Oct. 5, 2012
By Bob Socci
With no way around the question, Navy’s head coach couldn’t conceal his emotions.
He’d seen enough of the self-betrayal by an offense unable to hold onto the football. By official early-September count, one position alone -- perhaps the highest-profile spot in sports -- was responsible for seven fumbles and an interception.
The season was all of two games old.
Asked what worried him most, at the end of an afternoon on which he lifted the veteran starter in favor of the younger backup, the coach was his usual blunt self.
“I’m concerned with the lack of quarterback play, which encompasses all of them,” he said. “We have some real soul-searching to do.”
None of them was Trey Miller or Keenan Reynolds. And the concerned coach soon to start searching their souls, if not his, wasn’t Ken Niumatalolo.
It was Paul Johnson, referring to then senior Brian Hampton and sophomore Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada in 2006. On the day he spoke, those two quarterbacks combined to commit six fumbles and an interception.
To their good fortune, the Midshipmen recovered four of those loose balls -- three each charged to Hampton and Kaheaku-Enhada. Guilty of seven fumbles overall, Navy managed to hold onto a one-point lead, 21-20, and narrowly averted an upset by Division I-AA Massachusetts.
Surely, despite similar cases of fumblitis, there are clear distinctions between the present stage of this season and that stage of the ’06 campaign.
Those Mids were 2-0, on their way to 5-1 and, ultimately, 9-4. They still won in spite of their ball insecurity, edging the Minutemen after beating East Carolina by five in a two-fumble performance.
These Mids are 1-3. Fate -- like the competition, with losses to three teams who are a collective 11-3 -- has been unforgiving of their mistakes. The ball continues bouncing the other way.
But back then, like now, one player in particular was the object of intense scrutiny rooted in the very nature of his position.
Following Johnson’s public remarks, he and Hampton had a private heart-to-heart. The quarterback’s response?
He led the Mids to 446 total yards, completing 8-of-11 passes and rushing for two scores, in a 37-9 rout of Stanford. Two weeks later, after an overtime home loss to Tulsa, the hard-running Hampton gained 182 yards, scored three touchdowns and engineered a 605-yard attack in a 41-17 thrashing of UConn. The next week he added two more TD’s and another 105 yards rushing in a 24-17 win over Air Force.
All three victories were away from Annapolis -- on the road, if you will, to redemption for a quarterback under question.
Sadly, Hampton’s run was stopped by injury in the season’s seventh game. But only after emerging from early adversity to make his lasting mark on the first, and most rigorous leg of the 2006 Commander-In-Chief’s series.
In the final two minutes, the ball was firmly in his hands in Colorado Springs. Hampton rushed for eight and four yards, and then he kneeled down to victory.
Six years later, the Mids are back in Colorado Springs. And the ball is back in Miller’s hands. To date, he’s been ‘charged’ with 10 of Navy’s 12 turnovers. Niumatalolo even considered removing him in the Mids’ lone triumph, after two of the first three series vs. VMI ended in Miller fumbles. Last week, in a 12-0 loss to San Jose State, the coach did pull his quarterback.
Following practice on Monday, Niumatalolo reiterated his faith in Miller.
“He needs to play better, but I know he can get it done,” Niumatalolo told reporters.
“I just feel like Trey gives us the best chance to win right now. Really the bottom line is that we’ve got to move on. We still have two-thirds of our season left. Obviously, we’ve got a huge game against a very good Air Force team, and we just feel like he give us the best chance to win.”
However much anyone else cares about Navy’s football fortunes, no one has greater incentive to want the Mids to do well than Niumatalolo and his coaches. Their livelihoods depend largely on the outcome of every fall Saturday. Especially those featuring games against academy rivals.
They -- namely Niumatalolo and coordinator Ivin Jasper -- also see each game differently, painstakingly examining all 11 offensive positions on video. Play after play, replay after replay. Like every other observer, they’ve seen the struggles. They’ve also seen too many glimpses of what Miller can give them, if he gets past present troubles, to give up on him now.
Four games into his fifth season, Niumatalolo is in the uncomfortable situation that virtually every head football coach inevitably faces. Whenever a team struggles, as the cliche goes, the most popular player is the backup quarterback.
Before last weekend, Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eages was in that place. Michael Vick was responsible for nine of Philly’s dozen turnovers -- most in the NFL -- and was coming off a 27-6 loss at Arizona. Still, Vick, not rookie backup Nick Foles, gave Philadelphia its best opportunity to beat the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants. They did just that, 19-17, on Sunday night.
This week, Dallas’s Jason Garrett is there. His quarterback Tony Romo was intercepted five times in Monday’s loss to the Bears. But when the Cowboys return from a bye to visit the Baltimore Ravens next Sunday, it will be Romo rather than reserve Kyle Orton at QB.
Of course, those pros are paid far more handsomely than a Midshipman youngster. Their salaries afford them a little extra slack; it takes a lot for a coach to yank the highest-paid player from his offense.
But here’s why the predicaments of their teams and coaches are comparable to Navy’s and Niumatalolo’s: Vick and Romo remain the best men for the job of getting their respective teams back in the win column. For the Mids of the moment, Niumatalolo knows that Miller is still best suited to help turn their season around.
“I look at it overall," Niumatalolo says. "(Our record) is 1-and-3, but you’ve also got to look at who we’ve played. We’ve played Notre Dame, who’s number nine in the country, Penn State, who has a heck of a defense, and San Jose State, who’s 4-and-1. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to play better. But the competition that he’s gone up against has been pretty stiff.
“And he’s not the only guy who needs to get better. People don’t watch the tape and see the things that we see. If everybody else was playing error free and doing what they’re supposed to be doing, that would be one thing. But there’s a lot of areas we need to improve on. I don’t want to put all the blame on Trey, because he’s not the only one at fault. But he’s the only one people see, because he has the ball.”
There was much to like about what Miller did with the ball in the opener against a Notre Dame defense that later forced Michigan’s Denard Robinson into five turnovers and held back-to-back nationally-ranked foes without a touchdown.
At Penn State, he played essentially on one healthy ankle opposite at least three legitimate NFL prospects among the Nittany Lions' front seven. Against San Jose State, losing both a playmaker at slot back, John Howell, and then a fumble on a promising opening drive had to shake Miller’s confidence. Afterwords, Jasper shouldered blame for being, in his words, “out-coached.”
Meanwhile, Miller put it on himself.
“I just can’t catch a break,” he said last Saturday. “But it’s still all on me. I get the offense going, and when I turn it over, it hurts the team."
This Saturday, Miller looks to get going in Colorado Springs, the place where Hampton’s road to redemption led him six years earlier.