TEAM OF THE WEEK | Ken Niumatalolo anchors Navy’s success

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Navy had just beaten SMU 75-31, the most points by the Midshipmen since scoring 76 against East Carolina in 2010.

They piled up 496 yards of rushing, the 10th highest total in school history. And it should have been more. They lost 5 yards on three consecutive plays by taking a knee to run out the clock.

Despite all that, the hot coaching prospect addressing speculation about being a candidate for another job was not Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo.

“This is not about me,” SMU’s Chad Morris said about rumors that he is a candidate to become Baylor’s new coach. “This is about these kids in that locker room in there and moving forward. I’m the football coach at SMU and I’m extremely excited about the direction of this program.”

Nothing against Morris, who led the Mustangs to a 7-17 record in two seasons after taking over following a 1-11 season. But maybe Baylor should consider Niumatalolo.

Or perhaps Oregon should after firing Mark Helfrich on Tuesday.

For that matter, maybe Texas should have hired Niumatalolo instead of Houston’s Tom Herman. After all, Navy beat Houston 46-40 this season when the Cougars were ranked No. 6. It was the Midshipmen’s first win against a Top 10 team since 1984.

Maybe. But given the choice to leave last year, Niumatalolo decided to remain anchored at Navy. A devout Mormon, he considered a coaching offer from BYU.

“BYU was something I needed to look into because of my faith and the opportunity to coach my two sons,” he said. “But ultimately, I decided to stay at the Naval Academy because this is the best place for me and my family, and we are at peace with the decision.”

Now the winningest coach in Navy history (77-39) has the Midshipmen on the brink of the school’s first conference championship in football.

They host Temple at noon ET Saturday in the American Athletic Conference championship game. A victory against the Owls and a loss Friday by Western Michigan would put Navy in the Cotton Bowl for the first time since the 1963 season with Heisman Trophy winner Roger Staubach at quarterback.

“We’ve been playing for this for a long time,” Niumatalolo said. “Our goal was to be in the championship game, and so it’s not like, ‘Oh, crap, we’ve got to adjust things.’ We’ve been planning on being in that game and we’ve been preparing for this.”

And in perhaps the best coaching job of Niumatalolo’s nine seasons, Navy has done it with a quarterback who started the season as the backup.

Senior Tago Smith earned the starting spot running Niumatalolo’s vaunted triple-option. But a knee injury in the season-opener against Fordham ended Smith’s season.

Enter senior Will Worth, who went from holder to holding up the offense. He’s rushed for 1,074 yards and 22 touchdowns and passed for 1,259 yards. That makes him the fifth player in Navy history to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season.

“He’s leading the way,” Niumatalolo said. “The way we’re playing is a direct result of him. We’re tough. We’re hard-nosed. We don’t relent. We don’t back down. It’s just tenacity. His grit and determination have just enveloped our whole team.”

Worth scored the winning touchdown in his debut, beating UConn 28-24 in a hectic finish on Sept. 10, and the Midshipmen haven’t looked back.

The next week at Tulane, he led a clutch 10-play, 72-yard drive for the winning touchdown and two-point conversion. Against Houston, he ran for 115 yards and threw for two touchdowns to lead the 17-point underdogs. That earned Worth national recognition.

”I’m running out of things to say about the kid,” Niumatalolo said. “Week after week after week he continues to rise up to the challenge and perform well.”

Navy has won four in a row, averaged 61 points over the past three games and put up 60 points or more in consecutive games for the first time since 1917.

”This is exactly where we wanted to be,” Worth said. “The entire offseason, this is what we worked for. We feel great, just got to keep things rolling right now.”


Photo courtesy Phil Hoffman/Naval Academy Athletic Association

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.