Sept. 8, 2011
By Bob Socci
As undeniably good as Navy's opening act was last Saturday, concern about the Week 2 encore is unavoidable.
"It was as well as we've played in an opener in very long time," head coach Ken Niumatalolo said midweek between the Midshipmen's 40-17 rout of Delaware and their visit this weekend to Western Kentucky. "I'm very proud of our effort. I was very pleased.
"(But) my next concern is how well we will respond. Hopefully, we'll be mature enough to continue to work."
Not that Navy should forget about a penalty-free performance that included 437 total yards on offense and just a single touchdown allowed by the first-team defense. Rather, the Mids must improve upon it.
"There's definitely things we can work on," said linebacker Matt Brewer, speaking for the defense, after a team-leading seven tackles and two forced fumbles in his first career start. "It's definitely a great way to start. If we can build off it, our defense will be in great shape."
Trying to do so as Navy readies for its second-ever trip into the Commonwealth of Kentucky, there is some recent history the Mids would be best served to heed. And some they should pay no mind to.
Only two years ago, the Hilltoppers came to Annapolis struggling to transition from FCS to FBS -- or, if you prefer, Division I-AA to Division I -- with underclassmen occupying two-thirds of their roster spots.
Before losing 38-22 to a 10-win Navy team, WKU overcame a fumble at the Mids' 1-yard line, resulting in a 10-point swing, to hold a 14-10 lead until 2 1/2 minutes remained in the opening half. The Toppers' 434 yards included 99 rushing by sophomore Bobby Rainey and 276 passing by freshman Kawaun Jakes in his first career start.
Jakes completed his first 10 passes, threw for two scores and ran for another before Navy forced a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions -- the latter on the game's final play. Rainey went on to rush for 137.4 yards per game (third nationally) and become the Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year as a junior. He enters Saturday coming off six straight 100-yard rushing performances and 10 in his last 13 games.
The Mids' prior first-hand look should be enough to convince them to dismiss Western's 4-33 record in its last 37 contests and its 15-game home losing skid as irrelevant in regards to this year's meeting. But in case it's not, Niumatalolo keeps them mindful of what they saw watching the Hilltoppers in a 14-3 loss to Kentucky last Thursday.
"They went toe-to-toe with not only an in-state school, but the state school and an SEC school," says Niumatalolo.
Granted, the Wildcats experienced significant personnel losses after last season, especially on offense. Nonetheless, they hung 63 points on WKU in 2010. This year they mustered just 190 total yards, including a meager 91 yards their first 12 possessions, and didn't complete a pass until roughly 18 minutes elapsed off the first-half clock.
Suffice to say had Jakes not overthrown more than a couple of wide-open receivers while being harassed into an erratic performance, and if not for a poor snap on an early errant field-goal attempt, the outcome could have been altogether different.
There's a saying that the camera never blinks. Last Thursday vs. Kentucky, as the video clearly showed, neither did the Hilltoppers. What Niumatalolo saw is a reflection of his counterpart Willie Taggart.
"They play with a lot of confidence," Niumatalolo says, somewhat remarkably, about a team that just last year halted a 26-game losing streak. "A lot of that comes from their coach. He's changed their mentality. You see the energy on the sideline.
"Their head coach is aggressive and coaching with great confidence. They're physical on defense and physical running the football...they're a tough, tough, old school team."
Taking Niumatalolo's word for it, WKU has gone old school under a youthful head coach; the youngest, in fact, in Division I. Hired prior to last season at age 34, Taggart returned to his alma mater as a link to the Toppers' not-so-distant past as a I-AA power.
As Taggart's story turned out, Western Kentucky kept its search for a catalyst of change in the family -- both its and the Harbaugh's.
In 1992, Jack Harbaugh was merely a few seasons into an eventual 14-year stint in Bowling Green, Ky., when the University's board of regents fell one vote short of eliminating their football program. At the time, his son Jim was starting quarterback for the Chicago Bears and son John was coaching at the University of Cincinnati.
With WKU practicing and playing precariously with few resources, Jim moonlighted as a volunteer assistant coach. He divided time between studying his NFL playbook and making calls to recruits identified by brother John, who compiled two separate lists of high school prospects; one for his Bearcats, the other for his dad's Toppers.
Among Jim Harbaugh's earliest recruits was Willie Taggart, an athletic quarterback from Manatee, Fla. It was a good get. A four-year starter suited to an option-style offense, Taggart set 11 school records, rushed for nearly 4,000 yards and scored 47 touchdowns.
When his number "1" was retired by Western Kentucky in 1999, Taggart was just beginning an eight-year run alongside the elder Harbaugh et al as a WKU assistant.
In 2002, with Taggart as co-offensive coordinator and Jack Harbaugh soon to retire, the Toppers won the I-AA national title. They beat four conference champions and the playoff's top three seeds in the process.
Meanwhile, the Harbaugh kids kept coaching. John is about to begin his fourth season as head coach of the Baltimore Ravens. Jim is in his first with the San Francisco 49ers, after reinventing Stanford football.
In four years on The Farm in Palo Alto, Jim transformed the 1-11 Cardinal he inherited into a 12-1 Orange Bowl champion. On his watch, Stanford morphed from losing with finesse to winning physically. The first three of those seasons, the Cardinal's running backs coach was Willie Taggart.
Like Harbaugh at Stanford, Taggart has hardened the Hilltoppers. The year before his arrival, they allowed an average of 39.6 points per game, surrendering 60-plus three times.
In Week 1 of year two under Taggart, at least, they certainly toughened up; playing against Kentucky the way their coach talked about this Saturday's game vs. Navy at his weekly media luncheon:
"We're going to approach them like any other team. We're going to go out there and hit people. Whoever has the ball, we're going to hit them and hit them hard. We're not going to make a big deal because it is an option team. We have got to do our jobs. We have assignments, and we expect our guys to do their assignments. If they do that, we will be fine. But it's when you don't do your assignments against a team like this that bad things happen. We have to be a very disciplined football team. Anybody carrying the ball has to be hit and be hit hard."
Hearing his opposite and seeing Western Kentucky's effort in its opener, Niumatalolo is guarded against reliving the experience of his first road trip as the Mids' head coach.
"It's almost like when we went to Ball State a few years ago," he says, recalling a 35-23 Friday night loss in 2008. "We went there to try to win a game, they were trying to kick our teeth in."
Lest one forget, BSU -- unlike WKU -- was coming off a very successful campaign. Still, Niumatalolo recognizes a most striking similarity.
"You can see the mentality of their team...there's a swagger," he says. "They're desperate for a win."