Much was written prior to the BYU/Navy game about the many Latter-day Saint elements linking the schools’ two head coaches and their respective staffs.
But for a few hours Monday night, the most pressing connection between BYU’s coach Kalani Sitake and Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo was wanting to start the wacky 2020 college football season with a win.
Ultimately, it was the BYU student ward bishop’s counselor — aka coach Sitake — who was dancing and celebrating during a surprisingly lopsided Cougar victory.
Final score: BYU 55 — Navy 3.
The game, said Sitake, “was an amazing site to see as a head coach. … Our guys played out of their minds tonight.”
BYU’s running attack shined early — logging a pair of touchdowns via the ground inside the game’s opening minutes. The Cougar defense also dominated the other side of the ball, stifling the Midshipmen’s triple-option attack all evening.
By halftime, returned missionary Lopini Katoa had found the endzone three times and BYU was pitching a 31-0 shutout. Katoa’s backfield mate, Tyler Allgeier, would go on to rush for two touchdowns of his own. Meanwhile, quarterback Zach Wilson tossed a pair of TDs.
Niumatalolo, who presides over the Annapolis Maryland Stake, opted during the preseason to limit physical contact between players in practice because of pandemic-related safety concerns. The Midshipmen defense was clearly not in form for its season opener — and the veteran coach claimed accountability for the strategy.
A welcome diversion
For American football fans of all backgrounds, Monday’s Labor Day game offered a few hours respite from the frustrations and issues of the day.
The empty bleachers at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium were lonesome reminders that the state of Maryland is still playing by the pandemic’s rules. Not even the Naval Academy’s Brigade of Midshipmen were allowed to attend the game from its traditional spot in the corner of the stadium. Instead, they gathered for viewing parties at the nearby service academy.
Meanwhile the Cougars warm-up T-shirts doubled as both a reminder and a response to calls for social change in campuses and communities across the United States. The New Testament message “Love One Another” (John 13:34) that many likely learned in Primary was emblazoned on the back. “We Are One” was on the front.
While Navy and BYU began their 2020 campaigns on Monday, several high-profile football schools have opted out of play this season because of the pandemic. Sitake said his players are appreciative for opportunities to play in front of their wide fanbase. Several Cougar fans greeted the BYU buses as they entered the stadium, even knowing they would not be allowed inside the stadium for the game.
“The players feel very fortunate to play this game, and they showed it,” Sitake said.
Memorable season openers
As a former Cougar player and a returned missionary, Mitch Mathews can appreciate the many connections between the two head coaches and several others
A quick recap: Both Sitake and Niumatalolo are native Hawaiians and returned missionaries who are comfortable talking about their faith with any audience. Both men are also coaching pioneers in the Polynesian community. Additionally, Niumatalolo’s slot backs coach, Naval Academy Branch President Joe DuPaix, coached at BYU. And several of the coaches and staffers who populated the opposing sidelines Monday are good friends away from football — including self-described “best friends” Niumatalolo and BYU’s executive recruiting coordinator Jack Damuni.
Mitchell secured his own place in “BYU season-opener lore” in 2015 when he caught the game-winning touchdown against Nebraska. On Monday, he was simply excited to watch college football.
The many Latter-day Saint connections added a “storyline” bonus.
“I love it,” said Mathews, noting the game’s unique Church elements make it “more fun to watch.
Keeping football in perspective
Prior to the game, Niumatalolo offered a wise perspective about playing football at a moment when many people worldwide are dealing with challenges far more impactful than the result of a game.
“It’s a blessing,” he said, “for us to be able to play.”
While Monday’s game marked plenty of historic Latter-day Saint firsts, football fans will likely see a rematch between the two schools fairly soon.
Navy is expected to stage a rematch against BYU at Provo’s LaVell Edwards Stadium at a date to be determined.