Navy proved to be better than Wake Forest in their first meeting this season. Judging by how each team has fared since that game, not much may change when they match up for a second time.
With revenge on its mind, Wake Forest will have to find a way to score against Navy’s suddenly stifling defense as the teams meet in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl at RFK Stadium on Saturday.
Wake Forest (7-5) and Navy (9-4) have the honor of playing the first of 34 bowl games this season, leading up to Oklahoma and Florida meeting for the national championship on Jan. 8.
While bowl matchups often feature teams that haven’t faced one another in some time and have little history, this game is an exception. Navy and then-No. 16 Wake Forest met back on Sept. 27 in Winston-Salem, with the Midshipmen holding on to win 24-17 for their first victory over a ranked team since 1985.
“Navy is a great football team and they’re going to give us fits again,” Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. “They run the wishbone and the option as well as anyone in the country. They’re playing great defense right now.”
That was an extremely disappointing loss for Wake Forest, which was 3-0 after forcing seven turnovers in a 12-3 win at Florida State a week earlier. Riley Skinner threw four interceptions, including a fourth-quarter pick that ended any chance the heavily favored Demon Deacons had at a comeback.
This will mark the first time in 63 years that the Demon Deacons have played a team twice in the same season. In 1945, they played to a 13-all tie against South Carolina in the regular season, then defeated the Gamecocks 26-14 in the Gator Bowl in their first-ever bowl appearance.
“It’s a great opportunity. We played them earlier this year in which we lost a game we thought we could have won,” Wake Forest cornerback Alphonso Smith said. “We didn’t play as well, we didn’t play Wake Forest football.”
After allowing a combined 76 points in losses to Duke and Ball State, Navy kept Wake Forest off the scoreboard until the third quarter and yielded only 43 rushing yards.
“It was a phenomenal job of our kids fighting, scratching and clawing,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the win. “Our defense played phenomenal today. Every situation that we put them in, our defense just stepped up.”
The victory provided a huge lift for the Midshipmen, who went on to win five of their final seven games, including victories over Northern Illinois and Army by a combined 50-0 score to close the regular season. Navy has not allowed a point since losing 27-21 to Notre Dame on Nov. 15.
Besides beating their archrivals for the seventh straight time, the best thing about Navy’s 34-0 rout of Army on Dec. 6 was the return of quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, who has been limited to five games this season with a hamstring injury. Kaheaku-Enhada was injured in the second quarter against Wake Forest, but looked strong directing Navy’s option offense against Army.
“It was huge. I wanted to get back, actually contribute to the team effort,” Kaheaku-Enhada said. “I haven’t done anything all year long. I felt bad for the guys because I haven’t really been here.”
Behind the 1-2 punch of Shun White and Eric Kettani, Navy led the nation with 298.3 rushing yards per game. White racked up 1,021 yards and eight touchdowns in 12 games, ranking third nationally with an 8.7 yards-per-carry average. Kettani, meanwhile, totaled 932 yards—including a career-high 175 against Wake Forest—and four TDs on 176 carries.
White and Kettani are the first set of 2,000-yard career rushing teammates Navy has ever had.
Although they will play in a bowl for three straight seasons for the first time in school history, the Demon Deacons only won four of their final nine games. They finished in four-way tie for third place in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
Coming off a 9-4 season that included a win over Connecticut in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, the Demon Deacons had loftier goals in mind than a 7-5 record with nine starters returning on defense and Skinner and running back Josh Adams — the 2006 and 2007 ACC Rookies of the Year, respectively—returning on offense.
Wake’s offense underachieved all season, and putting up points against Navy’s defense could be a problem. The Deacons rank 103rd nationally in total offense (315.8), 101st in rushing yards (111.6) and 97th in scoring offense (20.3). They have scored only 20 touchdowns in 41 trips inside the red zone.
Since throwing four interceptions in the loss to Wake Forest, Skinner has thrown for six touchdowns and three picks in his last eight games.
Adams, meanwhile, took a step back this season after rushing for 953 yards as a freshman. Slowed by a sprained ankle, he was limited to 389 yards and carried only 11 times for 32 yards in the final three games.
Wake Forest holds a 6-3 lead in the all-time series with Navy. The Demon Deacons had won four straight against the Midshipmen until Navy’s win in September.