Bowl A Bittersweet Finale For Mids' Seniors

Texas Bowl Navy Vs. Missouri

December 31, 2009|By Camille Powell | Camille Powell,The Washington Post

HOUSTON -- At the end of practice Monday afternoon, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo invited a fellow football coach, Brian Norwood, to address the Midshipmen.

Norwood is a former Navy assistant and the current defensive coordinator at Baylor. But more than that, he is Niumatalolo's best friend - the two grew up together in Hawaii and were high school and college teammates - and he represented the message that Niumatalolo wanted to convey to his players, three days before their season ends against Missouri in the Texas Bowl.

"Our biggest thing here is the brotherhood and the relationships," Niumatalolo said. "I wanted our guys to understand that this is it, for our seniors and our 2009 team. ... Beside the bowl gifts and the watches and all the things that you get, the most important thing are the relationships you build on the team. I wanted our guys to make sure they treasured that."

Navy's 32 seniors understand that, which is why today will be bittersweet. There will be the excitement of the bowl game itself: A crowd of more than 68,000 is expected inside Reliant Stadium to watch the Midshipmen take on a high-powered opponent from a marquee conference. But afterward, there will be the sadness of knowing that they have no more games and no more practices with their friends.

"We're still going to be close friends. It's not like we're losing them; we're just losing football," senior guard Curtis Bass said. "We'll have a lot of memories."

Indeed, this senior class has been a part of 34 victories, four bowl appearances and four Commander-in-Chief's Trophies. This year, the Midshipmen played one of their toughest schedules in years and won nine games. A victory today - they are 6 1/2 -point underdogs to Missouri (8-4) - would tie the school record for wins in a season.

Navy nearly upset Ohio State in front of 105,000 fans in the Horseshoe in early September. Two months later, Navy knocked off Notre Dame before a stunned crowd of 80,000 in South Bend, Ind. The Midshipmen swept Air Force and Army - without giving up an offensive touchdown in the two games.

But during a question-and-answer session at the Texas Bowl luncheon Tuesday, the five Navy representatives didn't cite those moments when asked for their favorite memory of the 2009 season. Instead, the five players - seniors Ross Pospisil and Osei Asante, and juniors Vince Murray, Wyatt Middleton and Ricky Dobbs - talked about the times away from the football field. Middleton recalled trying "different" food on the team's recent trip to Hawaii, for instance, and Dobbs mentioned a visit to Houston's House of Blues for a gospel luncheon.

"The brotherhood is more than just a tight group of guys. It's really hard to explain," said linebacker Tony Haberer, one of 16 seniors who will be entering the Marine Corps after graduation. "I know we'll cross paths sometime down the road, and I'll always have someone to lean on."

The past seven weeks have been dotted with emotional moments for the seniors: their last game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium (a 35-18 victory over Delaware), their final Army-Navy game (a 17-3 win). Now they're down to their last game. It's as if a long-running television show has finally reached its end.

"It's kind of like all these episodes that lead up to the final episode of the series. This is the two-hour special," Niumatalolo said. "In the locker room, there are so many tears and hugs because that's it. ... We know we've got our work cut out for us [against Missouri]. But it's a great rallying cry, to try to finish this one off for the seniors."

When Navy has the ball

Missouri put some of its best athletes at quarterback this week to simulate Navy junior Ricky Dobbs. "He's a great player, and he makes that whole offense go," Tigers Coach Gary Pinkel said. In each of his past four games, Dobbs has rushed for 100 yards; he's also had a hand in 10 of Navy's 12 touchdowns in that span (eight rushing, two passing). In 11 starts this season, Dobbs has rushed for 24 touchdowns - an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback. Overall, Navy's offense is averaging 272.5 yards per game on the ground, good for fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Only one team has gained more than 150 rushing yards this season against Missouri (Nevada - which led the nation - had 218 on 45 carries).

When Missouri has the ball

Navy already has faced four players this season who average more than 100 receiving yards per game. Now the Midshipmen face Danario Alexander, who leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with 137 receiving yards per game. He has 13 touchdown catches - no Navy player has more than 10 catches, period - and those scores accounted for a total of 623 yards. Quarterback Blaine Gabbert, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, has completed 59.7 percent of his passes and has thrown just seven interceptions - none since Oct. 31 at Colorado. Gabbert has thrown 15 passes of longer than 45 yards; 12 have gone for touchdowns. In their past three games, the Tigers have averaged 195.7 yards rushing.

TEXAS BOWL

Today at 3:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Line: Missouri by 6 1/2

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