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Where EAST meets the Northwest

SAMOAN STARS. Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo (left photo) reacts while watching a field goal attempt in a National Collegiate Athletic Association football game. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau (#13) throws to running back Phillip Lindsay during the Pac-12 Conference championship game against the University of Washington, in Santa Clara, California. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

From The Asian Reporter, V27, #1 (January 2, 2017), page 8.

Samoan college football stars overcome adversity in 2016

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

Samoans abound in college football, but they’re typically linemen or defensive backs; rarer still are Samoans in leadership positions. But this season, two Samoans showed their resilience in unexpected positions. One Samoan quarterback returned from injury to return his team to glory, while a Samoan head coach excelled despite many injuries to key players.

The first Samoan college football head coach, Ken Niumatalolo, has brought the Navy Midshipmen into the national spotlight since taking the helm nine years ago. Already Navy’s winningest football coach ever, Niumatalolo added to his accolades and records last season, winning 11 games and their third straight bowl game, both Navy firsts.

This season, the Midshipmen continued that success after losing starting quarterback Tago Smith in the first game of the season. Backup Will Worth stepped into the starting role without missing a beat and Navy won five of their first six games.

Among the many highlights of Navy’s season was a 46-40 upset win over sixth-ranked Houston, their first victory against a top-10 team since 1984. They eked out a win against Notre Dame, 28-27, just their fourth win against the Fighting Irish since 1963. Following that victory, they won their next three games, rolling up an astounding 183 points, including a 75-31 shellacking of Southern Methodist University.

Following that game, Worth was voted the American Sports Net 2016 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) Player of the Year. He had rushed for 1,181 yards, passed 1,363 yards, and placed first in the FBS with 25 rushing touchdowns. He is only the fifth player in Navy history to rush and pass for at least 1,000 yards in a season.

Facing Temple in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) finals, however, the season changed for Niumatalolo, Worth, and the Midshipmen. Worth suffered a season-ending knee injury in the second quarter, then Navy also lost running backs Darryl Bonner and Toneo Gulley in the same game. Navy fell to Temple, 10-34. A week later, they brought their severely depleted offense to face archrival Army, whom they had beaten for 14 straight years.

Despite their personnel challenges, Niumatalolo and Navy put up a valiant fight. Behind by 14 points at halftime, the Midshipmen came roaring back to take the lead by scoring 17 unanswered points. But they couldn’t hold back the persistent Black Knights, who scored the go-ahead touchdown with just under seven minutes remaining. Navy could not mount a scoring drive in response and fell 17-21.

The Midshipmen suffered similar heartache in a close game at the Armed Forces Bowl against Louisiana Tech. Missing eight starters on offense and defense, Navy battled back and forth with the Bulldogs, trading the lead throughout.

The Midshipmen found their offense, but their defense was too porous, committing six penalties — the most since 2006. Navy tied the score at 45 with less than four minutes to play, but they couldn’t stop Louisiana Tech from kicking a game-winning field goal as time ran out.

Despite the loss, Niumatalolo’s heroics made him a finalist for the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award. He shared the distinction with Mike McIntyre, coach of the Colorado Buffaloes, who had a huge turnaround this season.

In McIntyre’s first three years at the helm, the Buffaloes limped to a cumulative 2-27 conference record in the Pac-12. And Colorado’s star quarterback, Samoan Sefo Liufau, ended the 2015 season prematurely after sustaining a foot injury that required surgery.

For the Buffs to succeed this season, a healthy Liufau had to play a major role. By the time he finished his sophomore season in 2014, the Samoan standout had already shattered a mind-boggling 51 school records.

As a junior, Liufau set a Colorado season record for lowest interception percentage, including two stretches of more than 100 passes without an interception. But his arm isn’t his only weapon, as Liufau was fifth on the team in rushing and second in rushing touchdowns in 2015, despite missing most of the final three games to the foot injury.

In 2016’s season opener, Liufau showed he was fully healthy by throwing for 318 yards in Colorado’s 44-7 trouncing of Colorado State. Two games later, however, he injured his right ankle against Michigan; redshirt freshman Steven Montez stepped in, but could not rally the Buffs to a win.

Montez led the team to a 2-1 record in the three games Liufau missed. When the starting quarterback returned, Colorado went on a six-game win streak that saw them take down six divisional opponents and rise to ninth in the national rankings.

But Liufau went down again in the Pac-12 championship against fourth-ranked Washington. Leading his team on a first-quarter drive into Washington territory, Liufau reinjured his right ankle and had to leave the game. He returned in the second half, clearly favoring that leg, which not only neutralized his running threat but also affected his renowned passing accuracy. Liufau threw three interceptions — half as many as he’d thrown all last season — and the Huskies rolled to a 41-10 win.

Against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Alamo Bowl, the injury bug struck Liufau again. Midway through the second quarter, with the Cowboys up 17-0 and swarming Colorado’s offense, Liufau scrambled out of trouble and injured his right ankle again. Though he was not expected to return, he entered the game with Colorado down 0-31 in the third quarter. Gritting his teeth, Liufau led his team to its only scoring drive of the game; it was a courageous effort, but the Buffs still fell, 8-38.

Though Liufau will graduate this year, Asian sports fans can keep watching Navy rise to greatness under Niumatalolo. With these excellent role models to follow, other talented Samoan players will be inspired to show their toughness in unexpected positions on the college gridiron.

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