HOUSTON (AP) Though the season is winding down, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo is still looking for improvement from his team.
Navy (6-4, 4-3 American) will get its second-to-last opportunity in the regular season to get better when it travels to Houston (6-3, 4-3) on Friday. The game will determine who finishes second in the American's West Division, but Niumatalolo doesn't think that should be his team's motivation.
''We are just trying to win,'' Niumatalolo said. ''That needs to mean everything to you. If you have dangle stuff on to winning, you aren't going to win anyways. It doesn't matter who you play, you are trying to win every time you suit it up.''
Navy lost to No. 9 Notre Dame 24-17 on Saturday, its fourth loss in five games. All of those losses have been by 10 points or fewer.
The close losses have been tough, with the Midshipmen holding the ball with a chance to win late in each of them. Niumatalolo said those have been the types of games Navy has won in the past. This year, the Midshipmen are 5-4 in games decided by 10 points or fewer.
Niumatalolo wants to see his team play a cleaner game. Navy turned the ball over once against Notre Dame and committed three penalties - both areas that Niumatalolo wants to see improvement in over the final two games.
Navy has committed 42 penalties and turned the ball over 18 times this season, while forcing 11 turnovers.
''That's probably the most disheartening thing,'' Niumatalolo said. ''We strive to be one of the best in the country in turnover margin, and we are one of the worst. Penalties we are up there. We are doing better, but we are still getting some penalties we usually don't get. We are trying to play cleaner assignment-wise, turnover wise and penalty-wise.''
RUNNING BACK SHUFFLE
Houston will have running back Duke Catalon and backup Mulbah Car available against Navy, but coach Major Applewhite said Catalon has a shoulder sprain that he aggravated against Tulane on Saturday, and Car had an ankle and knee injury against the Green Wave. True freshman Davion Mitchell, who rushed twice for nine yards against Tulane, could get more carries against the Midshipmen, and Patrick Carr might see some playing time Friday.
''Davion and Patrick are the healthiest,'' Applewhite said. ''Duke and Mulbah are the most experienced and have the most carries, but we'll have to see.''
NAVY QUARTERBACK SITUATION
Niumatalolo wouldn't say who would start at quarterback against Houston. Zach Abey has rushed for a conference-leading 1,289 yards and 14 touchdowns in the Navy triple option, while completing 42 percent of his passes and throwing for 758 yards and seven touchdowns.
Malcom Perry rushed for 736 yards and seven touchdowns, and Garret Lewis completed 47 percent of his passes for 166 yards and two touchdowns but has only rushed for 52 yards.
''Right now we are still going through it,'' Niumatalolo said. ''Zach has been getting a lot of reps. Malcolm is getting reps, too, and looking well. He's healthier than I thought he would be. Garret got some reps. We are getting closer to it.''
COUGARS IN THE RED ZONE
Houston struggled in the red zone against Tulane, converting on two of four trips, with quarterback D'Eriq King throwing an interception in the end zone on one drive and another drive being stopped at the 5-yard line.
''I remember my college coach making us sing, `Reserve the right to kick,' every time we did a red zone drill,'' Applewhite said. ''You have to have points. The only way you can put pressure on people in this game is to put points on the board.''
NAVY WHEN AHEAD
The Midshipmen are 54-9 when scoring first under Niumatalolo, including 5-1 this season, and are 69-4 when leading going into the fourth quarter under Niumatalolo, including 6-0 this season. Navy is also 28-2 over the last five years when winning the turnover battle, but this season, the Midshipmen have won the turnover battle once, when they defeated Air Force.
HONORS FOR OLIVER
Houston sophomore defensive tackle Ed Oliver was named a finalist for Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is given to the nation's top defensive player, and an Outland Trophy finalist, which is given to the nation's most outstanding interior lineman. Oliver leads all active players with 1.46 tackles for loss per game and has five forced fumbles in his career. Oliver has 55 tackles, 11 tackles for losses and 3+ sacks this season. He also has blocked a kick and two forced fumbles.
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