MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo wanted to make sure he spent this bowl season on a sideline rather than in the stands.
After his team went 3-10 last year to end a string of six straight bowl appearances, Niumatalolo spent the holiday season watching his sons in their respective bowl games. Ali’i Niumatalolo is a Utah linebacker and Va’a Niumatalolo is a Hawaii graduate assistant.
“I’d rather be at our own (bowl game),” Niumatalolo said.
That’s exactly where he is now that Navy has gone from losing 10 games last year to winning 10 games this season. The 21st-ranked Midshipmen (10-2) can match a program record for victories on Tuesday by winning a Liberty Bowl matchup with a Kansas State (8-4) team that has made its own notable improvement.
A Liberty Bowl triumph also would enable Navy to match the second-biggest season-to-season improvement in win-loss record of any team in Football Bowl Subdivision history. Hawaii owns the record by going 9-4 in 1999 after finishing 0-12 a year earlier.
“We take great pride in that, as far as our senior class, being able to turn around the team and being where we are now,” Navy offensive guard David Forney said.
After Niumatalolo overhauled his defensive coaching staff, Navy has improved its total defense ranking from 87th last year to 22nd this season. Niumatalolo made an even more profitable offseason decision by handing the starting quarterback job to Malcolm Perry, who was moved to slotback last year after a 35-7 loss to Air Force.
“I shouldn’t have moved him to another position,” Niumatalolo said. “We jumped the gun, panicked a little bit after the Air Force game. Looking back at it, did we do all we could to give him a chance? I don’t think we did. I don’t think we did a good job. That’s on me as a coach, to kind of look at what we were doing schematically. Because I knew this guy was special.”
Perry has responded by setting Navy single-season records for yards rushing (1,804) and total offense (2,831). He directs a Navy offense averaging 363.7 yards rushing per game - 65 more than any other FBS team.
While Perry has led Navy back to the Top 25, Kansas State has staged its own remarkable turnaround.
After going 5-7 last season in the final year of Bill Snyder’s illustrious coaching tenure, the Wildcats are 8-4 with an upset of Oklahoma in their first year under Chris Klieman. Picked before the season to finish ninth out of 10 teams in the Big 12, Kansas State has a shot at its first nine-win season since 2016.
“It would mean everything,” Kansas State safety Denzel Goolsby said. “It would be the foundation for what’s to come here in the Klieman era.’’
Some other things to watch in the Liberty Bowl.
KLIEMAN’S NEW EXPERIENCE
This will mark Klieman’s first bowl game as a coach or player, though he already has enjoyed plenty of postseason success. Klieman won four Football Championship Subdivision titles in his five-year stint as North Dakota State’s head coach.
“Obviously it’s different because of the developmental side of things, continuing to try to work on the future of your football team, where when you’re playing for a national championship or playoff game, you have only that on your mind,” Klieman said. “That’s been a little bit different. Not only that, but when you go to a national championship game, you’re only there a couple of days. We’ve been here quite a bit longer, so there’s more activities.”
ON THE RUN
Both of these teams love to run the ball and control the clock.
Kansas State ranks fourth among all FBS teams in time of possession (34:16.92), while Navy is 11th (33:14.58). Navy has run the ball on 88.3% of its snaps. Kansas State runs 63.9% of the time with a rushing attack that features James Gilbert (133 carries, 698 yards), quarterback Skylar Thompson (105-402) and Jordon Brown (81-367).
CHASING A RECORD
Perry is 116 yards away from the FBS single-season record for yards rushing by a quarterback. Northern Illinois’ Jordan Lynch rushed for 1,920 yards in 2013.
Navy co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Brian Norwood was Kansas State’s co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach last year. Goolsby said Norwood sent a congratulatory text to Kansas State’s defensive backs after the Wildcats’ victory over Mississippi State and texted them again after the bowl matchup was announced.
Navy is seeking to finish a season in the AP Top 25 for just the third time in the last 56 years. Navy finished 18th in 2015 after going 11-2 and ended up 24th in 2004.
Kansas State is third in the “also receiving votes” section of the poll. A Liberty Bowl victory could enable the Wildcats to end a year in the Top 25 for the first time since finishing 18th in 2014.
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee