By Corbin McGuire
For a first-time matchup between the two programs, K-State football’s battle with Navy in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tennessee on Tuesday, December 31 brings a decent amount of familiarity and a few interesting parallels.
Both teams bounced back from missing bowl games last year, for starters.
Navy (9-2) won just three games a year ago, its worst season in more than 15 years. This year, it missed the American Athletic Conference’s championship by just one game. Its only two losses this season were to a pair of ranked teams in No. 15 Notre Dame and No. 17 Memphis.
K-State (8-4), after its eight-year bowl streak was snapped last season, rebounded under new leadership of head coach Chris Klieman and his staff. The Wildcats, picked ninth in the Big 12, finished in a tie for third.
Each program’s head coach pointed to the same thing when asked what led to their successful turnarounds.
“It’s been the leadership of our senior class,” Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo said in a teleconference on Sunday night. “Chris will say this: When the leadership comes from coaches, you can do good things, but when it comes from your players, those are when special things happen. We had a senior class and senior team captains that wanted to get things right, and they paid the price. Our kids went to work. It was our senior leadership.”
Klieman echoed Niumatalolo a few seconds later, praising his 27-man senior class.
“Ken hit it on the head. It’s the senior leadership,” Klieman said. “Those kids were really disappointed walking off the field last year in the last game of the season and finishing 5-7 and not having an opportunity to play in the postseason. It was a goal we set out for early in the season. We had some tough times and the players had great resolve. They battled through those tough times. They believed in each other. They counted on each other. I was excited because I think we became a better football team as the season went on.”
Both teams are also led by playmaking quarterbacks in their first season as the primary signal caller.
Skylar Thompson, who split the starting duties last season, has thrived this season as the go-to behind center. So far he’s ran for 1,042 career yards, tied for the fifth most by a Wildcat quarterback in program history. He also became the school’s fourth quarterback ever to throw for 4,000 career yards and rush for 1,000 but the first to do so prior to his senior season.
Malcolm Perry, Navy’s senior quarterback, has played a mix of running back and quarterback in his time with the Midshipmen. This year, he’s stuck at quarterback and helped Navy become the NCAA’s No. 1 rushing team, averaging 360.8 yards on the ground per game.
“Obviously he’s a tremendous football player,” Klieman said of Perry. “I’ve seen Navy play maybe one time this year. I can’t remember who it was against, but I remember watching and he was an electric player.”
As for the familiarity, Niumatalolo and Klieman have built a mutual respect for each other from American Football Coaches Association meetings.
“He’s obviously a phenomenal coach but he’s even a better person,” Niumatalolo said of Klieman. “I have great respect for Chris. He’s had a long history of successful teams.”
“I have so much respect for Ken and the job he’s done there,” Klieman added.
Each knows the challenge at hand is steep, too. Navy, with its unique and highly effective option offense. K-State, the only team in the country with a win over one of the four College Football Playoff teams in Oklahoma.
“There’s always the euphoria of making it to a bowl game, and then you see your opponent and you’re, like, ‘Oh crap.’ We know how good they are,” Niumatalolo said. “I actually watched that (Oklahoma) game, so (K-State’s) a great team.”
“I probably echo Ken. When I told our defensive coordinator (Scottie Hazelton) we were playing Navy, he said, ‘Oh crap,'” Klieman added, with a laugh. “It’s a challenging offense to face.”
K-State and Navy will also not hurry into Liberty Bowl preparation, either. And for different reasons.
The Wildcat coaching staff will start game planning this week while also heavily focusing on recruiting before the early signing period opens on December 18. Navy, on the other hand, will play its storied rivalry game against Army on Saturday in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
K-State Athletics Director Gene Taylor will be there, and not to do any scouting, either. He goes to the prestigious game every year because of his connection to Navy. Taylor’s career took off at the Naval Academy from 1986-2001. He worked his way up from administrative assistant to assistant ticket manager to ticket manager to assistant athletic director for tickets and operations and, eventually, associate athletic director, before going to North Dakota State.
“Really, it’s an honor to play an academy and, after 15 years there, I know how hard those young men work, beyond the sport of football,” Taylor said. “So, we’re really looking forward to it. We’re excited about it.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with Coach Klieman and his efforts this year, coming into a situation as the new coach and a lot of new faces and being able to lead this team through some great victories, a couple of tough losses and come back and qualify for an outstanding bowl. I’m very excited.”
Source: Kansas State Sports