Navy had plenty to be excited about after a fairly easy — and eye-catching — 40-14 win over Western Kentucky on Saturday night.
There were four scoring plays of more than 40 yards, the Midshipmen physically dominated Western Kentucky, sending the larger Hilltoppers to their 16th straight home loss, and coach Ken Niumatalolo reached a milestone in his brief career.
But instead of emerging from the locker room with a smile, Niumatalolo was choked up as he met with reporters and wiped away tears because of the loss of senior running back Aaron Santiago to a broken right forearm.
"He's just a great, great kid," Niumatalolo said after setting the mark for most career wins through four seasons at Navy with 29. "To be honest with you, I was in a daze in the second half. To lose a guy like that ..."
Santiago was one of four players to score touchdowns as the Midshipmen (2-0) jumped out to an easy halftime lead with a dazzling array of big plays. His 4-yard scoring run late in the second quarter to make it 27-7 essentially put the game out of reach. But a short time later Santiago broke his arm, likely ending his season.
"Coach is real passionate," running back John Howell said. "He's a coach that all he cares about is his players and to see (Santiago) like that is upsetting."
The Midshipmen (2-0) proved they have playmakers who can step in against the Hilltoppers (0-2), starting with Howell.
He ripped off a 50-yard touchdown run on the game's fifth play during a quick, violent downpour that hit with the kickoff. And early in the second half he scored on a weaving, 57-yard run that gave Navy a 26-point lead.
Howell pretty much saw the same thing after taking the pitch on each run.
"There was literally no one there," he said.
And when the Hilltoppers focused on the run, quarterback Kriss Proctor floated scoring passes of 44 yards to Matt Aiken and 27 yards to Brandon Turner over a hard-biting defense to give the Midshipmen a 20-0 lead early in the second quarter.
It wasn't perfect in sloppy conditions, but Navy's triple option was nevertheless dominating. Asked what was working against his defense, which gave up 410 yards rushing and 510 total, Western Kentucky coach Willie Taggart had a simple answer: "Everything."
"You see it on film and I think you take it for granted until you see it for real. It's top-notch."
WKU's Bobby Rainey became the sixth Hilltoppers running back to reach 3,000 yards rushing in his career while leading a brief first-half rally, scoring from 13 yards on the next drive. But Santiago answered by capping off Navy's fifth quick-strike scoring drive of five or fewer plays in the first half.
It was Rainey's seventh straight 100-yard rushing game — he finished with 131 — and he can tie the school record next week against Indiana State.
The Hilltoppers' inability to come up with any other offense besides Rainey did them in again, however. Rainey was mostly hemmed in when the game was close except on WKU's first scoring drive when he rushed for 50 of the Hilltoppers' 71 yards, then tightroped down the left sideline before a scoring dive that just caught the pylon. He added a 1-yard scoring dive late in the third quarter.
WKU had just 26 yards passing in the first half, however, and quarterback Kawaun Jakes was 7 of 12 for 51 yards. He had an interception and a fumble, giving him six turnovers in two games, and was pulled early in the second half for backup Brandon Doughty. The Hilltoppers finished with 277 yards of total offense.
Meanwhile, Navy had little trouble diversifying its offense, alternating a dominating option attack led by fullback Alex Teich with Proctor's timely passes. Teich finished with 102 yards on 15 carries, and his 38-yard run late in the second quarter set up Santiago's score.
Howell finished with 113 yards rushing and Proctor, who entered the game with 12 career passes, completed 3 of 6 for 100 yards in the first half and attempted only one more in the second half. He was held below 100 yards rushing for the first time in his career as a starter, though.
He played sleight of hand to give the Midshipmen their quick early lead with those deceptive play-action fakes. On his pass to Aiken, Proctor got two defenders to bite and had his choice of receivers running free behind the WKU defense, which held Kentucky to 190 yards a week earlier. His second fake allowed Turner to slip 10 yards behind the Hilltoppers for an easy score.
"The second time we weren't sure what to expect," Howell said, "and they went for it again."