HONOLULU — Navy’s season opener will also serve as a homecoming in many ways for coach Ken Niumatalolo.
Niumatalolo, who is kicking off his 11th season leading the Midshipmen when they face Hawaii on Saturday at Aloha Stadium, is a native of Laie, a small community on Oahu’s north shore. He played quarterback at Hawaii and also began his coaching career there as an assistant in 1992.
“It always means a lot to go back to Aloha Stadium. I have a lot of great memories there. That being said, this isn’t about me. It’s about our players and our team,” Niumatalolo told The Capital Gazette earlier this week.
It will be the third time Niumatalolo will face his alma mater. He is 1-1 against Hawaii, including a 42-28 win in their last meeting in 2013 in Annapolis. The Rainbow Warriors won 24-17 the last time the teams played in Honolulu in 2009.
Niumatalolo was in the midst of his second season at Navy during that 2009 season, when Nick Rolovich served as Hawaii’s quarterbacks coach and as its primary offensive play caller.
Rolovich, now in his third season as head coach of the Rainbow Warriors, was also a former quarterback at the school.
The two quarterbacks-turned-head coaches are representative of different eras in Hawaii football. Niumatalolo, a member of the team’s first bowl team in 1989, played under coaches Dick Tomey and Bob Wagner, who employed run-heavy, triple-option offenses. Rolovich played in a wide-open, run-and-shoot attack under June Jones for two years in the early 2000s.
Some things to watch when Navy faces Hawaii, which leads the series 2-1:
NEW WRINKLES: The Midshipmen were second nationally in rushing offense in 2017 with a per-game average of 351.4 yards. Three of their top four rushers from a season ago return. However, the offense has also seen some changes. Former starting quarterback Zach Abey, who recorded a team-high 1,413 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns last season, has moved to wide receiver and Malcolm Perry, who started nine games at slotback and three at quarterback in 2017, has shifted to QB full time. Perry ran for 1,182 yards and 11 scores last season.
HOT START: The Rainbow Warriors are looking to keep the momentum rolling after coming away with a 43-34 win at Colorado State last week. Despite being a 17-point underdog against the Rams, Hawaii racked up 617 yards of total offense, its most in nearly five seasons. Quarterback Cole McDonald passed for 418 yards with three touchdowns and also rushed for 96 yards and two more scores. It was the most points scored by Hawaii since the 2016 Hawaii Bowl, when it defeated Middle Tennessee, 52-35.
TRAVEL DEMANDS: No team on the U.S. mainland will travel more than Navy this season. It will record 26,496 miles of travel to its six road and two neutral-site games. The trip to Honolulu will be its longest this year. The last team from the Eastern time zone to win at Hawaii in the regular season was Cincinnati in 2008, when the then-No. 13 Bearcats escaped with a 29-24 victory.
TAVAI BACK: After sitting out Hawaii’s first game last week due to a violation of team rules, senior linebacker Jahlani Tavai is expected to make his 2018 debut Saturday. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound Tavai led the team in tackles in each of the past two seasons and is on the preseason watch lists for several national awards, including the Nagurski and Butkus awards. Tavai has a chance to finish his college career as the program’s all-time leader in tackles. He currently has 309, which ranks eighth in school history.
MORE CONNECTIONS: Niumatalolo isn’t the only Hawaii connection on the Navy coaching staff. Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Ivin Jasper is a 1994 graduate of Hawaii. He played quarterback and slotback during his three seasons there. Niumatalolo’s son, Va’a, will be on the opposing sideline Saturday. Va’a, a four-year player at BYU, is an intern on the Hawaii coaching staff this year.
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/tag/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP—Top25