Nov. 4, 2011
By Bob Socci
Everything Ken Niumatalolo was saying late Wednesday afternoon sounded familiar. At this point, what else can he say?
For eight years -- the first five as an assistant and the next three as the man in charge -- he coached in a Navy program rewarded for its performance with eight consecutive bowl appearances.
Losing skids were as rare as winning streaks were commonplace, thanks to a style on both sides of scrimmage that fed off the persistence of the Midshipmen, while gnawing at the patience of their counterparts.
More times than not, long drives on offense kept possessions at a premium and almost unfailingly resulted in points for Navy. The defense bent yet rarely broke when the outcome hung in the balance. And when delivered in the clutch, kicks almost never strayed off course.
If they -- or any other aspect of Navy's play -- were ever untrue to character, usually there was someone else, or some other position, to compensate on that particular Saturday.
But for seven weeks this fall, starting with a narrow mid-September loss at South Carolina, either one or all three of the Mids' units on offense, defense and special teams let down enough to lose six straight games.
It's why this week Niumatalolo sounded a lot like last week. And the week before. And the week before.
Looking ahead to tomorrow's home finale vs. Troy, he repeated himself regarding the importance of a fast start; making plays to finish drives; and the absolute necessity to stop opponents from converting 3rd downs into 1st downs. He didn't need to mention the problems surrounding special teams.
For years, opposing coaches have lamented Navy week. Finding time and personnel to simulate the Mids' option offense in slow motion was difficult enough; catching up to the speed of it by game time an impossibility.
In 2008, Navy outscored its opponents, 111-76, in the 1st quarter, averaging 8.5 points per game in the opening period. The next two seasons averages for the first 15 minutes were 6.6 ppg and 6.1 ppg.
This year, however, the Mids are producing just 4.5 points per opening quarter. Overall, they've been outscored, 49-36, after one period.
Navy was scoreless in the 1st each of the last four games. This, despite opportunities in all four contests to strike first. Sequentially, the Mids' opening series in those games ended with: a blocked field goal attempt, interception, turnover on downs and errant field goal try.
Of course, part and parcel of the slow starts is an inefficiency in the proverbial "Red Zone." Through eight games, Navy produced points on 71 percent of its drives inside opponents' 20-yard line. That figure ranks 109th (of 120 teams) in Division I.
Moreover, the Mids scored on just 9 of their last 16 red-zone possessions. Five times they failed to convert on 4th down.
Worse yet is the difficulty the Navy defense has endured on 3rd down. Only winless New Mexico has surrendered a higher conversion rate than the 57 percent clip at the Mids' expense. During their losing streak alone, the percentage rises to .606.
Meanwhile, nine missed field goal or extra-point attempts are the most since 2007. At least one kick has gone awry in all but one game. Even kicking off has been troublesome: the Mids are 112th nationally in kick return defense and lost possession at Notre Dame last week trying to receive a kickoff.
If you're as depressed reading as I am writing the aforementioned numbers, it's time we both take heart. Because if there's one thing often unspoken and unwritten yet never unexpected of Niumatalolo's Mids, it has to do with heart.
Consider the plight of two playmakers who were instrumental in Navy's two wins: quarterback Kris Proctor and slot back Aaron Santiago.
Proctor is two weeks removed from dislocating the elbow of his throwing arm for the second time this season. Since his late first-half fall vs. East Carolina, he's tripled up on medical treatments to return to practice.
Santiago broke both the radius and ulna bones in his forearm Sept. 10 at Western Kentucky. Initially, the target date for his return was the Army-Navy game. On December 10!
That both are part of this week's conversation is remarkable. That both are under consideration to start, let alone stand on the field during tomorrow's Senior Day festivities is amazing.
They came back this season. So why can't their teammates? They didn't give up on themselves. So why should anyone else?
If the emotional tug doesn't do it, perhaps analytics -- or, as close as I can approximate anything scientific -- will convince you not to abandon the Navy bandwagon.
Excluding Delaware, Navy's other seven opponents own a combined .531 intra-division (FBS) winning percentage (26-18). Based on past opposition and according to NCAA rankings, the Mids have played the 18th-toughest schedule in the country.
Their final four opponents are a cumulative 11-18 vs. Division I foes. That computes to a .379 mark; 97th nationally.
Granted, Troy (2-5) -- like Navy, a team far more accustomed to success than its current struggles, after five straight trips to the postseason -- sees Saturday's matchup in a similar vein as the Mids: as a winnable opportunity to do an about-face in 2011.
Even so, Navy ran a gauntlet -- starting with South Carolina and concluding with Notre Dame -- of six opponents all in good position to secure bowl berths. Four of the losses were decided by eight total points.
There are no guarantees that these next four contests will turn out differently than the last six, simply because the caliber of competition measures differently. For that matter, the Midshipmen have yet to appear the same team that played so well in scaring then 10th-ranked South Carolina.
What it asserts rather than suggests is that winning out isn't as far-fetched as it may seem after going oh-for-October.
Which is why Niumtatalolo will keep harping on the same-old, same-old until he's blue in the face, and not the heart. Faster starts. Finishing drives. Third-down stops. Pick up points; don't leave them on the field.
Toward those ends, no words spoken are truer than the following, which bear repeating.
"We have to think about here and now," said Niumatalolo. "There's nothing we can do about those games in the past. It starts with this one. We need something positive to happen."