Archives for posts with tag: Ken Niumatalolo

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More isn’t always better; sometimes it’s just more.  College football rules the roost on Saturdays between Labor Day and Thanksgiving weekend, and Thursday night football has been a fixture for over 20 years.  As previously mentioned in this space, college actually does Thursdays better because more often than not the teams playing are coming off of bye weeks and even those that aren’t have had four days off instead of the NFL’s three (and with a larger roster to eat up snaps).  Expansion to Friday only seemed the next logical move, and when it comes to Friday games I don’t count Labor Day’s opening weekend nor do I count the day after Thanksgiving due to the fact both are “holiday Fridays”.  But it’s not necessarily better, nor welcome.  Instead of the Thursday night island, distinct enough of an entity to have its own sense of place; Friday night feels like the sand bar at low tide.  And just like Sundays belong to the NFL, Fridays should belong to high school football.  I mean, has nobody read the book or watched the movie/TV show “Friday Night Lights”?   (Aside: if you stopped watching the show during season two’s murder storyline, I’d understand).

One of the reasons I was happy Syracuse was leaving the Big East was that at the time the ACC didn’t have Friday night games.  Now they do, as is the case with everybody but the SEC (even the ten-member Big 12 has Kansas playing on a Friday night this year).  And this is the third season of Friday night football in the tradition-rich Big Ten; it was only a matter of time before Maryland would have to close down its campus for classes on a Friday and host one of these games.  I get it. For schools and conferences that aren’t major brands it’s a great way to be in the spotlight as opposed to being buried as one of 50+ games on a Saturday.  But just because one can play games on a night previously reserved solely for the feeder system to your sport doesn’t mean you should for some TV bucks.  And just because I’m not a fan of the 21st Century version of Friday Night Lights doesn’t mean I won’t watch when teams I cover or root for are playing. Clear eyes, full hearts. Right?

Alma Mater Update- the Orange host Holy Cross Saturday at noon.  I do believe “Syracuse-Holy Cross” is Greek for “noon kickoff”, although I’ve been wrong before. I’ve also been wrong in supporting my school this fall. As I realized over the weekend, SU is outscoring foes 65-17 when I’m not watching/listening (thank you 1180 AM in Rochester for your long reach after dark) while I’ve witnessed them getting outscored 120-37.  Surely I can cut into that deficit while watching the Orange roast an FCS team, right?  I’m still on the fence–it’s been one of those years.

 

Thursday’s Game:

Navy (2-0, 1-0 AAC) at Memphis (3-0), 8 p.m. (ESPN). 

Both teams are off to dominant starts, but while the Midshipmen are outscoring the opposition 87-17 those wins have come against Holy Cross (1-2 with a three-point win over New Hampshire) and East Carolina (winless against FBS schools).  The Tigers have beaten an SEC school (Ole Miss counts, believe it or not) and have also won on the road (South Alabama isn’t the Crimson Tide, but the Jaguars are in FBS).  They also finally decided the “Brady Brawl” at quarterback:  Brady White starts while Brady McBride transferred to Texas State.  Even with last year’s one-point loss in Annapolis, the Tigers won the AAC West and they look better this season.   And while Navy’s much better than last year’s 3-10 nightmare, a prime time game on the road might be too much to ask.

Presto’s Pick: Mids come up short, 35-24.

 

Friday’s Games:

Virginia Tech (2-1, 0-1 ACC) vs. Duke (2-1), 7 p.m. (ESPN). 

After a week off, the Hokies rollercoaster ride continues with a date against the Blue Devils.  Both schools lost Labor Day weekend, but while the Hokies coughed up a winnable game at Boston College the Blue Devils were blown out by No. 2 Alabama (somewhere there has to be that oddball who roots for Duke football and Alabama basketball).  Duke has also dominated in its two wins while Virginia Tech has struggled to scrape past Old Dominion and Furman.  Daniel Jones may be off to the NFL, but Quentin Harris is completing 73% of his passes and unlike ODU’s Sterling Smartt or Furman’s Darren Grainger actually saw action on the field last year.  The Blue Devils also keep Harris upright:  Duke has allowed an ACC-low eight sacks this fall while the Hokies pass rush has been somewhat lacking.

Presto’s Pick: Hokies are humbled, 21-16.

 

Maryland (2-1) vs. No. 12 Penn State (3-0), 8 p.m. (FS1).

The rivalry that isn’t has two Eastern schools in a Midwest-based league kicking off conference play.  The Terps’ tumble at Temple robs what could have been some serious buzz around this game.  Instead, prepare yourselves for a Penn State invasion:  College Park is the closest Big Ten campus from Beaver Stadium and there are plenty of alumni and Nittany Lion fans inside the beltway (including one or two that work at WTOP).  Maryland owns the conference’s top-ranked running game and the defense that ranks second-best in sacks is also third best in getting off of the field on third down.  Penn State’s led by first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford, and while he’s put up decent numbers (facing Idaho and Buffalo will do that) the sophomore is directing an offense that ranks last in the Big Ten on third down conversions.

Presto’s Picks: Terrapins tumble, 24-17.

 

Saturday’s Games:

No. 18 Virginia (4-0) at No. 10 Notre Dame (2-1), 3:30 p.m. (NBC).

The Fighting Irish are coming off of a six-point loss at No. 3 Georgia, just the kind of tough defeat that may have actually helped their chances at getting into the College Football Playoff.  As crazy as this sounds, the Cavaliers are currently the highest ranked foe remaining on their schedule (Michigan has dropped to No. 20 and USC is No. 21).  Ian Book threw for 275 yards in the loss to the Bulldogs.  Even though UVa’s defense has allowed just three second-half touchdowns this fall (and two were while holding a 30-plus point lead over William & Mary), Book is better than any of the four QB’s they’ve faced.  Bronco Mendenhall’s ground game took a step back against Old Dominion (27 carries for 85 yards when accounting for sacks), and that’s a shame because Notre Dame allows over 200 yards per game rushing.

Kippy & Buffy realize if you can’t beat them, tailgate with them.  Knowing that Irish are stereotypically redheads, their plan is to enjoy a bottle of Mount Veeder 2017 Chardonnay: “On the nose, beautiful and delicate floral aromas of jasmine marry with sweeter notes of honeysuckle and candied ginger. A very subtle hint of vanilla creme and toffee from the oak aging emerge on the lingering finish.”  Let the record show that Kippy & Buffy are cool with redheads, as Thomas Jefferson founded the University.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers linger into the second half but come up short, 30-18.

 

Howard slips to Bethune-Cookman, Georgetown loses at Columbia, James Madison beats Elon, Towson tumbles at Florida, Richmond beats Fordham, William & Mary edges Albany.

Last Week: 4-2. Overall: 25-8.

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So much for learning!  Like an elementary school’s morning recess, the September bye interrupts whatever momentum the early season had.  Blame the calendar;  usually there are 13 weekends between Labor Day and Thanksgiving which translates to just one week off for most schools.  This year there are 14 weekends which means a bonus bye. Be thankful:  back in the day when 11-game schedules were the norm and before Conference Championship Games, byes would be scattered across the landscape like breadcrumbs.  Now, instead of weeks off, the openings are simply filled filled in with games against FCS and non-Power 5 schools.

Navy has an extra weekend off to begin with, thanks to the Army game taking place in December while counting towards their 12-game regular season total, so this year head coach Ken Niumatalo’s team is already idle for the second time.  “Sometimes you like it later in the season when you’re kind of banged up, but that’s our schedule,” Niumatalolo said. “We knew the schedule a long time ago. We’ve practiced for it and planned for it.”  What’s helpful for the Midshipmen is they get a few extra days to prepare for a Thursday night showdown with a 3-0 Memphis team that’s already beaten Ole Miss.  I like the bye leading the Thursday night game;  it allows the players to properly recover and the team to properly prepare (my major beef with the NFL’s Thursday Night Football package).

While Navy at 2-0 still has a lot to learn about itself, Maryland’s 2-1 start let the light shine on not only how great this team can be (outscoring Howard and Syracuse 141-20) but also how they’re far from perfect (coming up empty on eight plays inside the Temple 10-yard line in the fourth quarter).  After a spring and summer of installing new systems on both sides of the ball, a break might be just what the Terps need mentally and physically. “You add the four weeks of training camp and three weeks of the season, that’s seven straight weeks of wall to wall football: pounding and the contact and things we do,” head coach Mike Locksley said.”Usually every three to four weeks you like to give your players a day off to be able to recover and re-set themselves.  This couldn’t have come at a better time.”  The break also separates the school’s non-conference and Big Ten portions cleanly, and after going 13-31 over its first five seasons in the league the Terps could use a little extra time.  “When you self-scout you give yourself an opportunity to see what other people see,” Locksley said. “You want to refine those things and maybe adjust some things so you don’t have a bunch of tendencies.”  We’ll see how beneficial the Terps’ time-out was when they host No. 13 Penn State next Friday night.

Virginia Tech is also 2-1 entering its bye week, but as no two 2-1 starts are exactly alike the Hokies appear to have a lot more to fix during the hiatus.  So far they’ve followed up a discouraging ACC loss with a pair of unimpressive wins against inferior competition.  No offense to FCS contender Furman or Old Dominion, but neither school should be able to come into Lane Stadium and be a threat in the fourth quarter.  Two keys for head coach Justin Fuente: 1- find a way to temper the turnovers (their nine giveaways is fourth most in FBS) and 2- get better on the ground (Hokies rank 11th in the ACC on offense and 10th in stopping the run).  Help is on the way in the form of ex-Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who comes on board as a special assistant.  At least they face Duke (Hokies are 3-0 against the Blue Devils under Fuente) and Miami (the Hurricanes are 0-2 against FBS teams this fall) next Friday evening.

Alma Mater Update- the Orange find themselves 1-2 with their bye two weeks away;  thank goodness they face the likes of Western Michigan and Holy Cross to wrap up the month.  I’m by no means putting both games in the win column at this time, as the Broncos are averaging over 30 points per game and put 42 on the board last year against SU while the Crusaders were picked to finish second in the Patriot League.  Back to back noon games hopefully resets the season before ACC play resumes.

No. 21 Virginia (3-0) vs. Old Dominion (1-1), 7 p.m. (ESPN2).  The Cavaliers season of possibilities has the team off to its best start since 2005.  That team featured the dual-threat quarterback Marques Hagans, who completed over 60% of his passes while using his wheels to haunt opposing defenses.  Hagans has nothing on Bryce Perkins, who in 16 games has already moved past Hagans in career touchdown passes and career yards rushing.   The Monarchs come off of their bye knowing they had plenty of opportunities to upset Virginia Tech for the second straight season, while realizing they have a lot to clean up on both sides of the ball.  Quarterback Stone Smartt is averaging less than ten yards per completion and the ODU defense has troubles getting off of the field on third down.

Kippy and Buffy have no issues setting up their third tailgate of the season, and how better to enjoy a showdown of Commonwealth schools than by opening a bottle of Chrysallis Vineyards Viognier (the state grape of Virginia).  “Full-bodied and fragrant with heady tropical and citrus fruits”.  During the season of possibilities that has UVa dreaming of a potential Citrus or-dare I say-Orange Bowl, they’re going all-in on a citrus fruit finish.

Presto’s Pick: Cavaliers maul the Monarchs, 44-14.

 

Howard slips to Delaware State, James Madison beats Chattanooga, William & Mary falls to East Carolina, Towson tops Villanova, Morgan State loses to Army.

Last Week: 7-2. Overall: 21-6.

 

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Week one of the College Football season (don’t even bring up Week Zero, which I feel should be spelled “Weak Zero” for reasons previously stated here) is still in full swing with games on the slate Sunday and Monday.  And with no preseason like the NFL, the college game can take you by surprise opening weekend.  Like in Tallahassee, where Florida State’s road back from a rare losing season took a serious speed-bump when the Seminoles blew an 18-point lead in a loss to Boise State.  Or perhaps Knoxville, where singing “Rocky Top” couldn’t rally Tennessee past Georgia State.  Or even Charlotte, where on a neutral field Mack Brown woke up the glory of decades gone by to begin his second term as head coach with a come from behind win over South Carolina (for the record, the Gamecocks refer to themselves as “USC” or “Carolina”-when everyone knows that Southern Cal is the real USC and North Carolina is the real Carolina). Or perhaps Arlington, Texas, where No. 16 Auburn scored with 19 seconds left to send No. 11 Oregon and the Pac 12 to second-tier status in the Power Five world (I almost want to refer to it as the Power Four Plus One).  Who’s ready to do this whole thing again next week?

 

Alma Mater Update- the Orange are 1-0 after a 24-0 win at Liberty where the Flames’ new coach Hugh Freeze coached from a hospital bed while dealing with a Staph Infection.  New quarterback Tommy DeVito completed under 50% of his passes and tossed a pair of interceptions, putting him closer to Billy Scharr than Todd Philcox on the “New QB” spectrum.  But the defense notched eight sacks and held the Flames to 3 for 16 on third down.  SU comes to College Park in week two.  Break out the wings.

 

Maryland (1-0) jumped out to a 28-0 first quarter lead en route to a 79-0 rout of Howard. One knows that the MEAC is hardly the Big Ten East, but as opposed to previous opening day squeakers (7-6 over William & Mary, anyone?) it’s nice to make a statement as opposed to a question mark Labor Day weekend.

Terrapin Triumphs: Josh Jackson threw for 245 yards and four touchdowns while Dontay Demus caught 3 passes for 100 yards and two scores.  The defense dominated the day, holding the Bison to 2 for 17 on third down and 68 total yards.  Special Teams blocked one punt for a safety and returned another for a touchdown.

Terrapin Troubles: even though they scored 56 points in the first half the offense still went 3 for 7 on third down.  The Maryland fans also either had issues with traffic or their alarm clocks as there were wide swaths of empty seats.  I know it was Labor Day Weekend, but you could have easily left for the Eastern Shore at 3:15 p.m.

Next: Saturday at noon against Syracuse.

 

Navy (1-0) punted just once in their 45-7 rout of Holy Cross; the tone was set when the Midshipmen took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards on nine plays to take the lead for good.scored the routed Holy Cross 45-7 as the Midshipmen.  Caveat:  they put 51 points on the board last fall against Patriot League foe Lehigh and won just once thereafter.

Midshipman Medals: Malcolm Perry completed 6 of 9 passes for 103 yards while directing an option offense that ran for 428 yards.  Diego Fagot notched seven tackles to lead the defense that held the Crusaders to 2.4 yards per carry and 3 for 12 on third down.

Midshipman Miscues: a pair of fumbles (one lost) will definitely get some attention in the film room, while the team’s only punt return went for minus-seven yards.  Hey–you find blemishes in a 38 point win.

Next: September 14 against East Carolina.

 

Virginia Tech (0-1) took a 14-7 lead in the second quarter at Boston College before turning the ball over five times over an eight possession span that saw the Eagles take a two-touchdown lead.  The 35-28 loss was the Hokies first season-opening defeat to an unranked team in 11 years and sets them back in the Coastal Division race before September even begins.

Hokie Highlights: Ryan Willis throws for 344 yards and four touchdowns, while Hezekiah Grimsley notches four receptions for 98 yards and a score. Rayshard Ashby tallied 13 tackles and a sack.  Oscar Bradburn averaged 45.5 yards per punt.

Hokie Humblings: Five turnovers!  BC had short fields for two of their three touchdowns in the second quarter while a red zone interception took at least three points off of the board right before halftime.

Next: Saturday at noon Old Dominion comes to Blacksburg.

 

Virginia (1-0) hadn’t beaten Pitt since 2014, but Saturday night at Heinz Field the Cavaliers came through against the defending division champs with a 30-14 victory. Did the mojo from Men’s Basketball and Lacrosse find its way onto the gridiron?

Cavalier Congrats: UVa won the physical battle, outgaining the Panthers by 51 yards on the ground. Bryce Perkins threw a pair of touchdown passes.  The defense held Pitt to 91 second half yards on 37 plays, twice intercepting the Panthers after intermission.  Joey Blount provided the pass rush heat with a pair of sacks.

Cavalier Concerns:  the passing game averaged less than ten yards per completion and the team was fortunate to lose neither of its two fumbles.  In Kippy & Buffy news, my winesnob pal tells me the 2013 Joseph Phelps Insignia they tailgated with should have been kept on the shelf for another year or two.

Next: Friday night at 8 p.m. against William & Mary.

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In the highly volatile league that is the American Athletic Conference, Navy is a beacon of stability. Coach Ken Niumatalolo isn’t just the longest-tenured coach at his respective school, five other AAC schools are on their third coach since the Midshipmen joined the league.  And it’s not just coaches who are coming and going:  UConn has announced it will leave the conference to rejoin the reconfigured Big East.  But just because the coach and the team aren’t going anywhere, it doesn’t mean there aren’t changes on the Annapolis campus.

As Navy enters year five in the league it wants to turn around a disturbing trend:  after going 14-2 in regular season play with a division title in its first two seasons the Mids went 6-10 over the last two years.  Throw in what is now a three-game losing streak to Army and a 10-loss campaign, the school’s worst since Paul Johnson’s first year in 2002, and Niumatalolo knew it was a time to re-examine his entire program from the top on down.  “Well first of all I had to look at myself-you know before I started pointing any fingers I had to look at myself.  What did I need to improve,” said Niumatalolo.  “Then structurally, our staff. And then our players. Schematically. I’m excited about some of the changes.”

The initial change was off the field-and in the dining hall.  For the first time, Navy football has a nutritionist working with the players in the program.  There’s also a focus on improving the facilities moving forward.  But while those changes will be behind the curtain, the most noticeable difference will be in the air this fall on a weekly basis in Annapolis.

Yes–you heard correctly.  Navy plans to throw the football more this season.  Last year the team attempted less than ten passes per game, sixth fewest in FBS.  Now that they’re facing the same schools every year in conference play, the coach has to mix things up.  “We’re still running and aggressive, but if you’re trying to bring people up we’re going to throw the football.” Coach Ken Niumatalolo said, “People are closer to the line of scrimmage…and we can’t block everybody. So we’re going to have to throw the football and back people up.”  The vibe is contagious.  “It’s been something that coach has spoken on and he’s extremely excited about,” said senior center Ford Higgins. “He’s brought in coach Billy Ray-who’s a passing mind that might not have been in the locker room before.”  “Billy Ray” Stutzmann comes to the Academy as an Offensive Assistant after working with the wide receivers at Hawai’i last fall, helping the Rainbow Warriors passing game rank ninth in the nation in passing.

For the second straight year Malcolm Perry will be the starting quarterback, but in a way 2019 will feel like his debut.  In his career, the senior has thrown just 27 passes as last year the Mids subbed Garrett Lewis and Zach Abey in passing situations while moving Perry to A-back (Navy’s option offense features one fullback and a pair of halfback-types split to each side but ahead of the fullback).  Coach Niumatalolo said that he made a mistake not going all-in on Perry as his quarterback last fall.  Even with the limited passing experience the senior learned quite a bit that will help him this year.  “My biggest focus this offseason was my decision making,” said Perry. “And that goes for the option game, the passing game. That’s all in my hands now.”  Not to mention his feet.  Tge senior’s rushed for over 1000 yards in consecutive seasons, and don’t forget that last fall Perry led the team in rushing, passing and receiving yardage in the win over Memphis.  Junior fullback Nelson Smith averaged over five yards a carry last fall while A-backs C.J. Williams and Tazh Maloy showed sparks last fall.  The need for development at wide receiver is apparent, as the two leading returning receivers from 2018 are…C.J. Williams and Malcolm Perry.

Defensively there will be more of an overhaul from 2018 as the Midshipmen began last fall by coughing up 59 points at Hawai’i and finished near the bottom of the AAC against the pass while ranking dead last in sacks.  Enter Defensive Coordinator Brian Newberry, who directed a Kennesaw State defense to a number two ranking in FCS last season.  The Owls led the Big South in rushing defense (102.1 yards per game), pass defensive efficiency (117.0) and red zone defense (76.9 percent), while standing second in sacks (31).  “We want controlled chaos, right?  That’s what we talk about-toughness and elite effort,” senior linebacker Paul Carothers said. “Just to get after people-if we know what we’re doing and we understand our job and do it with elite effort, it’s gonna be hard to stop.”  Leading the pass rush will be a pair of linebackers: senior Nizaire Cromartie and sophomore Diego Fagot.  “It’s going to be a team that attacks but there’s also structure to it,” said Niumatalolo.  “it’s not reckless where you’re playing zero coverage and blitzing seven every down.”  The defensive line boasts plenty of experience, but in order for the multiple looks shown by the back eight to work they’ll need to produce better than last year’s pass rush.

Last year’s team was the most-traveled in FBS, venturing 26,496 miles for its six road games and two neutral tilts. And not all neutral games are created equally, as the Midshipmen faced Army in Philadelphia while heading to San Diego for their game against Notre Dame).  It’s a good thing that as they try to turn around the program, this fall’s slate is front-loaded with home dates: five of their first seven games will be at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, including their annual affair with Air Force.  “I think that’s big. As a team that’s young, just getting them on our field in front of our crowd early on,” Perry said. “I think that’s gonna help us rolling on into the season.”  A new twist on a longtime era begins August 31st in Annapolis against Holy Cross.

 

Dream Scenario- the Mids take advantage of the early schedule and find the offensive balance plus defensive upgrade they need. Perry develops into a dual threat and Navy beats both Air Force and Army while contending for an AAC West crown.  After a hiatus, they’re back bowling.

Nightmare Situation- Perry proves to be better suited for A-Back and foes familiar with the option gang up even more in the box.  The defense learns all of the pre-snap shenanigans don’t mean much once the ball is snapped.  Another losing season in Annapolis is punctuated by going 0-2 against Air Force and Army, meaning the senior class went winless in the big rivalry game.

 

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College football’s “Show Me Month” shows worlds turned upside-down in Lincoln and Tallahassee:  traditional powers Nebraska and Florida State are off to less than ideal starts with new head coaches.

While the Cornhuskers are not the program in the 21st century they were during the glory run of Tom Osborne, this is a program that hasn’t been 0-2 since 1957.  The coach that year was William Jennings, although it may just as well be William Jennings Bryan.  The idea when they hired Scott Frost away from UCF was their former quarterback would be the magic potion for a program that hadn’t competed for a conference crown since the Big Ten boasted its ill-advised “Leaders” and “Legends” divisions.  Instead, consecutive losses at home has the red jacket-clad fan base wondering if two years at an AAC school was enough of a proving ground.  Thank goodness they’ve rescheduled an opponent to fill the void when the Akron game was cancelled:  0-3 Bethune-Cookman (from the MEAC) comes to Lincoln October 27th.

Any panic you may see in the midwest pales in comparison to the horror on the gulf coast:  the Seminoles’ come from behind win over Samford can hardly cover up an 0-2 ACC start where the offense has scored just one touchdown.  And this is an 0-2 start in the conference with Miami and Clemson still on the schedule.  What happened to the program that posted double digit wins every year from 2012-2016?  And have visiting aliens kidnapped Deondre Francois?  Seriously, folks.  As a freshman the kid netted 8.4 yards per pass attempt (two full yards better than what he’s doing this year) with a 20-to-7 touchdown to interception ratio (he’s thrown three TD’s with four INT’s so far this fall).  Perhaps Jimbo Fisher departed for Texas A&M just in time?  The good news for FSU fans is that Willie Taggart has started slow in his previous stops as head coach before eventually delivering winners at Western Kentucky and South Florida.  But will a fan base that views a 10-win season as a “bad year” have the necessary patience?

Alma Mater Update– Syracuse is 3-0 for the second time this century and entertains UConn Saturday.  The Huskies are beyond bad this fall;  they’ve allowed an average of 56 points per game–including 49 in a win over FCS Rhode Island (I’m hoping they didn’t make up a “trophy” for that game).  But there’s a reason the Orange haven’t started 4-0 since 1991–and it’s that they used to lose games like this all the time.  Somehow the likes of East Carolina, Middle Tennessee, NC State and Cincinnati often have the last laugh.  Perhaps SU alum Randy Edsall will go easy on his alma mater.

Maryland (2-1) vs. Minnesota (3-0), noon (Big Ten Network)-  can the Terrapins bounce back from last week’s ugly loss to Temple and begin conference play on the right note, providing positive momentum entering the bye week?  Quarterback Kasim Hill needs to turn his season around;  the redshirt freshman has seen his passing yardage decline from 222 to 121 to 56 this month.  Golden Gophers coach P.J. Fleck brings a defense that allows under ten points per game and ranks first in the Big Ten in passing efficiency into College Park– he also brings wide receiver Tyler Johnson (20 catches for 283 yards and 5 touchdowns) to apply pressure on a much-improved Maryland defense (tops in the Big Ten in getting off of the field on third down).  Terrapins tumble, 27-17.

 

Navy (2-1) at SMU (0-3), noon (ESPN News)- the two AAC West schools provide quite a contrast in coaching stability:  Ken Niumatalolo is in his 11th season at the helm while first-year coach Sonny Dykes is the Mustangs’ fifth in that span.  It’s been a rough start for Dykes, with two of their losses coming against ranked foes and the other loss was against unbeaten North Texas.  It’s just as rough for third-year starting quarterback Ben Hicks, minus both of his top targets from last year as Trey Quinn is currently with the Washington Redskins and Courtland Sutton is playing for the Denver Broncos.  Last fall the Mids needed a last-second field goal to prevail in Annapolis;  so far this September Navy boasts the best turnover margin (+7) in the conference and has a ground game that holds the ball over 36 minutes per game.  Midshipmen handle the Mustangs, 31-14.

 

Virginia (2-1) vs. Louisville (2-1), 12:30 p.m. (ACC Network)- the Cardinals own a three game winning streak over UVa, but that was with quarterback Lamar Jackson. This year’s already brought a change at the position with Malik Cunningham getting the nod instead of Jawon Ross this week.  Virginia counters with dual threat quarterback Bryce Perkins (4th in the ACC in passing efficiency while averaging 80 yards rushing per game).  The first ACC game means Kippy & Buffy switch over from white to red wine…and there’s no better way to kick off conference play than with a bottle of A to Z Pinot Noir from Oregon.  The 2015 vintage offers “striking aromas of black cherries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries are overlaid with a cornucopia of spices. As the wine moves across the palate, ripe, dusty tannins bracketed by juicy acidity give shape and definition to the powerful fruit flavors in harmony with a mineral quality, reminiscent of slate and graphite.”  As we’re already in the Beaver State, Kippy & Buffy break out the Rogue Smokey Blue cheese on multi-grain crisps.  Cavaliers come through, 28-20.

  

Virginia Tech (2-0) at Old Dominion (0-3), 3:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)- the Hokies may be on the road but Norfolk is well within the program’s footprint.  Last year they turned FedEx Field into a sort of “Blacksburg North” for their game with West Virginia.  Hopefully they’ve brought plenty of Lane Stadium turkey legs for their faithful to consume.  The Monarchs may be winless, but one benefit of having last Saturday off was coach Justin Fuente’s team had a chance to see multiple upsets.  They won’t be taking ODU lightly, even with the Monarchs’ offense converting just 28% of third down conversions.   Hokies handle business on the road, 38-14. 

 

Howard tops Bethune-Cookman, Georgetown loses to Columbia, James Madison beats William & Mary, Richmond gets by Stony Brook, Morgan State comes up short at North Carolina A&T.

 

Last Week: 4-2.

For the Season: 16-8.

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Navy looks to bounce back from an uncharacteristic 2017– instead of competing for an AAC West title the Midshipmen finished 4-4 in league play.  After a 5-0 start the Mids were fortunate to be bowl-eligible after posting their worst regular season (6-6) in five years.  And instead of beating Army, Navy lost its second straight game to their arch-rival.

What caused a rare subpar season under coach Ken Niumatalolo?  Two things:  untucked shirts and sloppy shaves. “When you’re a disciplined person, you’re disciplined all the time.  And learning to make the right decisions over and over,” Niumatalolo said, “tucking in your shirt and being groomed the right way-we realized there’s carryover to the field. Because the teams that maybe have been a little bit lax in there… may be lax in some of the critical choices that have cost us the game.”

The lack of attention to detail regarding seemingly minor areas contributed to sloppy play:  witness the 16 turnovers that were second most in the AAC.  Witness the 53 penalties (14 more than 2016, an increase of 35%) committed by the usually sharp squad.  This year there is a commitment to doing the little things…and from those little things big things will be expected.

There will be a change at quarterback this season: it won’t be due to graduation unlike previous autumns but due to the talent of Malcolm Perry.  The junior lost the competition last year to Zach Abey, and the coaching staff moved him to slotback in order to get Perry on the field.  This year Perry takes over at QB and the team moves Abey to wide receiver and with every practice Perry makes the coaching staff feel they’ve made the right decision. “Just the work ethic-I’ve been impressed with. A very humble kid-quiet kid-who comes to work,” Niumatalolo said,”He’s gotta progress and continue to develop in the passing game…but he’s with a great coach in (Offensive Coordinator Irvin) Jasper and there’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be ready for game one.

What are the keys to being a successful quarterback in the option offense? “Small picture, I’d say just being consistent in your technique and footwork-making sure it’s second nature.” Perry said, “Macro-it’d be getting us in the right play and making sure everyone’s in the right position.”  Perry’s three starts last year included a 250-yard rushing performance against Army.  He’ll have help this fall-senior fullback Anthony Gargiulo averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2017 while senior right tackle Andrew Wood has received pre-season all-AAC notice.

Defensively the Mids return five starters- but lose standout linebacker Micah Thomas to graduation. Safety Sean Williams ranked second in tackles behind Thomas last year and will be the key cog in 2018.  His focus? “Attitude, detail and discipline-you know?” Williams said, “In our defense we just come with a certain intensity.  We know that we’re playing for everybody on the sideline. As long as we keep the approach of caring about each other, being meticulous in our preparation and being a beast when it comes to being a beast then we’re gonna be fine.”

The second-most traveled team in FBS (only Hawaii logs more air miles this fall) starts the season at Hawaii, coach Niumatalolo’s alma mater (the Mids are 0-2 in the islands all-time).  While they play four of their next six games in Annapolis-the AAC season begins with a bang as West Division favorite Memphis drops by September 8.  The usual highlights of their slate involve going to Colorado Springs for their annual duel with Air Force, San Diego for their “home” game with Notre Dame, and Philadelphia for their annual date with Army.

Penthouse Prediction- a victory at Hawaii starts the season in fine fashion and the Mids take care of business at home against AAC and non-league foes (mightly Lehigh) alike.  Even losses to Notre Dame and UCF can’t dampen the vibe in Annapolis because they recapture the Commander-in-Chief Trophy by beating Air Force and Army.

Outhouse- the defense can’t contain Hawaii and Memphis is too much for the Mids in their home opener.  Losses to Houston and UCF make the Mids a non-factor in the AAC West and they need a win over Army to secure bowl eligibility.  They don’t get it…and what was once a 14-game winning streak is now a three game slide against their biggest foes.

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

Sport’s most important regular season kicks off this weekend as the tradition of college football is like none other–hold on, the season actually began last weekend?  With a game in Sydney, Australia?  In a sport where shifting criteria used by a 12-member committee determines a 4-team playoff field and a conference doesn’t even need to have divisions to have a Championship Game (thank you, Big 12), it almost makes sense.  In a world where tradition is trumpeted yet leagues change membership like shirts and schools have 75 different uniform combinations, college football is the fickle mistress that dazzles us one moment while confounding us the next.  She knows we’ll be back–and we are once again.  Special thanks to #2 Ohio State for rallying past Indiana Thursday–you saved me from having to completely rewrite my opening thoughts to the season.  And good luck next week against 7th ranked Oklahoma.

Alma Mater Update- Excuse me?  The Orange are playing a Friday night game?  Didn’t we leave the Big East to avoid garbage like this?  SU entertains Central Connecticut State as Dino Babers begins his second season resurrecting the once-proud program.  Hopefully the defense will be better than the one that surrendered 76 points to Pitt (the Panthers men’s basketball team averaged 73 points in two games against the 2-3 zone).  The offense has a heralded quarterback in true freshman Tommy DeVito, who depending on your age and influences either reminds you of “Goodfellas”, or “Jersey Boys”.  Hopefully he’s redshirted–let’s hang on to the eligibilty he’s got.  If he isn’t redshirted, brace yourself for Joe Pesci and Four Seasons references early and often this fall.

Friday-

Navy at Florida Atlantic, 8 p.m., WFED 1500 am and ESPNU.  In our preseason preview I marveled at how coach Ken Niumatalolo had been the head man for nine seasons while the rest of the AAC coaches had a combined eight years in their current jobs.  They’ve got nothing on Lane Kiffin, who’s had five different gigs in the last ten years.  Kiffin was actually coach in the NFL at Oakland when Niumatalolo began his tenure in Annapolis.  After being fired by the Raiders, Kiffin has held top jobs at Tennessee and USC while also serving as Alabama’s offensive coordinator.  Exactly how long do the Owls expect him to stick around?  Zach Abey takes over the reins…but the junior is by no means a first-year starter after seeing action against Army and the Mids’ bowl game last December.  Midshipmen begin with a bang, 38-21.

 

Saturday-

Maryland at #23 Texas, 12 p.m., FS1.   After taking most of summer workouts to determine who would start at quarterback (sophomore Tyrrell Pigrome gets the nod), the Terps tangle with a Longhorns team that’s coming off three straight losing seasons for the first time since 1938.  Texas also returns ten starters on defense…and if there’s one thing Maryland did not do well in 2016 it was protect the passer:  their 49 sacks allowed were the most in the Big Ten.  Conventional wisdom is if somebody’s going to steal a win in Austin it’s while coach Tom Herman and staff are still installing their program as well as weeding out non-contributors.  Can Herman translate what he did with Houston to sophomore QB Shane Buechelle (60% passer with 21 touchdowns in 2016) against a defense that was near the bottom of the Big Ten in turnovers and total defense?  These two teams last met in the 1978 Sun Bowl in a game where the Longhorns won 42-0 behind three guys named Johnny Jones:  they were known by the monikers Lam, Ham and Jam.  Oh, the good ole days.  Terrapins tumble, 34-17.

Virginia vs William & Mary, 3:30 p.m., ACC Network.  Something about facing in-state schools always makes the Cavalier faithful uncomfortable:  they opened last year with a loss to Richmond and almost fell to William & Mary in 2015.  UVa may have caught a break this year though, as the Tribe will be starting a new quarterback and runningback.  The good news for the Cavaliers?  They return eight starters on defense. The bad news?  That defense had issues stopping the run (11th in the ACC) and pass (12th in yards, 14th in efficiency) in 2016.  The best news is that there is stability at the quarterback position for the first time in eons.  Kurt Benkert played well in stretches last fall, and with runningbacks Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid both graduating he’ll be leaned on a little more in his second season as a starter.  Back for another fun fall are my tailgating pals, Kippy & Buffy.  After their tour of Virginia wineries exclusively in 2016 resulted in a 2-10 campaign, they’re branching out this fall…and beginning with Conundrum White.  This “blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat Canelli and Viognier lures you in with scents of apricot, pear and honeysuckle–and if you’re paying attention, orange and lemon meringue pie.”  Oh, we’re most definitely paying attention as we enjoy a glass with pepper jack cheese on Ritz crackers.  Cavaliers come through, 31-20.

 

Sunday-

#21 Virginia Tech vs #22 West Virginia (at FedEx Field), 7:30 p.m, ABC.  Former regional and conference rivals reunite:  the two schools met 51 times between 1912 and 2005…and between them won 10 Big East conference titles from 1993-2011.  Both teams will feature new quarterbacks—but while the Hokies are starting redshirt freshman Josh Jackson the Mountaineers have ex-Florida starter Will Grier.  The junior had the Gators cruising to a 6-0 start in 2015 when he was suspended for PED use.  The running of Justin Crawford (7.3 yards per carry last year) will make Grier’s transition easier.  Last year Justin Fuente rolled the dice correctly with transfer Jerod Evans last year-but that was with a veteran receiving corps at Evans’ disposal.  Jackson faces an unorthodox defense (WVU runs a 3-3-5), but one that is loaded with inexperience (eight new starters, including the entire defensive line).  Even though the Hokies own the Northern Virginia fan base (sorry, Kippy & Buffy), they don’t fare well in Landover:  winless in three games against USC (understood), Boise State (makes sense) and Cincinnati (what?).  Hokies come up short, 31-24. 

 

Richmond falls at Sam Houston State, James Madison beats East Carolina, Towson tops Morgan State, Howard loses at UNLV.

Last Year:  85-35.