Dec. 9, 2011
By Bob Socci
For eight consecutive seasons, there was always another game to play.
The Army-Navy experience may have represented the true climax of their careers, but for senior Midshipmen, a bowl reward -- an encore, in essence -- annually awaited.
But at 4-7 on the eve of Navy's 112th encounter with its rival from West Point, 33 Mids are about to play together, and stand together, one last time.
And that's where their head coach Ken Niumatalolo begins when discussing what concerns him.
"This is different for us," Niumatalolo said late Thursday afternoon, in one of his month's worth off phone interviews that filled up the past few days. "There's a finality to it. I think the guys sense this is their last week of practice. The biggest thing is keeping our emotions down."
Niumatalolo recalls an earlier meeting with Air Force and, as he is prone to do, invokes an analogy from the Sweet Science, while trying to explain a most unscientific objective.
Navy took the field opposite the Falcons after a 12-month run-up, fueled by a loss in Colorado Springs the previous October. But when the Mids released their pent-up emotions, they were like a prize fighter charging out of his corner, swinging wildly and striking mostly thin air.
"It was like our hands were clenched in a ball," Niumatalolo says, "and we came out throwing haymakers."
Letting loose on the outside, yet playing as if tight on the inside, Navy was quickly in arrears by two scores, and trailed by as many as 18 points as late as the early minutes of the 4th quarter.
Eventually, the Mids fought back; ironically, about the time they stopped playing as if a hand balled into a fist.
"We were so matter of fact in the second half," Niumatalolo says of a comeback in which Navy played more freely and easily, albeit hardened by a collective resolve.
Down big early, the Mids rallied late, only to fall in overtime, 35-34.
"I look at the Air Force game," said Niumatalolo, while at the same time looking ahead to Army. "I'd like to play (tomorrow) the way Air Force played in the first half and we played in the second half of that game."
Toward that end, Niumatalolo decided to scale back practice the last two days.
"Our legs look good," he says, three weeks after Navy's most recent outing at San Jose State. "From the first week (of Army preparation) to this week, we've been practicing great.
"I don't want to leave our (best) game on Rip Miller Field."
Or, said another way, Niumatalolo wants the Mids, particularly the seniors, to save their best for last.
CENTER OF (IN)ATTENTION
One player Niumatalolo would love see duplicate his performance against either Air Force in 2011 or Army a year ago is center Brady DeMell.
His final appearance vs. the Black Knights marks DeMell's 27th career start and 26th in a row. At 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, he can rightfully be considered the anchor or linchpin of Navy's offensive line.
But neither of those nouns is encompassing enough for his head coach.
"It all starts with Brady," says Niumatalolo, who worked most closely with linemen before his coaching promotion in 2007. "He's one of the smartest football players I've been around, very cerebral.
"A lot of guys have an understanding of the game, but can't really see it during the game. You can be in a meeting room and point something out on video and they'll (understand) what you're talking about. Brady has a great understanding of what we're doing, but also what the defense is trying to accomplish and how they're lining up."
His linemate at guard, John Dowd, a pretty bright player in his own right, agrees.
"Brady could call the plays as far as I'm concerned," Dowd, a two-time Academic All-America, told Kevin Van Valkenburg of the Baltimore Sun last year. "He's really savvy. He's helped me so much. There are times when I'll come to the sideline and Brady will look at me and say `Ok, what are you doing on this?'"
DeMell sees what he sees in the moment, as opposed to after the fact. Just as, one imagines, he previously saw the flow of play developing on the fly from a pair of skates.
Growing up in the Cleveland area, DeMell excelled in hockey as well as football. After being recruited by prep-school hockey powers on the East Coast, DeMell elected to remain at home in Mentor, Ohio, where he wore the captain's "C" on his sweater and earned all-state on-ice distinction as a senior.
A year later, DeMell did indeed trek east. Instead of skates, though, he opted for cleats and a year at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I. By the end of his sophomore season in Annapolis, DeMell was starting vs. Missouri in the Texas Bowl.
The ball's been in his hands from the outset, ever since.
Among his biggest admirers -- though smaller by comparison -- is Terrence Anderson, who earned national acclaim and captained the Mids as a 5-11, 285-pound center in 1999. Anderson got a first-hand look at his successor last month in Dallas, where he is completing a fellowship as an orthopedic surgeon in the Navy.
"He's big!" Anderson laughed, during a radio interview at halftime of a 24-17 win over SMU. "He's a monster out there. I watch him and I'm proud to see him manhandle some of these nose guards, especially from FBS (Division I) teams. The one thing is the continuity that he's been able to provide, being durable this season, (which) I think is important to the running game."
The nature of his position hardly casts DeMell in the center of attention -- unless one is talking to another interior lineman like Anderson, or a coach like Niumatalolo who's trained to keep his eyes off the ball once it's snapped.
What he saw of DeMell last year vs. Army was a dominant performance that, in his words, "nullified" nose guard Mike Gann, a three-year starter for the Black Knights.
This time around, DeMell will be matched up with two tackles, including West Point plebe Jacob Drozd and junior A.J. Mackey, who enter with a combined 16 career starts.
If quarterback Kriss Proctor and fullback Alexander Teich enjoy good footing, particularly while running inside, remember who's at the point of the Mids' offensive attack.
Even if you can't necessarily see it for yourself.
FINALLY (FOR NOW...)
I flew to BWI early this morning on a flight carrying several West Point graduates, as well as a large, rowdy group of New England Patriots fans; all heading south for a weekend outing at FedEx Field, be it tomorrow or Sunday (when the Redskins host New England).
The Army fans wouldn't have stood out, except for their black-and-gold attire. But I -- like just about everyone else in Terminal E of Boston's Logan Airport -- couldn't help but notice the rowdier souls biding their time at our gate by playing cribbage and trading tales of getting kicked out of NFL stadiums, from Green Bay to Pittsburgh.
Wondering just how early they started tailgating this morning in the airport parking lot, I also concluded that these just had to be the guys with the nerve to boo ex-Pat hero Adam Vinatieri during last week's New England win over the Indianapolis Colts.
I share this bit of info -- otherwise useless to you, except for the following -- as a small public service. There was talk by one of trying to get tickets to the Army-Navy game as well.
With that in mind, I strongly encourage you -- just in case he and his buddies wind up in your section -- to be well prepared. Bring your radio, tune in Washington affiliates at Federal News Radio, on 1500 AM and 1050 AM, and turn up the volume (way high!) on the Navy Radio Network!
Air time is 1:35.