After weeks of talk about remaining calm during a month-long slide, the Navy football team hit a new low Saturday that finally seemed worthy of some fright.
Each loss in Navy’s streak has been punishing in its own way. Against SMU, there was the sting of a last-second overtime loss. Air Force brought an all-consuming hurt known only to those who play for service academies. Temple was a rare home loss surrendered in a game the Midshipmen had control over for a long while.
But Saturday’s 49-36 loss to Houston was a different kind of blow. It marked Navy’s first four-game losing streak since a six-loss spell in the middle of the 2011 season. What’s more, with No. 4 Notre Dame, one-loss Cincinnati, No. 10 Central Florida and Army looming as four of the Mids’ six remaining games, it seriously endangered the Midshipmen’s chances at bowl eligibility.
Coach Ken Niumatalolo was beyond alarm after the game. He was fiery after the loss to Temple last week, but Saturday he kept his voice low and spoke with an air of defeat.
The 11th-year head coach said he has no answers for why Navy (2-5, 1-3 American Athletic Conference) can’t put together more than one good half of football, nor any explanation for why it can’t avoid what he calls self-inflicted wounds.
“It’s just inexplicable things. It’s not like they changed the defense . . . so it wasn’t like they did something new and I’m like, ‘Oh wow, what do we do?’ ” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t know. If I knew, obviously we would be doing it.”
Niumatalolo often preaches that the margin of error is slim at Navy, where recruits generally aren’t as big, fast or strong as Division I players at civilian schools. He was asked Saturday whether the margin of error for this year’s team is even smaller.
“We’re not playing as well. That’s obvious,” he said. “We’re just doing things that we normally don’t do, critical errors that we normally don’t do. We’re not playing Navy football. Normally when people beat us, they beat us. But we’ve had way too many missed assignments . . . and that always comes back to me, the head coach.
“We’re seven games in and trying to figure it out. We try to break things down every week, try to go back to the base, our foundation, whatever. You do that, you think you’re doing great, you start off good, and all of a sudden the wheels fall off.”
What troubled Niumatalolo about Saturday’s game was how many similarities it had with last week’s loss to Temple. “Started off great offensively, and then we just . . . it’s like somebody unplugged us,” he said.
The Mids started strong before ceding all momentum to Houston (6-1, 3-0) in the second half. The Cougars scored five consecutive touchdowns to flip a 24-14 deficit late in the second quarter to a 49-24 fourth-quarter lead.
The Cougars finished with 570 yards to Navy’s 522 and had three 100-yard receivers. Quarterback D’Eriq King completed 25 of 38 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns and was also Houston’s leading rusher with 56 yards and another score.
“We knew they were a very talented group, but it’s like Coach said: You have to give yourself a chance to compete by taking care of the little things,” said Mids safety Sean Williams, a defensive captain.
Before the second-half carnage, Navy’s offense played its best half in a month as Niumatalolo started Garret Lewis at quarterback and Malcolm Perry at slotback for the second week in a row.
The senior signal caller did exactly what was needed in the first half, but his 3-for-3 first-half passing record melted to 9 for 14 for 135 yards and one interception by the end of the day. He was sacked three times.
Perry rushed for a team-high 97 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries before he left the game with a lower-body injury early in the third quarter.
Navy began to stall after its fast start, punting on its final two possessions of the first half, but it wasn’t truly in trouble until the third quarter, when it punted yet again on its opening drive. Then, just as Temple did the week before, Houston had a momentum-altering series in which King drove the Cougars 88 yards in 10 plays, capped by a 22-yard touchdown rush by Patrick Carr.
Perry’s injury absence contributed to the offensive lull. The Mids added two scores late, but even Myles Fells and Taylor Jackson’s receiving touchdowns did little to improve morale. Hardly any of the 33,942 fans in attendance had stuck around to see them.
“We fought to the end. Unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough . . . and it only gets harder next week,” Niumatalolo said. “I told our team pretty much every week from last week — you know, we’re playing the best team in Houston, and then we’re playing the team that’s better than Houston. We saw how good they are, and now we’ve got the Irish, who are No. 4, No. 5 in the country. We got a tall order coming up.”