Ken Niumatalolo isn’t used to losing. During his 10 years as an assistant coach at Navy, the Midshipmen went to six bowl games, produced seven winning records and went 79-51. Navy finished each of his first three seasons as a head coach in a bowl and went 32-20.
So it was a shock when the Mids wound up 5-7 last year – despite beating archrival Army for a record 10th consecutive season — for their first losing record in a decade. To be sure, five of those seven defeats came by a combined 11 points, but as they say, you are what your record says you are.
The most painful of those tight losses came against Air Force. The Mids rallied from a 28-10 fourth quarter deficit to force overtime in Annapolis and scored to take a 34-28 lead only to have quarterback Kriss Proctor penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct on the touchdown . That pushed the extra point back. After Jon Teague’s low kick was blocked, Air Force drove for the tying touchdown and winning extra point, ensuring that the Commander In Chief’s Trophy would go to the Falcons for a third consecutive season.
In hopes of ending that drought and reversing the dropoff from the 10-4 success of 2010, Naval Academy officials and Niumatalolo cracked the whip on discipline. Co-captains Bo Snelson and Brye French were suspended in the spring for violations of academy rules. Brandon Turner, who was slated to start at receiver, won’t make the trip to Saturday’s opener with Notre Dame, for a violation of team rules.
It doesn’t help Navy’s chances that Matt Aiken, the other starting receiver, is out with a hyper-extended right knee. Of course, the Mids, who have been run-oriented for seemingly forever, rarely throw the ball. They averaged 227 yards on the ground and just 86 through the air in 2011 when Turner led the team with 14 catches.
Trouble is that left guard Josh Cabral is the only returning starter on the offensive line which is tasked with opening holes for quarterback Trey Miller, slotbacks Gee Gee Greene and John Howell and fullback Noah Copeland. And that quartet combined for only 150 carries last season, fewer than Proctor and fullback Alexander Teich, a fellow member of the Class of 2012, each handled on his own.
Niumatalolo’s defense is more proven. Inside linebacker Matt Warrick and strong safety Trav’ves Bush, the top two tacklers, return along with three other starters. However, that’s from a unit that was torched for 56 points apiece by Southern Mississippi and Notre Dame.
Speaking of which, despite the obvious handicap of playing a team called the Irish in Dublin, it’s got to be easier than facing Notre Dame in South Bend. Navy’s next game at Penn State will be immeasurably less difficult than it would have been before the Nittany Lions were embroiled in former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation scandal. The home games come against lesser lights VMI and San Jose State – which won last year’s meeting 27-24 in California — before the Oct. 6 shot at avenging the heartbreaker against Air Force.
If the Mids return home from Colorado Springs over .500, they should be headed towards a winning season and a likely bowl since East Carolina and Troy are the toughest of their final seven foes who also include Texas State, Florida Atlantic, Central Michigan, Indiana, and, of course, Army in the traditional finale in Philadelphia.
Navy basketball has fallen back into the obscurity from which David Robinson powered it out of more than two decades ago, managing just two winning seasons and no postseason bids in the last past 11 years culminating with a 3-26 horror in 2011-12. The lacrosse team hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament three years running. But football rules in Annapolis and Niumatalolo certainly doesn’t want 2012 to be remembered as the year that Navy posted a losing record and missed a bowl for a second straight season for the first time in a decade.
Saturday’s big test against Notre Dame will give the coach and his inexperienced team a good idea of how much work they have in front of them to avoid that fate.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin