, Maryland — Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
  • Watch: Chick Hernandez, Randy Cross and Sheehan Stanwick-Burch will have the call on CBS Sports Network.
  • Spread: Most sportsbooks have Navy as a home underdog, favoring Marshall anywhere from 2.5 to 3.5 points.

Fun Facts

  • This is the first meeting in football between Navy and Marshall. The Thundering Herd are 1-1 all-time vs. Army. They have also never played Air Force.
  • The deep connection between Navy and Marshall is Jack Lengyel, who will be honored during the coin toss. For Marshall, Lengyel was the man who took over the program after the awful plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, that killed 75 people following Marshall’s football game at East Carolina. (Yes, he’s the guy Matthew McConaughey portrayed in “We Are Marshall.”) Lengyel was also Navy’s first civilian athletic director, serving from 1988-2001.
  • Niumatalolo is entering his 14th season as the skipper at Navy. He is the longest tenured head coach in the American Athletic Conference, and among the three FBS Service Academies.
  • First-year Marshall head coach Charles Huff grew up not far from the Naval Academy, just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. He is a graduate of North Caroline High School, situated in Ridgeley. There are currently three North Caroline graduates playing in college football right now: Ja’Mion Franklin (Duke), David Bailey (Colorado State) and Kendron Wayman (Wake Forest). Huff played his college ball at Hampton before beginning his coaching career at Tennessee State. Huff has often recruited the DMV area, and told reporters this week that he’s never played or coached at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but he has watched recruits play there in the state championships for Maryland high school football.

Players to Watch

Navy

Isaac Ruoss, Senior, Fullback

Any potent triple-option attack needs an adequate fullback at the nucleus of it. For Navy, the starter this season is Isaac Ruoss, who is and isn’t a familiar face. Ruoss wasn’t supposed to have been the starter; that job should’ve gone to Jamale Carothers, but he was dismissed from the academy and has since transferred to Western Kentucky.

While Ruoss is a senior, he was not on the Mids’ depth chart at fullback last season. He played in 10 games, but only sparingly on special teams where he recorded a pair of tackles. In 2019 though, as a sophomore, the 6-foot-1 native of Mohnton, Pennsylvania rushed 29 times for 109 yards and one touchdown. One of those runs was broke off for a 26-yard clip. Ruoss showed potential as a sophomore, but as a senior, he’ll need to show much more as he carries the load in a key role in the Mids’ offense.

Marshall

Grant Wells, Year, Redshirt Freshman

To be clear, this is Wells’ third year of college football. He redshirted in his true freshman year in 2019 and played last season, but the NCAA said that last season didn’t count toward everyone’s eligibility clock because of COVID. So, Wells is still a redshirt freshman, but really, he’s a junior. Look – I don’t make the rules.

Anyways, Wells is a very talented quarterback. He was named CUSA Freshman of the Year and was the only freshman quarterback to ever make the all-conference first team after leading CUSA in passing yards and passing touchdowns. In all, the 6-foot-2 local kid from Charleston, West Virginia completed 165-of-270 passes for 18 touchdowns and 2,091 yards, while also rushing for 174 yards and two more scores. Wells will be aiming to take the top off the Navy defense.

They Said It

  • Marshall head coach Charles Huff on the Navy offense: “They believe at some point their plays are going to work and they stay committed and true to that, and that’s what we try to get our guys to understand. You may stop the play the very first time for a negative run or minus-2 yards, but that’s not going to get them off that play. It’s not going to get them off that system.”
  • Ken Niumatalolo on the atmosphere at a full capacity Navy home game: “We’re a tough team to beat at home. With the Mids here, a capacity stadium, it’s a great home-field advantage for us. I’ve had several coaches that we’ve played against in our league that have come from Power Five schools, I don’t think they recognized what our stadium would be like at capacity. We’re expecting a full stadium.”

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