Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky University marks the 50th anniversary of the first game ever played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. The 1959 Navy team that beat William & Mary will be honored, and Navy will wearing absolutely killer-looking throwback uniforms. Fans will be treated to a vintage car show and commemorative posters of the occasion. It’s going to be quite an event. Of course, Navy games tend to be a bit of an event anyway, with the march-on and flyby and whatnot. WKU (they don’t like to be called “Western Kentucky”) head coach David Elson knows all about it.
“We are looking forward to going to Annapolis to play Navy. I’ve heard great things about the gameday experience up there. We have a lot of our fans making the trip so we look forward to trying to find a way to get our first win.”
This quote reminds me a little of Coach Niumatalolo’s pregame speech before last season’s opener against Towson.
Maybe it will feel a little circus-like this weekend as the Mids take on the Hilltoppers. Overcoming the distraction is just one more challenge for a pair of teams that could use a little bit of focus right now.
Elson’s squad enters the game with an 0-3 record that belies the program’s impressive I-AA history. WKU is the newest member of Division I-A, joining their basketball program in the Sun Belt Conference after having completed the second of two required transitional years in 2008. As a member of I-AA, the Hilltoppers had great success. Jack Harbaugh (Jim’s father) came to WKU as head coach in 1989, after spending two years as an assistant at Pitt. Harbaugh’s teams would win 91 games over the next 14 years, including seven straight winning seasons, four playoff berths, two conference titles, and the 2002 I-AA National Championship. The championship run is a story that could have come straight out of Hollywood; WKU was seeded 15th out of 16 teams, and beat #3 Western Illinois and #2 Georgia Southern on the way to a title game against #1 McNeese State– a team they lost to 38-13 earlier in the year. Harbaugh decided to go out on top, and retired after the ’02 season. He was replaced by Elson, who had been on Harbaugh’s staff since 1996 and had spent the last two seasons as defensive coordinator. The new head coach kept up the pace, beginning his tenure with 5 consecutive winning seasons and two playoff berths. The last of those winning season was a 7-5 campaign in 2007, the program’s first transition year after making the decision to jump to college football’s highest level.
The timing of the Hilltoppers’ move isn’t exactly the best. With the nation’s economy being what it is, most college athletic departments are doing just about anything they can to cut costs, whether it’s getting rid of media guides or taking buses to a few road games rather than chartering a flight. On the other hand, the move to I-A has forced WKU’s football budget to expand from $2.6 million in 2006 to $4.9 million this year, with 25 additional scholarships, increased coaching salaries, an expanded staff, and travel costs to pay for. A $50 million stadium renovation was also part of the I-A process, increasing the capacity of Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium from 17,500 to 23,500, plus adding new locker rooms, a club section, and a new scoreboard, among other things. To help offset the larger budget, WKU scheduled games on the road at Florida, Indiana, Virginia Tech, Alabama, Kentucky, and this year, Tennessee. With payouts like the $700K the Hilltoppers got from the Vols, games like these sure help the bottom line. They don’t do much for the team’s record, though. WKU went 2-10 last year, with both victories coming over I-AA oponents. After an 0-3 start to this season that included a 63-7 pasting in Knoxville and a 28-7 loss at home to I-AA Central Arkansas, WKU comes into Annapolis with an 11-game losing streak, the longest in the nation. That loss to Central Arkansas last week was especially tough. Nobody expected WKU to stroll into Knoxville and dropkick Tennessee, but there’s no doubt that they scheduled Central Arkansas with the intent of winning that game. They didn’t, and now the hecklers are coming out, taking coaches and players to task and even mocking the very decision to move to I-A in the first place. To their credit, the players say they don’t pay attention to these things. Any time the local paper is doing a story on what you think about the heaps of criticism you’re getting, though, you know things are probably looking bad.
Things probably won’t look too much better for WKU after this week. Life is hard when you only have 11 scholarship seniors; 57 of 85 scholarship players on the WKU roster are freshmen or sophomores. One of those freshmen is quarterback Kawaun Jakes. Adding injury to insult, starter Brandon Smith went out of the game last week with what is being described as a sprained shoulder. Although he’s still listed as first on the depth chart, and said after the game that he didn’t think the injury was too serious, Smith didn’t practice on Tuesday and has been described as “day-to-day.” If Smith isn’t able to play, Jakes will get his first career start. In relief of Smith, Jakes went 9-for-14 passing for 75 yards. Not earth-shattering, but respectable for a freshman stepping into a lousy situation. Enhancing the lousiness is an offensive line that was thought to be a strength of the team going into the season, but has been anything but. WKU has given up 13 sacks through 3 games, including 4 against Central Arkansas. The sack total is even more depressing when you consider that WKU’s quarterback are actually pretty decent runners. Smith actually leads the team in rushing, and had 102 yards on the ground in a 35-13 home loss to USF.
If the Hilltoppers have anything going for them this week, it’s that their coaching staff knows a thing or two about option football. Elson became quite familiar during his time on Harbaugh’s staff, when WKU was more or less an option team. From 1991 through Harbaugh’s final year in 2002, WKU ranked in the top ten in rushing offense each season, the only I-AA team to do so in that span. The 1997 team lead the nation, averaging 332 yards per game. The following year the Toppers rushed for 344.6 ypg and had the ninth-highest scoring offense, averaging 36 points per game. Elson’s defensive coordinator, Mike Dietzel, was Bob Sutton’s running backs coach when Army was running the option from 1995-1999. These guys know how Navy’s offense works, and should be able to craft a solid game plan. Whether a defense that features two freshmen and a sophomore on the line can execute that plan remains to be see.
For the Mids, this is a must-win game. If you’re sick of hearing that phrase, you’d better get used to it; with this year’s schedule, Navy can’t afford to drop what few games they’ll be favored in. Not only that, but with Air Force taking on a pretty terrible San Diego State team this week, they’re more than likely going to be 3-1 and have plenty of momentum heading into next week’s CIC Trophy opener in Annapolis. Navy does not want to be 1-3 and doubting themselves going into that game. The Mids also want to show that the Pitt game was not the kind of offensive performance we can expect from them the rest of the year. Quarterback Ricky Dobbs said that he was “disgusted” with his showing last Saturday, and I doubt he’s the only player to give himself assessment. Coach Niumatalolo called it “probably one of the worst performances we’ve had as a team for our program in a long time.” It will be important to him not only to win the game, but for the offense to redeem itself through its execution. Anything less, and it might be a sign of deeper issues.