A blast of sound erupted from the stands midway through the first quarter Saturday as a Midshipman proposed to his girlfriend with a ring and a bouquet of bright red flowers. The announced crowd of 32,443 roared under a cloudless sky at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
It was one of the few moments to truly celebrate as Navy fell into a 14-point hole less than 10 minutes into the game against the Houston Cougars and never led in a 38-20 loss.
“We ran into a buzz saw today,” Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “And got our butts whipped in all phases. … Our kids are hurting right now in the locker room. We got whipped today.
“Got punched in the mouth today. Wipe the blood off our face and come back and keep swinging.”
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The Navy offense reverted to its dismal ways after consecutive strong efforts against SMU and Tulsa, accounting for just seven points before a late touchdown. Quarterback Tai Lavatai threw for 125 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions and rushed for 30 yards on 16 carries. The passing stats were a bit deceiving; he threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Umbarger with the game out of reach. All of that came a week after he rushed for a career-high 120 yards, threw for 138 and accounted for four touchdowns. Fullback Daba Fofana rushed for 89 yards and a score. Eavan Gibbons led the defense with 12 tackles, and Rayuan Lane added 10.
“I don’t think I played a good game at all,” Lavatai said. “I think those self-inflicted wounds are mainly on me today. I think those two picks were on me. There wasn’t anything that they did. Just two bad decisions.”
On the opposite sideline, Houston quarterback Clayton Tune tossed a career-high five touchdown passes to tie the stadium record set by Virginia’s Bobby Goodman in 1992. He finished with 261 yards without an interception and ran for another 43. Nathaniel Dell, who entered the game ranked 13th in the nation in touchdown receptions with six, caught two more and had eight receptions for 93 yards, and Samuel Brown had five catches for 33 yards and a pair of scores. Stacy Sneed rushed for 100 yards on 20 attempts.
Big plays doomed Navy in a 40-34 loss to SMU last weekend, and that continued Saturday. The Midshipmen (2-5, 2-3 American Athletic Conference) immediately found themselves in trouble after Tune hit Dell for a 23-yard connection on the first snap of the afternoon. Tune then converted a third down with a 28-yard pass to tight end Christian Trahan on the fourth snap. The Cougars (4-3, 2-1) took a 7-0 lead after Tune threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Dell with 12:06 left in the first quarter.
Slow starts also have been a major issue for the Midshipmen, who began the day 0-4 in games in which they gave up a score on the opening drive. Lavatai was intercepted by Jayce Rogers to end the first Navy possession after the ball fluttered out of his hand. Houston took over at the Navy 35-yard line and needed seven plays to go up 14-0 after Tune and Dell connected again from 11 yards out. The Midshipmen have been outscored 61-17 in first quarters this season.
“That was my only message this week: fast start, fast start, fast start,” Niumatalolo said. “And we keep putting ourselves in holes. It’s frustrating.”
Even when things were going well, Navy had momentum-crushing mistakes that killed opportunities to rally. After Navy cut the lead to 14-7 following a fumble recovery and a 25-yard touchdown run by Fofana, Houston drove to the Navy 3 before being settling for a field goal. The Midshipmen, however, were called for an illegal formation for lining up over the snapper, which gave Houston a first down. Tune threw his third touchdown pass on the next snap to put the Cougars up 21-7 with 5:18 remaining in the first half.
“We practiced starting fast. We talked about it,” Houston Coach Dana Holgorsen said. “It’s something that hadn’t worked and got to a point where our kids talked about it all week. We started fast in the hotel this morning, which was step one. We were alert, we had good meetings, good walk-throughs and then started fast in the football game as well.”
Still, there was optimism when Navy responded with its best drive of the first half and moved to the Houston 21-yard line. But the drive stalled, Daniel Davies’s 41-yard field goal was blocked, and the Cougars took a 14-point lead into halftime.
Things got sloppy for both teams after the break.
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Navy went three-and-out on its opening possession of third quarter, then Dell fumbled the ball back on the first snap of the ensuing drive. The Midshipmen took over at the Houston 32 but went three-and-out and missed a 47-yard field goal. Houston got the ball back, was called for a hold, a false start, and then Tune was strip sacked by Jacob Busic. Jianni Woodson-Brooks picked up the fumble and rumbled five yards for a touchdown to cut the Houston lead to 21-14 with 10:16 left in the third quarter.
Houston settled for a 24-yard field goal to go up 24-14 with 6:25 left in the third quarter. Then it was Navy’s turn for a stomach-turning mistake. Lavatai threw his second interception of the day as he stared down the intended receiver and cornerback Art Green made an easy pick and retuned it 28 yards. Tune threw his fourth touchdown pass five snaps later, this one to Brown, to extend the lead to 31-14 with 1:36 remaining in the third quarter. Navy turned the ball over on downs on the next possession to essentially end any serious comeback hopes.
“I never questioned our effort,” Busic said. “We’re going to play hard every game. When we give up 38 points like that … that’s just missed assignments. That’s not really a testament to our effort.
“We’re going to go back in the film room and get it corrected, but I’m sure we’re going to be kicking ourselves when we see the mistakes I made and the team made.”