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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, left, and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo meet after the game Thursday in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — After his Midshipmen had fallen 35-32 to Utah in Thursday night's Poinsettia Bowl, Ken Niumatalolo wasn't about to talk about his debut as Navy's new head coach.

Rather, he wanted to commiserate about the departure of Navy's senior players.

"More than anything, I feel for our seniors. These guys have meant everything for our program," Niumatalolo said after the game, adding "the seniors are the guys who brought us here."

And it was a senior — slotback Zerbin Singleton, one of the dozen-plus senior Midshipmen starters — who helped bring Navy back from a 10-point deficit with 87 seconds left to play to an almost improbable comeback victory.

With Utah leading 35-25, Singleton hauled in a 58-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada with 57 seconds to play, with Joey Bullen's PAT kick pulling Navy to within 35-32.

Looking to get the ball back, Bullen booted a high-bouncing onside kick that Singleton jumped up and snatched in midair from Utah's Stevenson Sylvester.

"That's Zerb Singleton to a 'T' right there," said Niumatalolo. "I'm sick for him that we couldn't finish."

Singleton's snag gave the ball back to the Midshipmen for one last-gasp attempt.

That gasp was choked shut when a Kaheaku-Enhada pass was intercepted by Utah's Joe Dale with 26 seconds left to play.

Another key sequence came a little earlier in the fourth quarter when Navy faced a fourth-and-two at its own 9-yard line with less than two-and-a half-minutes to play and trailing 28-25. The Midshipmen needed a first down to sustain the drive and try for either a game-tying field goal or a go-ahead touchdown.

Navy ran a counter play, with the line and backfield all headed right — except for Kaheaku-Enhada, who spun left and tried to go around the end before slipping and getting stopped by — who else? — Utah's Dale, named the game's defensive MVP.

Utah took over on downs at the Navy 9 and scored an insurance TD that proved to be the difference.

"That's just one play," said Niumatalolo. "We had a ton of opportunities tonight."

Instead, the Navy coach bemoaned miscues and missed chances. "Offensively we weren't able to capitalize ... and if we take care of the football, we win."

Then it was back to thinking of the departing Midshipmen.

"There's no NFL for these guys, there's nothing else for these guys," said Niumatalolo. "We're going to send them off to serve our country."

E-mail: taylor@desnews.com