WASHINGTON - In the aftermath of Navy's 29-19 loss to Wake Forest yesterday in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium, emotions were raw for the Midshipmen.
Only some of those feelings had to do with the game itself.
There were the tears shed by first-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo, but there was also frustration spewed from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada after his injury-marred season ended an otherwise spectacular career.
Niumatalolo's eyes were still red and his cheeks moist after leaving the locker room.
Asked what it meant for his seniors to finish their college careers, Niumatalolo had trouble staying composed.
"It's hard to explain," he said, sniffling. "Unless you worked with these guys, it's more than a football game. These tears I have, I couldn't care less if we won by 70."
What Niumatalolo will remember from the game wasn't the way Navy (8-5) watched a 13-0 lead in the second quarter disappear early in the second half or the way the Midshipmen couldn't hold on to a 19-14 lead in the final eight minutes.
What Niumatalolo will remember was a team trip to the U.S. Capitol last week, part of the festivities leading up to the first football game at this stadium since Towson University played Frostburg State in 2001.
"To go through the Capitol and see all the history of that place, and to see all the decisions that went into our forefathers in creating this country, and knowing that our young men are continuing that legacy in trying to protect our freedoms and our rights, it was a special bond," he said. "We've been to six straight bowl games, but that was a moment I don't think our kids will ever forget."
If anything, Niumatalolo's players were more focused on what turned out to be Navy's third straight narrow bowl defeat, knowing that the Midshipmen had a good chance to put away Wake Forest (8-5) by halftime but couldn't do it.
Unlike their first meeting in Winston-Salem, N.C., in late September, won by the Midshipmen, 24-17, Navy couldn't hold on to its early lead and the momentum built by cornerback Rashawn King's 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown and two field goals by Matt Harmon.
Leading 13-0 and driving, Kaheaku-Enhada was intercepted near the goal line by All-America cornerback Alphonso Smith. The Demon Deacons then drove 98 yards to close the deficit to 13-7 by halftime and went ahead 14-13 in the third quarter.
"It was a bunch of plays that we didn't make and they did," Kaheaku-Enhada said angrily. "You can tell the mistakes that we made offensively. If we can set back in the middle of the play and point out the person who's messing up, there's nothing else you can say about that. You know who's messing up. It's ridiculous that we can't execute."
Although the senior quarterback wouldn't blame any of his teammates in particular, he certainly pushed his offensive line off the curb in the direction of the oncoming bus.
"The man [slotback Greg Shinego] we were trying to hit was wide open down the middle," said Kaheaku-Enhada, who wound up overthrowing Tyree Barnes for the first-half interception after eluding the Wake Forest pass rush. "If you block it right, that's a touchdown. We didn't get a block on it. They beat us one-on-one."
Eventually, the Demon Deacons wore down the Midshipmen defensively as well.
After a 35-yard run by Kaheaku-Enhada to the Wake Forest 15-yard line set up his go-ahead 2-yard touchdown run with 12:30 remaining, the Demon Deacons came right back on an 80-yard drive and went ahead for good on an 8-yard pass from Riley Skinner to tight end Ben Wooster with 7:52 left.
Navy's last chance to win ended when Shun White's long kickoff return inside the Wake Forest 10 was called back because of a holding penalty. The Demon Deacons added to their lead when fullback Rich Belton rumbled 35 yards for a touchdown in the final minute.
"I think the offense gave them plenty of chances to help them out," King, a senior, said. "We just let it slip out of our fingers, I guess."
Two weeks after the death of his father, King was neither tearful like his coach nor antagonistic like his quarterback. Just stoic.
It was something you would expect from a player who will soon be going off to defend his country.
play it again
What went right for Navy: A 50-yard fumble return for a touchdown by cornerback Rashawn King sandwiched between field goals of 40 and 47 yards by Matt Harmon gave the Midshipmen a 13-0 lead.
What went wrong for Navy: Riley Skinner, who had four interceptions and lost a fumble in a loss to the Midshipmen earlier in the season, was 11-for-11 for 166 yards and a touchdown. Kevin Harris rushed for 136 yards on 24 carries.
Defining moment: Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith, whose fumble on his only rushing attempt this season led to King's touchdown, picked off his Atlantic Coast Conference-record 21st career interception at the Demon Deacons' 2-yard line late in the first half to set up a 98-yard touchdown drive.
What it means: In the overall scheme of things, it means very little for Navy, which builds its season around winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy, something the Midshipmen did for the sixth straight season.
Up next: Although it seems a long way off, the returning Midshipmen will start preparing for next season's opener at Ohio State.