Oct. 30, 2010
By Bob Socci
For the most part, performing last Saturday on a national stage, the Navy Midshipmen realized their potential. This weekend, in a game likely to go unnoticed by much of the country, they'll be playing to avoid realizing their head coach's worst fears.
"It was nice to finally play well," Ken Niumatalolo said 48 hours after his team's most complete showing in its first seven games this season, a 35-17 rout of Notre Dame. "During our preparation last week, our approach was matter of fact. I thought our guys stayed focused and played with great confidence."
Scoring on five of their first six possessions before 75,614 in a brand new NFL stadium at the Meadowlands, and on network television, the Mids did it against one of college football's most iconic programs.
Six days later, they host a Duke team trying to end a six-game losing skid, while confronting the very real prospect of an 11th straight losing season.
"I'm very, very concerned," Niumatalolo says. "I don't even think about Duke's record. We're trying to get (win) number six."
Niumatalolo related Navy's last and next games to the fate of two Big XII teams, Missouri and Texas.
Considering that very much the same group of Mids thrashed Mizzou in the 2009 Texas Bowl, and many of those same Tigers just knocked off Oklahoma, Niumatalolo sees how good his team can be.
He certainly got more than a glimpse from a five-star, three-dimensional showing against Notre Dame.
Navy scored on five of its first six possessions, totaled 438 yards and completed a penalty- and turnover- free virtuoso on offense. At the same time, two fourth-down stands (one up against the goal line) and two interceptions by the defense, as well as solid play on special teams, enabled the Mids to seize control, with a 35-10 lead.
Niumatalolo also recognizes how fickle football - especially when played by teenagers and 20-year olds - can be. He read it last week in the face and heard it in the words of Texas's Mack Brown. Coming off an upset of previously unbeaten Nebraska, Brown's Longhorns got upended by an Iowa State team that lost its last two games by a margin of 120-27.
"Having seen Mack Brown's interview," Niumatalolo says, referring to a post-ISU inquiry of the Texas head coach, "I don't want to have that same interview."
While he harbors concern, Niumatalolo should expect anything but the kind of seeming indifference that led Brown to question his team's maturity. If anything, the Mids' intensity, like their confidence, should be rising.
They've won three straight games and if they can make it four in a row today they'll reserve a place in the Poinsettia Bowl and reach the postseason for the eighth consecutive year. What's better motivation than an all-expense paid trip to San Diego in December?
It's Homecoming at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, where the Mids are 11-2 under Niumatalolo and 33-9 since 2003. Furthermore, Duke won their last encounter, 41-31, in 2008.
The Blue Devil combination of quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and receiver Eron Riley produced three touchdowns that day. But the key turning point was a fumble return for a touchdown by Duke's Vincent Rey.
Though all three of those principles have since graduated, many of the Mids will play this afternoon with the memory of that defeat.
Thus far this season, a lot of different numbers define why Navy is 5-2 and Duke is 1-6. The common denominator: all are associated with turnovers.
Start with turnover margin. The Mids rank fifth nationally (+1.3 per game), while the Blue Devils (-1.7) are 119th, which means second-to-last in Division I.
Navy gave the ball away just six times in its first seven games - none in the last two - to share the third-lowest turnover total in the country. Duke has lost possession 21 times, including a national-high 16 interceptions thrown.
Two weeks ago, the Blue Devils dropped a 28-13 decision to Miami, in which they had seven giveaways. One of the Hurricanes' touchdowns was a `pick six.'
At Army in late September, the Blue Devils essentially spotted the Black Knights a two-touchdown lead in a 35-21 defeat. Interceptions set up Army's first two scores, on "drives" of three and five yards. Overall, 28 points resulted from four Duke turnovers.
While Duke's defense didn't get much help from its offense, the Blue Devils held the triple-option Cadets to 248 yards rushing and an average of 3.8 yards per carry. Quarterback Trent Steelman led Army with 62 yards on 18 carries.
It's also important to note that while Duke has been mistake-prone on offense, the Blue Devils are hardly devoid of talent on that side of the ball. Sophomore quarterback Sean Renfree is 29th nationally with an average of 248.1 passing yards a game.
He can choose from three teammates with more than 1,000 yards receiving apiece. They include sophomore Conner Vernon, who already has 99 career receptions and currently leads the Atlantic Coast Conference with his 6.14 catches per contest.
So there is cause for Niumatalolo's concern. Never mind that his team is cast against the Blue Devils on Halloween weekend.
Last Saturday was a treat. This Saturday he doesn't want his Midshipmen to get tricked.