Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo watches on the sidelines… (Kirby Lee, US PRESSWIRE )
If anyone wants to nitpick at Navy's football success over the past decade, a starting point — and finish line — might be the team's record in bowl games.
Going into Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against Arizona State (7-5) at San Francisco's AT&T Park, Navy (8-4) has lost four of its last five postseason games and five of eight since 2003.
Though two of the losses have been close — a 25-24 defeat to Boston College in the 2006 Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C., and a 35-32 defeat to Utah the next year at the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego — many have been blowouts.
And there have been more than a few predictions picking the Pac-12's Sun Devils to win big this year.
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who will be leading the Midshipmen into their fifth bowl appearance since taking over when Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech before the team's bowl game in 2007, doesn't seem to put much stock into the bowl failures.
Niumatalolo said recently that bowl games are "a reward" for a winning seaon. He doesn't stress much about the results in large part because of the way the team typically prepares and where his seniors are headed after their football careers come to an end.
"There's nothing after for these guys, I want them to enjoy [the experience] — especially for the seniors," Niumatalolo said. "But obviously the best way to enjoy that experience is by winning. We're trying to do the best we can with what we have to deal with."
That includes a significantly pared down practice schedule. Unlike most teams that use their full allotment of practices allowed by the NCAA for bowl preparation — a total of 15 two-hour workouts — Niumatalolo had his team practice six times, for an hour each, typically starting at 6 a.m. because of final exams.
"Who else has to prepare for a bowl game like that?" Niumatalolo said. "We didn't have any full practices againt San Diego State [last season] because of finals, and when we got there, they had a monsoon. We're not complaining. I'm not going to get our guys out there for two hours in the middle of their finals, either. I don't know if we're as prepared as we can be, but we've got to deal with it."
Navy does benefit from the deals athletic director Chet Gladchuk has struck with a number of bowl organizers, guaranteeing that the Midshipmen have a spot in a bowl as long as they win six games. The only time Navy failed to make a bowl since 2002 was last season, when it finished 5-7.
"That was disappointing," Gladchuk said.
Though Navy is scheduled to join the Big East for the 2015 season, its bowl contracts run through 2016, and Gladchuk said the academy plans to honor those deals with the Armed Forces Bowl (2013 and 2016), Poinsettia Bowl (2014) and Military Bowl (2015) despite the confererence affiliation.
Navy and Army are the only Football Bowl Subdivision teams to have such an arrangement, though the Black Knights have been to only one bowl game since 1996.
"If you look back to the success that we had 10 years ago or nine years ago, we anticipate success," Gladchuk said. "The formula has been to cultivate strong relationships with various executive directors of these bowls. …They absolutely are enamored to what the Naval Academy brings, not only an eligible football team and an entertaining football team, but also the pageantry of the academy and the military dimension that is a rallying point for so many people."
Gladchuck said Navy guarantees to each bowl that it will sell its allotment of tickets and "be able to bring together people that normally wouldn't go to bowl games. We identify our alumni as anyone who served." Gladchuk said the last time the Midshipmen played in San Francisco, in 2004, "we were able to put 16,000 or 17,000 in the stands" despite the fact that the nearest base had been closed for more than a decade.
"We deliver wherever we go," Gladchuk said.
It hasn't always carried over to the field. Naby's last bowl experience was not a pleasant one, a 35-14 thumping by San Diego State in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl on a sloppy field that significantly slowed down Navy's triple-option offense. Still, the Midshipmen will likely not be intimidated by the idea of playing Arizona State.
Though only a few current Navy players were at the 2009 Texas Bowl for Navy's last big postseason win, a 35-13 demolition of heavily-favored Missouri, many have played in other high-profile games — including the 2010 win at Notre Dame and four straight wins over Army.
"We approach all of our games the same. We feel that anybody can beat us and we have an opportunity to win any game we compete in," Niumatalolo said."
Junior wide receiver Casey Bolena, who grew up near the Arizona State campus and knows several players on the team Navy will be facing, said Saturday's game will be no different from some regular season games the Midshipmen have played, such as last year's at South Carolina. Navy lost to the heavily favored, nationally ranked Gamecocks, 24-21.
"We look forward to games like this. Players on the other team might come in overlooking us," Bolena said. "But they might not have experience going against the triple option. We're super excited about games like this.We all feel we can compete with them, absolutely. It's an honor to play a team like this. We all have chips on our shoulder at Navy, and Arizona State overlooked me."