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Navy Hopes Tough Loss Brings Wins Down the Road

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The way that Navy played in its 31-27 loss at sixth-ranked Ohio State on Saturday afternoon -- the way the Midshipmen overcame turnovers, rallied from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter and had a chance to tie the score with a two-point conversion -- earned the program some admiration from the Buckeyes players as well as the 105,092 fans inside the stadium. Highlights from Navy's near miss were repeatedly shown on television throughout the weekend.

But all of that had been pushed to the past by the time the Midshipmen returned to the practice field on Monday. Instead of breaking for the locker room following the post-practice team meeting, the players stayed on the field and did a series of 20 up-downs.

"That's why we're doing this, to let those guys know that we still lost," Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "It's nice the guys were on TV, they're showing all the highlights, but we still lost."

That was a constant refrain from the Midshipmen, who host Louisiana Tech (0-1) on Saturday. But they're hoping that the work they put in preparing for the Buckeyes and the lessons they learned in Columbus will help them throughout the season.

A year ago, Navy began its season with a home game against Towson, a division I-AA team that finished the year with a 3-9 record. The Midshipmen won easily, 41-13, but then lost their next two games against Ball State and Duke.

Opening against the likes of Ohio State instead forced the Midshipmen to raise their standards and their intensity during the off-season.

"I think it will help us out because we've played against a very fast team, a very big and strong team now," senior linebacker Clint Sovie said.

"We've always known that we can play with anybody -- Big Ten, ACC, SEC -- it doesn't matter. We can score off of anybody," said senior guard Osei Asante, Navy's offensive captain. "I think it gives us that confidence factor. But we can't give ourselves a pat on the back because we went toe-to-toe with a Big Ten team. We can never settle for mediocrity or get complacent."

There were other benefits to traveling to Columbus as well. For starters, Ohio State paid Navy $1 million to play at the Horseshoe, according to USA Today. During a luncheon with fans last week, Niumatalolo described the game -- the first visit to Ohio Stadium by a service academy since 1931 -- as "a great recruiting pitch for us." Navy's close call -- and the subsequent media attention -- should only help in that regard.

But, Niumatalolo was quick to add, "it's not going to help if we lose the next three or four games. It'll only help us if we continue to get better."

Offensively, the Midshipmen know that they need to take care of the ball. Navy committed three turnovers, which led to two Ohio State touchdowns. When the Midshipmen held on to the ball, they were able to put together long drives; they also converted eight of 12 third downs.

Junior quarterback Ricky Dobbs, who was making only his second career start, completed nine of 13 passes for 156 yards and had a hand in all four Navy touchdowns. He passed for two and rushed for two, including a 24-yard run with 2 minutes 23 seconds remaining that brought the Midshipmen to within two points.

"We saw last year his accuracy and his throwing, and his will," Asante said of Dobbs. "He won't let one person bring him down. Like that last play we scored on -- I thought he was down. I was on the ground and I thought he was down and I didn't get my block, but I look up and Ricky's heading for the end zone untouched. Ricky's a special player."

Navy's defense came up with a big fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter and twice forced the Buckeyes to settle for short field goals on trips into the red zone. But the Midshipmen were unhappy that they caused only one turnover, a fourth-quarter interception by junior safety Emmett Merchant.

"We also learned -- and this is something that we knew going into the game, but we just kind of got it shoved in our face again -- we can't take a single play off," Sovie said. "Like we always say, we're not the biggest, fastest, strongest team on the field. Especially this week against Louisiana Tech; they've got big, strong fast guys. What we need to take away from that game is we can't take plays off."

The defensive coaches tallied up the individual mistakes made by the Midshipmen against the Buckeyes and made the entire defense do even more up-downs at the end of practice to atone for them. All told, Sovie estimates he did 50 to 60 up-downs.

"My legs are fatigued," he said. "And I'm still sore from the game."

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