The Navy Midshipmen won only three games in the 2018 college football season. They then won 11 games in 2019. After winning just three games in the 2020 college football season, Navy will try to author yet another big turnaround under head coach Ken Niumatalolo.
No one should be expecting 11 wins this season, but Navy will certainly expect to win seven games, get back to a bowl, and win games in the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy series.
The road to renewal for Navy begins against a solid opponent, the Marshall Thundering Herd. Marshall started the 2020 season 7-0 and was briefly in the hunt for the Group of Five championship. Cincinnati won that Group of Five title, but Marshall was in the conversation and would have had a chance had it remained unbeaten, hoping for a Cincinnati loss. However, the Thundering Herd’s offense fell apart at the end of the season. The Herd scored just 13 points in a Conference USA Championship Game loss to UAB, and then just 10 points in a Camellia Bowl game loss to Buffalo. Marshall has a new head coach this year: Charles Huff replaces Doc Holliday, creating fresh layers of intrigue for Navy’s season opener at home in Memorial Stadium. Let’s offer three keys for the Midshipmen in this first game of 2021:
1 – Offensive line
Why was Navy so bad in 2018? The offensive line was terrible. Why was Navy so strong in 2019? The offensive line got fixed and played at an elite level. Why was Navy so bad in 2020? The offensive line regressed and got pushed around for most of the season, preventing the triple option from being able to do much damage. This is not overly complicated: Finding solutions and plugging roster holes with better players, creating a renewed culture in which the staff squeezes every ounce of potential from the personnel on hand (something which did not occur in either 2018 or 2020), is central to a successful season for Navy. This team can’t go very far if the offensive line situation does not improve to a significant degree. That’s a fact, Jack.
One added note of considerable importance: Last summer, Niumatalolo did not have padded practices. Navy did not go through full-contact practices because Niumatalolo was worried about COVID-19 safety. None of us knew exactly how dangerous COVID-19 was on the practice field at the time, so this is not a criticism of Navy’s head coach. It turned out that full-contact practices were safe, but Navy’s lack of physical practices in the summer translated into a team which was manhandled at the line of scrimmage for much of 2020. Now that Navy doesn’t have that plot complication to deal with in 2021, we should see improved line play.
2 – Quarterback play in tandem with the O-line
Xavier Arline, an underclassman, was thrown into the fire pit last year. Given that he didn’t have a high-quality offensive line in front of him, it was awfully difficult to expect Arline to flourish… and he didn’t. We’ll see if a year of preparation and development lead to a noticeably improved caliber of performance in 2021, starting with this game against a sound Marshall defense.
3 – Defensive dynamism
Navy’s defense figured things out late in the 2020 season after getting shredded early on. Diego Fagot returns as part of a seasoned group which should be able to contain Marshall’s less-than-stellar offense. If Navy can get at least two turnovers from Marshall’s offense, the Midshipmen should like their chances in this game. As long as Navy’s defense carries its late-season 2020 performances into the 2021 season and thereby raises its floor for this year, the Midshipmen should indeed return to a bowl game and notch at least a .500 season if not a 7-5 record.