Bill Wagner: Navy football struggled in 2021, but its 17-13 win over Army changes everything | COMMENTARY


Slotback Maquel Haywood is among a large contingent of sophomores and freshmen who will be returning for Navy football next season.
Slotback Maquel Haywood is among a large contingent of sophomores and freshmen who will be returning for Navy football next season. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

All is well within the world of Navy football now.

At the end of a tough, grueling and disappointing season, Navy beat Army and that’s all that matters.

Quarterback Tai Lavatai directed an offense that made just enough plays, while inside linebacker Deigo Fagot anchored a defense that dominated over the last three quarters as the Mids upset the Black Knights, 17-13, Saturday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

It’s amazing how one massive victory can change the outlook for an entire season.

A loss to Army would have left Navy with a 3-9 record and more questions going into the offseason. No one would care that Navy played the nation’s third-toughest schedule with 11 of 12 opponents going to bowl games.

Upset fans would not give the program a pass because the junior and senior classes have been decimated by attrition, which has forced the coaching staff to rely on a slew of sophomores and freshmen.

Thanks to a gutsy, hard-fought victory over Army, the big picture suddenly looks a whole lot different.

Navy lost four American Athletic Conference games by a touchdown or less. Turn two of those around and Navy would be bowl eligible. Had the Midshipmen found a way to win all four, Ken Niumatalolo would have been under consideration for AAC Coach of the Year.

Turning back time isn’t going to happen. Navy finished 4-8, but beat Army!

Navy didn’t show up for the season opener and was terrible on both sides of the ball in getting blown out by Marshall, 49-7, on its home field.

A spectacular day of recognition for the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks was clouded by a totally inept Navy performance in a 23-3 loss to Air Force. The Mids managed just six first downs and 68 total yards that day.

Things got worse after the game when offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper was fired in the locker room. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and Jasper was reinstated to the staff, which marked a major turning point because he was instrumental in Navy’s improvement.

All the turmoil of those two weeks following the defeat at the hands of Air Force seems like ancient history now. Navy began to change the narrative by going on the road and taking Houston to the limit in a 28-20 loss then knocked off Central Florida, 34-30, for its first win.

More progress was shown during a 31-24 loss to SMU, which was unbeaten and ranked No. 24 at the time.

Perhaps the most surprising result of the season was a 27-20 loss to unbeaten and then-No. 2 Cincinnati. The Midshipmen may have played their best overall football game that late October day in Annapolis.

It wound up being the closest contest played this season by Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 4 in the College Football Playoff rankings and will meet top-ranked Alabama in the semifinals on Dec. 31.

By far the most heartbreaking defeat came on Senior Day at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Owen Daffer drilled a 54-yard field goal as time expired as East Carolina escaped with a 38-35 victory. It was a bittersweet result as the Navy offense clicked on all cylinders for just the second time all season, but the defense had a letdown and put forth its worst performance since the opener.

It was a roller-coaster season in many respects, one defined by Navy’s inability to make winning plays at critical moments. Legendary New York Giants coach Bill Parcells famously proclaimed: “You are what your record says you are,” and the Midshipmen went 4-8.

Yes, the schedule was brutal, but the reality is many of the losses were the result of self-inflicted wounds. Naturally, all the youth and inexperience played a huge factor in that.

The bottom line is Navy beat Army, and that means all is forgiven and forgotten. Now the Midshipmen head into the offseason with positive momentum and projecting great potential because so much promising talent will be returning in 2022.

It starts at quarterback, where Lavatai progressed by leaps and bounds, becoming more confident and competent by the game. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound sophomore showed poise and made some big-time plays against Army, which was extremely encouraging for any Navy fan who remembers it was only two years ago that Malcolm Perry was snubbed as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Lavatai will be surrounded by some impressive skill position players next season with sophomore wide receiver Jayden Umbarger (Spalding) and freshman slotback Maquel Haywood emerging as dangerous weapons.

Sophomore backup Daniel Jones is another of many talented young slotbacks in the program, while junior Mark Walker will become the leader of a wide receiver contingent that looks solid.

Navy brings back six offensive linemen who started games this season. Junior right tackle Kip Frankland was the team’s best, most consistent lineman, while sophomore left tackle Jake Cossavella was playing at a high level before suffering a season-ending injury against UCF.

Sophomore guards Josh Pena performed well while starting nine straight games before also going down with an injury. Two other sophomores, guard Lirion Murtezi and Darrelson Masaniai were impressive when called upon to start games.

Navy needs to rebuild its fullback depth with starter Isaac Ruoss and backup James Harris II both graduating. Freshman Anton Hall Jr. figures to open spring camp as the starter after ascending to third on the depth chart and gaining experience by playing in four games.

Meanwhile, Navy’s defense just got younger and younger as the season went along with 18 sophomores or freshmen filling the three-deep depth chart by season’s end. End Jacob Busic, nose guards Donald Berniard Jr. and Clay Cromwell, inside linebacker Tyler Fletcher and safety Rayuan Lane (Gilman) all played at a high level at times this season and look like future stars.

Navy is also set on special teams next season with punt returner Chance Warren the only starter not returning. Junior Bijan Nichols will go down as one of the top place-kickers in program history and is on the verge of setting numerous school records.

The Midshipmen used three punters before settling on freshman Riley Riethman, who proved a real revelation and posed an impressive 42.7-yard average.

Haywood is the most dangerous kickoff returner to play for Navy since 2008 graduate Reggie Campbell. Haywood set a single-season school record by averaging 31 yards on 12 returns.

Of course, these projections are contingent on Navy not having another mass exodus of players like it did last offseason. Hardships at the Naval Academy brought about by the pandemic led a slew of players from the Class of 2023 to enter the transfer portal.

Niumatalolo and staff need to work overtime this offseason to ensure all the talented sophomores and freshmen that emerged this season remain at the academy. If that happens, expect big things from Navy next season.

Bill Wagner


Bill Wagner has worked for Capital Gazette Newspapers for 30 years. He served as beat writer for Navy athletics and general assignment sports reporter. He is also the sailing editor.