Nov. 29, 2011
By Bob Socci
Less than two hours before the second-to-last game of his fourth season as Navy's head coach, Ken Niumatalolo shared a concern.
"I feel good, but I continue to remind our guys that the last time we took a trip like this, it was Hawaii," Niumatalolo told a radio audience, while standing outside the Midshipmen's locker room, beneath the North stands of Spartan Stadium in San Jose, Calif. "We went there, saw the palm trees, enjoyed ourselves next to the pool, and they hit us in the lips.
"Our big thing (today) is regardless of how many people are here, regardless of what (San Jose State's) goals are...we bring it today."
Traveling across the country may not be as rigorous as journeying halfway around the world. Nor is a three-hour time difference as disruptive as five. And certainly no one would literally equate waiting around the team hotel in cool and cloudy Santa Clara two Fridays ago to sunning on Waikiki Beach two Novembers ago.
But, in his manner of speaking, Niumatalolo had reason to feel the way he did. Coaches almost always do. Consider it intuition.
Whether born from observation -- perhaps of practices in preceding days -- or experience -- seemingly reliving past circumstances -- they have a sense about the way games and, occasionally, entire seasons are about to unfold.
Sometimes, to their relief, such premonitions prove unwarranted. But unfortunately, as with Navy on Nov. 19, teams too often realize their coaches' worst fears.
So what if San Jose is only halfway from Annapolis to Honolulu, Niumatalolo's cautionary point was soon to be fully understood. Late in 2009, the Midshipmen made a long trip west and, clearly off their game, were blanked in the second half of a 24-17 loss at Aloha Stadium.
Niumatalolo was leery of a similar showing on `senior day' for the Spartans, even though Navy had much more to play for. Back-to-back wins kept alive aspirations for a ninth straight appearance in a bowl game, which would give the Mids a shot at their ninth consecutive winning season.
The game began exactly as Niumatalolo hoped it wouldn't, but feared it might.
Navy's first three offensive series totaled 17 plays, 40 yards and three first downs, equaling its number of punts. Multiple missed assignments forced the Mids to abandon signaling plays from the sideline.
They didn't venture across midfield until a Tra'ves Bush interception gained possession at San Jose State's 41-yard line, nearly three full minutes into the 2nd quarter. By then the Spartans led, 10-0.
Defensively, Navy allowed Brandon Rutley to rush seven times for 44 yards (6.3 per carry) in the opening quarter. As a team, San Jose State averaged 44.7 yards per game and 1.9 yards per carry its previous three contests.
The Spartans also had been plagued by problems in the `red zone,' netting touchdowns on just 41 percent of such possessions theretofore. But they capped their second drive with four straight carries by Rutley to account for the final 19 yards.
One figured San Jose State could create match-up problems with its spread passing attack, especially with one of the nation's most productive tight ends, Ryan Otten. What's surprising is how well the Spartans ran, albeit behind an experienced offensive line.
To their credit, the Mids recovered briefly enough to take a pair of four-point leads. But neither survived the ensuing series. Just 2 minutes, 9 seconds after Navy went ahead for the second time, SJSU regained the advantage for good. At 27-24, the score was unchanged the final 14:56.
Emblematic of too many other outcomes this fall, the three-point loss marked the fifth time in 11 games that the margin of a Navy defeat was a field goal or less.
As a consequence, this year's meeting with Army will be the Mids' season finale for the first time since 2002. Not that being penultimate to a bowl game has made Army-Navy anything other than the ultimate game. Always has been; always should be.
The 2011 Midshipmen fell short of certain expectations of their own creation, after eight years of sustained excellence. They can't end this season above .500, nor will they finish it at old RFK Stadium in late December's Military Bowl.
Yet a week from Saturday at the current home of the Washington Redskins, FedEx Field, they'll conclude their campaign with an opportunity to attain the one goal more important than all the others.
Whereas other streaks have ended, beating the Black Knights would extend Navy's most impressive stretch of all. The Mids haven't lost to Army since 2001. Rarely in the nine years since were they even challenged, winning by an average margin of 25.7 points.
Then, as already established, this is not any of those seasons. To reach 10 in a row over the Cadets, Navy must overcome the things distinguishing 2011 from the past eight years in particular.
All of which so narrowly decided the outcome in San Jose.
For starters, the Mids cannot leave points on the field.
Early in the 4th quarter a snafu on special teams cost them a chance to tie the Spartans with a long field-goal. In eight of 11 games, they have failed to convert an extra-point and/or field-goal try.
Offensively, opportunities to exploit a defense overcommitting to stop the run were numerous. With San Jose State's safeties crowding the line of scrimmage, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper repeatedly called for play-action passes.
However, quarterback Kriss Proctor, a month removed from dislocating his left elbow, completed just 9-of-20 attempts for 90 yards. Overthrows or underthrows are bound to happen. They're expected and understandable; especially from a quarterback whose throwing arm is taped and heavily padded.
But in San Jose, what hurt most were a pair of throws never attempted. Twice receivers ran down the middle of the field completely uncovered: John Howell in the 1st half and Brandon Turner in the 2nd half. Only Proctor evidently never saw either. Each instance could have -- you might say, should have -- resulted in an easy touchdown.
With the former, Proctor was eventually sacked and fumbled, leading to a Spartan field goal. In essence, the play resulted in a 10-point swing. As for the latter, Proctor did scramble for 41 yards, but the drive was later short-circuited by a personal foul (more on that to come) and the aforementioned mishap as Navy lined up for a game-tying kick.
While there were numerous openings to strike at San Jose, there may very well be no more than one or two similar opportunities against the Black Knights.
However many there are, given the way Army has defended since Rich Ellerson became its head coach, the Midshipmen must be far more efficient through the air.
In their last two encounters, Navy gained just 3.6 yards per rush (90 carries for 325 yards), compared to an overall 2009-10 average of 5.0 yards an attempt. Aside from the 113 yards off 33 rushes (3.4) by Ricky Dobbs in '09, no other Mid gained more than 54 yards in either meeting. What tilted each contest in Navy's favor was the forward pass.
Two years ago the Midshipmen trailed, 3-0, into the 3rd quarter, before Dobbs converted a 3rd-and-9 with a 15-yard pass to Bobby Doyle. One of just two third-down conversions (in 11 attempts), it set up Dobbs's 25-yard touchdown toss to Marcus Curry. Navy's other TD resulted from a 12-yard series, set up by an Army fumble. The final was 17-3.
Last season the Mids were held to 139 yards rushing, with Dobbs limited to an average of 2.7 yards a carry. Still, his six completions for 186 yards included two long TD passes to Howell (77) and Brandon Turner (32). Overall, Dobbs averaged 31.0 yards per completion.
At the same time, a turning point last year took place while Navy was defending its goal line late in the first half. That's when Tyler Simmons and Jerry Hauburger forced a fumble that Wyatt Middleton returned 98 yards for a score.
To date this year -- largely due to the graduation of those three players who conspired to stick a dagger through Cadet hopes in 2010 -- the Midshipmen too often failed to stop opponents at similarly critical junctures.
At San Jose State, for example, Navy rallied from the early deficit for a 14-10 edge. The Spartans, who blew big leads in losing their previous two games, faced 3rd-and-11 fairly late in the 2nd quarter. The Mids were seemingly poised to seize control and build on the momentum of back-to-back touchdowns.
Instead, the Spartans converted on a catch by Otten and went on to score a TD, before adding a field goal before halftime. With 10 unanswered points, they led 20-14 and had Navy back on its heels a bit.
There will be a point against Army -- relatively early or late -- when someone other than Jabaree Tuani, whose sense of timing has always been impeccable, must make a play that again leaves the Cadets to cry: Wait `til next year.
Along that line, it's been said and written that the Midshipmen lost their `swagger' this season. Perhaps what that point of view really means is that they lost `confidence.` Or, more so, the collective `chip on the shoulder' that countless Navy players have carried; determined to prove themselves worthy of college football's highest level.
Otherwise, one could argue quite convincingly that what the Mids need going forward, toward Army and beyond, is actually less swagger.
When the tenor of 2011 truly changed, in an overtime loss to Air Force, Niumatalolo observed on-field conduct unbecoming of Navy football players. Most obvious was Proctor's reaction to an OT touchdown, putting himself in position to be called for unsportsmanlike conduct. There were other things noticeable to Niumatalolo as well, moving him to hold an emotional team meeting the following Tuesday.
Swagger shouldn't be confused for self-assurance. For the most part, those who made the Mids what they were the last eight seasons did so not by carrying themselves with a certain swag; but by playing a certain way. They sent messages by delivering hits and making plays.
In the NFL, swagger is what costs someone like DeSean Jackson of the Eagles a 50-yard catch due to a taunting penalty. It's speed and instincts as a returner that help him regain those 50 yards later on a punt return.
At the Academy, to paraphrase Niumatalolo's oft-heard refrain, it's important for the Mids to remember who they are. That means to work hard and play hard, as if there's no margin of error.
Because most of the time there isn't.
That said, just about all of the time that's exactly how Navy conducts itself. No team in Division I is penalized less, and only 17 of 119 others possess a better turnover margin.
But at San Jose State, as against Air Force, there were momentary lapses when the uncharacteristic proved costly. Most notably, Academic All-America John Dowd was called for a personal foul on a late hit. That turned a 3rd-and-4 from the Spartans' 13-yard line into 3rd-and-19 from the 28. The Mids never recovered.
As with Proctor's infraction vs. the Falcons, it was a mistake by a senior whose contributions over four years far outweigh any single slip. Still, one slip is all it takes to affect a single outcome.
In less than two weeks, Proctor, Dowd and classmates will play their final football game. It's an opportunity to end their careers as the last men standing. And, by order of alma maters, the last ones singing.
They'll be decked out in brand new, specially-designed uniforms. But what they really need is nothing more than basic old Navy fabric, worn on their hearts and sleeves.
Because if there's a sure thing about Army-Navy in 2011 -- and you don't need Niumatalolo's warning to know it -- the Black Knights will come out swinging.