Three days removed from one of the most excruciating losses in program history, Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo gathered his players Tuesday for a rare private meeting after practice to gird them for what he described as possibly the defining stretch of the season. The combined record of the Midshipmen’s next two opponents is 7-2, and a loss to Southern Mississippi on Saturday would spiral Navy into its first three-game losing streak in nearly a decade.
Based on recent history, though, these somewhat dire circumstances figure to summon the best from the Midshipmen. Navy has lost two straight games five times since 2005, and immediately after those instances, has strung together at least three wins in a row.
“It’s really the group of guys we have, to be honest,” senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani said when asked about Navy’s inspired performances after a losing streak. “This group of guys really realizes how serious this situation is now and definitely is thinking about the legacy of this program. We definitely don’t want to let the people who came before them and who taught them everything they knew, we don’t want to let them down, so I really just think it kind of clicks in right now.”
[Niumatalolo told reporters Wednesday that fullback Alexander Teich, a co-captain and the team’s leading rusher, will not play Saturday because of violation of team rules, according to reports.]
Navy (2-2) last lost consecutive games in 2008, which was Niumatalolo’s first full season as head coach. The Midshipmen responded by winning three straight and five of six on the way to finishing 8-5 and securing a bowl berth. In the previous year, Navy twice lost back-to-back games but followed with winning streaks of three and four games, respectively, in then-Coach Paul Johnson’s last season before leaving for Georgia Tech.
This season is the first in the past six that a Navy slide has included a loss to another service academy, so Niumatalolo is being especially judicious and demanding when counseling his charges this week. During practice on Tuesday, for instance, Niumatalolo briefly halted a drill to reprimand a player for being “selfish,” yelling, “That’s why we lost.”
It was a pointed reminder of the events the previous Saturday, when Navy rallied from 18 points in the fourth quarter only to lose to Air Force, 35-34, in part because of a controversial penalty in overtime that left players and coaches stunned.
The call in question was unsportsmanlike conduct on Kriss Proctor, who drew the flag when, according to officials, the senior quarterback celebrated excessively after scoring the go-ahead touchdown in overtime. Midshipmen place kicker Jon Teague, also a senior, had his 35-yard extra point try blocked, and five plays later the Falcons scored the tying touchdown and kicked the point after to win.
The loss was Navy’s second in a row to Air Force and extinguished the Midshipmen’s Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy aspirations until next year. Three weeks ago, Navy lost to then-No. 10 South Carolina, 24-21, before a bye the ensuing weekend.
“This is a very important time in our season,” said Proctor, who has 740 combined yards rushing and passing with a team-high 11 touchdowns in his first year as the full-time starter. “We could fall off the deep end or we can rise to the occasion and keep winning. Coach understands that, and he doesn’t want us to fall off the deep end. He wants to win, so he just wants our team to understand that, and I think he got his message across.”
Last season after Navy lost to Air Force, 14-6, then-captains Ricky Dobbs and Wyatt Middleton called a meeting to examine the direction of the team. The Midshipmen went on to win seven of eight, including resounding victories over Notre Dame and bowl-bound East Carolina.
Both those teams loom again for Navy at the end of this month. But first the Midshipmen must contend with one of the most stout rushing defenses in the country. Southern Miss (4-1) is yielding just 81.6 yards per game, which ranks 11th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. The Golden Eagles also are ranked 21st in total defense (302 yards per game) and 28th in scoring defense (19.4 points per game).
“Oh, this is a huge game for our season, a huge game,” Niumatalolo said. “You thought last week was important? This game is huge for our season. I’m not playing around. This is the real deal.”