After a demoralizing 55-3 loss to BYU on Monday, Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo blamed the listless performance on himself, having decided against significant contact during fall camp out of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.
On Wednesday, Niumatalolo said Navy will go back to normal practice sessions with full contact during numerous drills and 11-on-11 scrimmages.
"We've got no choice," Niumatalolo said. "It's the worst we've ever played."
He added that players will now be tested twice a week (instead of once a week) for the coronavirus, which makes him more comfortable doing full-contact practices.
Navy's offense struggled, and the defense surrendered 301 yards on the ground to the Cougars. Niumatalolo said the struggles were the result of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused the cancellation spring practices and his decision to hold back on contact in advance of the game.
Niumatalolo said he knew going in that Navy was likely to struggle but "was hoping for a miracle."
"We're probably the cleanest team in the country [for COVID-19]," he said, "but unfortunately we suck at football right now."
With so much conflicting information about the possible impact of COVID-19 combined with the death of Navy offensive lineman David Forney in May as a result of a heart condition, Niumatalolo said he simply wasn't willing to risk any excess exposure to the virus for his players. Niumatalolo said there were many difficult conversations with his staff leading up to the season, and even players worried they would be unprepared.
"Some guys came to me and said, 'Coach, are we hitting enough?' and I said no, but it's the way I want to practice," Niumatalolo said. "We're going to move forward. They said some good things in the meeting [Wednesday]. I can't ask them to do something if I don't give them the opportunity to get better."
Niumatalolo said fall practices included some open-field tackling to ensure players were conformable with technique and wouldn't get hurt by playing, but the normal routine of contact at the line of scrimmage was non-existent. He said that will change moving forward, but the coach also wants to be careful not to create new problems by practicing too hard.
"We're not going to do two hours of Oklahoma drills," Niumatalolo said.
Niumatalolo said it was impossible to know how prepared his team would be for the Green Wave but that he believed there would be significant improvement.
As for his decision to minimize contact during earlier practices, Niumatalolo held strong, saying his priority was always going to be the safety of his players.
"They looked like they were playing a game, and we looked like we were playing our first scrimmage. I knew all this before. You were just weighting it, the safety," he said. "I thought about it. I feel better being able to press forward with twice-a-week testing. I feel like if I was to do it again, I'd probably do it the same way.
"I'm a football coach, but you're in charge of people's lives too. We just buried one of our players a couple months ago. Not everybody dies from COVID-19, but all that stuff factors in. To me, it's more than win or lose."