2008: Navy 33, Temple 27
The history of Navy’s football program over the last 60+ years has been one of extremes. When things have been good, they’ve been really good. The ’50s and ’60s were glory days by any definition, with the Mids producing multiple top-20 finishes, Heisman winners, and playing for a national championship. The George Welsh years ended with four consecutive winning seasons (five if you include Gary Tranquill’s first season), three bowl berths, nationally ranked defenses, and the occasional appearance in top-25 polls. Paul Johnson led the Mids to five straight winning seasons that each ended with a bowl berth, beat Notre Dame, finished ranked #24 in 2004, and never lost to Army.
Between those happier days were absolute deserts of futility. Navy played for the national championship in 1963, but only had two winning records over the next 14 years. Things were even worse after George Welsh left for Virginia, as the Mids could manage only three winning records from 1982-2002. They had twice as many seasons with two wins or less over the same period. Things got so bad that in 1994, Sports Illustrated suggested that Navy drop to Division I-AA. People weren’t exactly lining up to write dissenting opinions.
Part of what makes the contrast between Navy’s ups and downs so remarkable is how immediate the fall was each time. Navy played for a national championship in 1963, but dropped to 3-6-1 the next year. George Welsh’s last team took Ohio State to the wire in the 1981 Liberty Bowl, but after the Mids squeaked by with a 6-5 record the following season, it took 14 years for them to put together another winning campaign. In both cases, you could point to one or two events that triggered the avalanche. In 1964, it was Roger Staubach’s game one injury and Wayne Hardin’s subsequent dismissal at the end of the season. In 1981, it was Welsh leaving for Virginia. Each event was a blow from which Navy took a generation to recover.
Based on that history, Navy fans could hardly be blamed for thinking that Paul Johnson leaving for Georgia Tech in 2007 might cause a similar catastrophe. That wasn’t a knock on Ken Niumatalolo; just about everyone who followed the Navy program hoped that Niumatalolo would inherit it upon Johnson’s inevitable departure. It’s just that football success at the Naval Academy had always been fickle. Once a winning formula was found, the program never reacted very well when that formula was forced to change.
History wasn’t the only obstacle that Navy had to overcome after Johnson left. The schedule didn’t do them any favors; the Mids faced seven teams in 2008 that would go on to play in a bowl game. On paper, it didn’t appear that the Navy team was particularly well-equipped to face that schedule, either. The defense that the Mids returned from 2007 was, to be frank, terrible. Navy gave up 36.4 points and 439 yards per game that year. They ended the season ranked 100 or worse in pass defense, scoring defense, turnovers gained, 3rd-down defense, and pass efficiency defense (among other things). The ’07 team was able to put together a winning season mostly thanks to an offense that was the equal and opposite reaction to the defense’s ineffectiveness. The key component in that offense was quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, but a hamstring injury plagued him for most of 2008. His relief, Jarod Bryant, suffered a shoulder injury. The icing on that nightmare cake was that Andrew McGinn, generally considered Navy’s best returning offensive lineman, suffered a concussion in the opener against Towson and was lost for the season. If Navy was going to avoid falling back to football purgatory, they would have to do so with a wounded offense propping up a bad defense against a schedule that would offer them no relief.
Somehow it appeared that the Mids might just pull it off, as Navy entered the Temple game with a 5-3 record. A win over the Owls would clinch a sixth consecutive bowl berth and go a long way toward silencing the “but Johnson’s gone!” narrative that had creeped into the media (and undoubtedly into recruit living rooms as well). Adding to the sense of urgency surrounding the game was the fact that Notre Dame followed Temple on Navy’s schedule. A loss to the Owls would mean that Navy could very well be 5-5 and on a losing streak before hitting the road to face a bowl-bound Northern Illinois team. A once-promising season would look awfully dicey at that point.
By the fourth quarter of the game, that’s exactly where things appeared to be headed. The defense had fought valiantly in the first half, and both teams headed to the locker rooms tied at 7. Offensively, though, Navy just wasn’t clicking. Kaipo started the game, but was not in prime physical condition. The long-striding Hawaiian had open gaps to run through, but lacked the burst he had shown so many times when healthy. Penalties and a missed field goal also plagued the Mids. When Temple finally started to put scoring drives together in the second half, Navy wasn’t able to keep up.
About halfway through the third quarter, Kaipo’s hamstring finally got the best of him, and he was replaced by sophomore Ricky Dobbs. A week earlier, Dobbs had relieved an injured Jarod Bryant halfway through the second quarter against SMU, running for 224 yards and leading Navy to a 34-7 victory. Hopes for a repeat performance against Temple were dealt a blow when Dobbs threw an interception on his first full drive. That put the Owls on the Navy 26, and four plays later, the visitors found themselves with a 27-7 lead two minutes into the fourth quarter.
Down three scores with less than a quarter to play, it was doubtful that Navy would have enough possessions to be able to catch up. Nevertheless, the Mids kept plugging away; if nothing else, maybe they would get some momentum heading into the next game. After throwing the interception, Dobbs bounced back to direct a 10-play, 78-yard drive capped by a 22-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Thiel. The ensuing drive from Temple lasted only 2:47. Navy got the ball back with 6:29 to play put together another scoring drive. All of a sudden the Temple lead was cut to 27-20 with 2:52 left on the clock. If the defense could force the Owls to go three & out, there might be a little bit of time left for one last Navy drive.
The Mids were able to force 3rd & 5, but Temple gained 7 yards on the next play and converted for a new set of downs. At that point, hope was all but lost. The Mids used their last timeout with 1:37 to go. Even if they were able to force a punt, there would likely only be about 10 seconds left for a desperate pass at the end.
Then this happened:
It’s the dream of every of every football fan who’s ever sat through a hopeless situation and said, “you never know.” Navy tied the game on Clint Sovie’s scoop & score and went on to win in overtime, earning their sixth victory of the season and clinching a berth in the EagleBank Bowl.
The game captured the spirit of Navy’s season in a nutshell. The Temple game looked like it could have sent the season in the wrong direction, but it instead became its most memorable triumph. In a similar way, given Navy’s history with coaching changes, 2008 could have been the beginning of another slide into football oblivion. It wasn’t. Instead of repeating history, Navy made history. The offense led the nation in rushing for an unprecedented fourth consecutive year even while being forced to play three different quarterbacks. The defense, despite having struggled mightily a year earlier, ended the regular season with a pair of shutouts. The Mids’ 24-17 victory at then-#16 Wake Forest was their first win over a team ranked in the AP top 25 since 1985. Their back-to-back wins over Rutgers and Wake Forest were the program’s first consecutive victories over BCS-conference opponents since 1981.
It was as fine a coaching performance as there has ever been in Annapolis, and it left no doubt that the right group was leading the program.