Bobby Fischer’s greatest moment as a chess genius might have been Game 3 of the 1972 FIDE World Championship, when he made a positional move discouraged by wood-pushers and Grandmasters alike but which seemed elegantly wise when considered with common sense. Fischer’s opponent was baffled into making 2nd-best moves in reply, and the American snapped a losing streak against the Russians before eventually winning the title. Wisdom won-out over pure science in Iceland ’72. Then-champion Boris Spassky had gotten himself hoodwinked.
American pigskin can be described in many ways – a national pastime, a ballet, a circus, a fun parlay-gamble on a Saturday afternoon. It’s also among the few happenings in which the whole country gets to see the genius of Fischer’s “Knight to Rook 5” play-out on TV screens, and actually pays attention.
Want to see devious, diabolical, daring mind-control tactics on an FBS gridiron? Until November 23rd, 2019, the friendship between Bill Belichick and Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo was nice media-guide pablum and a handy quote-machine for bored beat reporters from Annapolis. Not today, not any more.
After the Navy 35, SMU 28 result in Week 13, that narrative is veering more into “Paint the Fence, Daniel-san” territory. The Hoodie famously Jedi mind-tricked Seattle out of a Super Bowl win with a weird use (and non-use) of time-outs that left Pete Carroll and the Seahawks thinking they needed to score fast, leading to a season-killing New England interception on the goal line. On Saturday, apprentice Niumatalolo and the Naval Academy hoodwinked Sonny Dykes and the Top-25 ranked SMU Mustangs in similar style.
When the electric Malcolm Perry raced for a go-ahead Navy touchdown with about 6 minutes to go, CBS Sports announcer Randy Cross announced, “I’ve got some good news, and some bad news.” It was easy to understand what he meant. In their hearts Navy coaches might have been hoping for a 7-minute drive to end the contest in regulation, a “4th-quarter death march” as fans of Flexbone football like to call them. Perry changed the complexion of the 4th quarter when he turned a simple counter-play on 3rd and 10 into a home-run carry.
But the TV crew was wrong to project those thoughts onto the Midshipmen sideline. The Mids were on fire, and besides, “CKN” – as he’s known on AAC message boards – had a Belichick-like trick or 2 up his sleeve.
The humming SMU attack quickly moved into the Red Zone, springing runs-after-catch on what could have appeared to be a tired Navy defense. But Niumatalolo knew that his ’19 defense has been better than a service-academy unit is supposed to have any right to be, even taking the Notre Dame debacle into account. Navy’s skipper had watched the Mids hold the Mustangs to punting throughout the 1st and 3rd quarters. Southern Methodist had gained 6 yards of offense in over 15:00 of game clock at an earlier juncture. Still, prospects were looking grim that the Midshipmen could hold SMU out of the end zone and prevent having a whale of a beach-to-conquer in overtime.
What did Niumatalolo do with 3:40 left and the Mustangs poised to score? He called Navy’s final time-out. The move was immediately questioned by the CBS crew, but further reflection tells us that the Annapolis coach checkmated Dykes with a master-stroke of clock-management.
CKN’s #1 goal was to prevent Southern Methodist from running the ball 6 straight times to the goal line and over it, milking the rest of regulation-time off the clock. Dykes leads a fine coaching staff at SMU but he is not infallible, and he fell right into Niumatalolo’s trap by allowing Shane Buechele to pass into the end-zone twice on 3rd and 4th down.
To the outside world (and to the SMU sideline) it appeared that a tired, winded Navy defense had been broken, and was calling time-out as a last-ditch effort to get some motor back out on the rain-soaked field. That’s the program’s reputation, right? Ah, look at the service academy. Running out of steam again!
But instead, the stoppage – which occurred prior to the game clock ticking below the average SMU scoring drive‘s length in minutes and seconds – removed any notion in Dykes’ mind that the Mustangs should try to drain the game clock and neutralize Perry by using time as they scored. 2 successful Red Zone running plays immediately followed the time-out by Navy. But you could almost feel the SMU offense itching to throw the ball around, hoping to score before the 2-minute mark instead and tip the momentum back in the Mustangs’ favor with time left to go ahead.
Pop, pop, fizzle. 2 needless incompletions near the pylon, and Dykes began to get into a bad mood. It would get worse.
Niumatalolo had Dykes in his hands and was toying with him, and the coup-de-grace came with about 1:00 left and Navy facing a 4th down and 1 inside its own 30-yard line and still holding a 35-28 lead. Each team had run out of time-outs. Once again, emotions and cliche aside, there was no reason for the academy team to do anything unconventional. Midshipmen would punt and rely on a much-improved defense in the final seconds. But CKN knows well that perception can equal reality on the gridiron.
Everybody said it was 4th and 1, but it was really 4th and 2. Navy lined-up to go for it anyway.
Coaching against UCF or Oklahoma State, Dykes and the Mustangs would have known they were watching a lame-duck attempt to draw the defense offside prior to a punt between the 20s. Niumatalolo confirmed in the post-game presser that the Midshipmen wouldn’t have chanced giving up another Red Zone possession to SMU.
Then Navy ran its trademark wheel-around motion from the left A-back. Perry did not begin a play. Right then, Dykes (or SMU position-coaches especially – most-likely the vulnerable link Niumatalolo and Perry sought to exploit) should have called-off any motion or tip-reading exercises up front, and howled at their players not to fall for a ruse.
FBS coaches are fans too, and they’ve been hearing the same things about Navy we’ve all heard for 20 years now. 4th down is their bread and butter. Their best defense is a good offense. This is what they do.
Nobody stopped to think that the Mids’ defense has all-but cut opposing stats in half this season, or that Malcolm Perry had nearly carried the ball 40 times in 4 quarters. CKN wasn’t going to send him into the pile on a bad gamble. Instead, the QB’s intelligence was brought to the forefront as Perry deep-faked SMU’s jumpy defensive line with a fake snap on the 2nd A-back motion.
It had been a legal play on Navy’s part, and the Mustangs clearly lurched over the line-of-scrimmage and made contact. The ref was correct in throwing the flag. CBS’s footage of Niumatalolo’s delight on the sideline is why we love college football, but it’s not something Bill Belichick would have done…which was no excuse for Dykes to lose the plot once the flag was thrown.
SMU’s head coach stormed onto the field, giving the zebras a tongue-lashing that may or may not have been lawful in Canada. He was handed another 15-yard penalty for his actions, and wouldn’t even look at Niumatalolo when the game was over. Soon he was trashing the referees (and maybe Navy too) in a presser:
Sonny Dykes: "I thought the way the game ended [with the offside penalty] was bush league. I thought that was a bush league deal. … It's too bad [the referees] didn't give our players a chance to finish the game. … The officials took the game away from the players."
— Sam Blum (@SamBlum3) November 24, 2019
Bobby Fischer said that his favorite moment in chess occurred when his opponents knew they’d been had, causing them to mentally break-down over the board.
Dykes had lost on move after move in the final 4 minutes of Saturday’s Annapolis classic. In the end, he kicked-over the table and hurled abuse at kibitzers.
Navy probably blew its bid for a New Year’s Six appearance when the Middies had their worst ball-security day in ages in a 52-20 loss at Notre Dame. However, the presence of the 8-2 Midshipmen in the thick of the American title race gives the upstarts a shot at affecting who does play in the biggest bowls.
That’s a nice treat for fans of service academy ball, and demonstrates what a Flexbone team with an actually-good defense can accomplish in the modern FBS. Suddenly the Midshipmen are tough to compete with no matter which team has the football.
And if Navy’s offense, defense, and special teams don’t get you, Niumatalolo – like his mentor Bill Belichick – can always use the Force to get inside the head of an opponent.
That wasn’t the 4th quarter you were looking for, Mustangs. You do not want to win at Annapolis. You want to go home and rethink your life.
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.