Oct. 21, 2011
By Bob Socci
Early Wednesday afternoon Kriss Proctor was trying to get over the hump of the week between Navy's latest of disappointments and the next most important game on its schedule.
A few days removed from a 21-20 loss to Rutgers, the third of four straight defeats suffered by a margin of three points or less, the senior quarterback addressed what he termed "the very real reality" of the Midshipmen.
"Even though we're going through a rough stretch right now, that might have brought us even closer," Proctor said of 2-4 Navy, as it prepared for tomorrow's encounter with East Carolina. "I think it makes us work just that much harder."
For generations, the Mids have been fastened air tight, bonded into a Brotherhood created, in part, by their reliance on each other simply to outlast the rigors of Naval Academy life. Midway through his final fall in Annapolis, and his first as starting quarterback, Proctor is all but asking others to lean on him.
"There's a little more sense of urgency right now, so more than ever, I'm trying to keep the guys focused and realizing that we still have goals that we can still accomplish," he said. "I just got to be that guy who sets the tempo every day in practice, early on in the game, so other guys can feed off me.
"That's what I'm working on right now, just keeping the energy level up for everybody else to feed off."
According to head coach Ken Niumatalolo the following day, whether fueled by Proctor's words and actions or driven by their own sense of immediacy and pride, the reaction of teammates was exactly as desired.
"I'm very pleased with the way we responded," Niumatalolo said. "We've had a good week of practice."
True, energy and efficiency from Monday thru Thursday don't always translate into Saturday productivity. But considering the perceived fragility of a 2-4 start to a 12-game season, Niumatalolo's assessment should still be reassuring to Navy fans.
Not that they expect anything else from Midshipmen. Especially after the last eight years of, at least, eight-win finishes.
So while followers of programs located in Tucson and New Orleans -- and, perhaps before long, Westwood -- are already looking ahead to the next autumn and, with it, their next new eras, there's plenty of reason for Navy fans to see tomorrow as time for a turnaround.
For this season. To continue this era.
No doubt, East Carolina, sitting at that identical 2-4 record, eyes the 3:30 p.m. kickoff inside Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium the same way.
Funny, isn't it, how much changes in a year. And yet how much remains the same.
When these two programs met last November, they were also traveling somewhat parallel paths; albeit in a direction different from this season. Each entered Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium with five victories, playing toward the postseason.
Navy took a 28-21 lead into halftime and, after the Pirates fumbled away four of their next five possessions, outscored ECU, 27-7 in the third quarter. With East Carolina only lengthening the game, hurrying to the line thereafter to run a total of 89 plays -- mostly passes, of course -- the Mids pulled away to a record-setting 76-35 rout.
Navy won its next three to conclude the regular campaign with a 9-3 mark. ECU ended the year by dropping four of its final five games, overall, before suffering a 51-20 loss to Maryland in the Military Bowl.
As they meet again, the Mids and Pirates intend to make this weekend's matchup a springboard for the second half.
Short term, they're obviously just seeking their third win. Toward that end, Navy is trying to finish drives in the end zone, stop opponents on third down and convert in the kicking game with regularity.
Meanwhile, ECU is trying to reduce turnovers (again), develop chemistry on its offensive line and come up with any way to keep Navy's offense from approaching the kind of staggering numbers of a year ago.
The Pirates rank last in Division I in turnover margin (-2.0), no thanks to a national-high 23 giveaways. It's important to remember, last week the Mids had three takeaways from Rutgers, which was No. 1 in TO margin.
East Carolina is also still trying to overcome the loss of four starters from last year's offensive front. Eight different Pirates have started at the five spots on their O-line in 2011. And though 18th nationally in passing yards (299.2 per game), they're scoring has dropped off considerably from 2010; down to 22.8 points from 36.8 points per game.
Like last season, the Mids must capitalize on any mistakes made by the ECU offense. Opponents have started 13 series in six games in Pirates' territory. For Navy short fields should go a long way on the scoreboard.
But lately, their red-zone offense has failed the Midshipmen too often. Of the 17 possessions penetrating the opposition's 20-yard line in the last three games, Navy scored just 11 times and netted only seven touchdowns. Last week Caleb King returned a late interception to the Rutgers' 23-yard line, but the Mids failed to pick up a first down, before their go-ahead field goal try was blocked.
On defense, Navy deals with an offense comparable in scheme and style to that of Southern Miss, which fast-breaked its way to 63 points here two weeks ago. Sure, there are differences; the most pronounced of which is ECU's lack of balance -- 83.7 yards rushing per game ranks 115th.
Still, like their Conference USA counterpart, the Pirates are productive on 3rd down, converting at a 48-percent rate, and are led by an experienced quarterback who poses a dual threat.
In ECU's case, he's Dominique Davis, once a starter at Boston College. In 19 career games in Greenville, N.C., Davis passed for 5,608 yards and 49 TD. Against the Mids in 2010, he set school records with 43 completions and 65 attempts while passing for 413 yards and five scores.
When protection breaks down, Davis is also dangerous on the run. So, getting him off the field becomes doubly difficult, particularly for a Navy unit that ranks next-to-last in 3rd Down defense. In the last three games, the Mids surrendered a .632 conversion rate (24-for-38) on 3rd Down.
This week Niumatalolo and his staff took steps to deal with -- and change -- those very real realities. And Proctor et al did the same, even if by simply adding spring to their steps in drills and practice rep's.
Work has been done. It's time to play.