Navy-San Diego St. Preview
After securing the title of winningest football coach in Navy history, Ken Niumatalolo returns to the site where he took over the reins.
His Midshipmen feature the top ground attack in the FBS but will be facing one of the nation's top rushers and playing a virtual road game Tuesday night against Donnel Pumphrey and San Diego State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Navy enters the matchup off a 17-10 win over Army, its 13th consecutive victory in the rivalry. The win pushed Niumatalolo's record with the Midshipmen to 56-35, breaking a tie with George Welsh for the most victories in the program's history.
Although still ongoing, Niumatalolo's career at Navy (7-5) will have gone full circle this bowl season. His first game as coach came in the 2007 Poinsettia Bowl - a loss to Utah - shortly after being promoted from offensive coordinator once Paul Johnson left for Georgia Tech.
Niumatalolo has since led the Midshipmen to six bowl appearances, including a 24-6 win over Middle Tennessee in the 2013 Armed Forces Bowl.
"I am happy for our young men and our program that we are going back to a bowl game for the 11th time in the last 12 years," Niumatalolo said. "We are thrilled to be going to San Diego."
He surely would like to avenge a 35-14 loss to the Aztecs in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl in these teams' last meeting. That may be tough to do at Qualcomm Stadium, where San Diego State (7-5) has an eight-game winning streak and won its six games this year by an average of 19.8 points.
"We're excited about staying home, we're excited about going to this bowl game and the matchup is perfect for San Diego," Aztecs coach Rocky Long said. "Since we're a Navy town, I'm sure there's bragging rights involved. We'll see what we do, but we're excited about the position we're in."
Navy couldn't stop current Denver Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman in that last matchup at Qualcomm as he rushed for 228 yards and three touchdowns, and the Midshipmen now have to deal with another prolific Aztecs running back.
Pumphrey's 1,755 rushing yards rank third in the FBS and leave him 87 shy of the single-season school record set by George Jones in 1995. The Aztecs are 7-1 this year when he runs for more than 100 yards, including a 38-7 win over San Jose State to close the regular season as he had a career-high 267 yards and three scores.
Pumphrey, who ran for 19 touchdowns, could have a field day against a Navy defense which has been gashed for 199.7 rushing yards per game.
The Midshipmen, though, also led the FBS in rushing offense with 345.1 yards per game due greatly to Keenan Reynolds. The junior has run for 3,675 yards over his three-year career and 62 touchdowns - the most ever by an FBS quarterback.
Including kickers, Reynolds is second among active players with 374 points, and although out of reach this season, he is approaching the all-time FBS rushing touchdown record of 77 set by Wisconsin's Montee Ball from 2009-12.
"I'm aware of it," Reynolds said of the record. "It's strictly an off-the-field deal. Off-the-field, I know what I need to get. On the field, in practice, my goal is just to execute. Because at the end of the day, if we execute, good things are going to happen.
"One thing coach says all the time: stats are for losers."
This season, Reynolds has rushed 231 times for 1,355 yards and 21 scores. The Midshipmen are 0-4 when he's attempted more than 10 passes and 5-1 when he's rushed for 100 yards.
"This is truly a wishbone, triple-option team," Long said. "They've got an experienced quarterback that is really, really good, and he throws the ball well if you do a good job against the run."
The Aztecs have one of the nation's top-25 defenses, allowing 20.1 points and 337.6 yards per game, but stopping the run wasn't their strong suit. They gave up more than 150 yards on the ground five times and a total of 20 rushing touchdowns.
San Diego State and Navy had two common opponents in San Jose State and Air Force. The Aztecs went 2-0 in those matchups, while the Midshipmen defeated the Spartans but fell to the Falcons.