The first time Navy quarterback Trey Miller started a game, the opponent was Notre Dame last year before nearly 81,000 in South Bend, Ind. The junior’s second start came in this season’s opener against the Fighting Irish in Dublin, and Miller last weekend played in front of more than 98,000 at Penn State.
It hasn’t been a gentle introduction for Miller, whose two starts this season have resulted in losses by a combined 84-17, 37 rushing yards, six turnovers and no assurances about the position even considering the unheralded pedigree of his competition for the spot.
Navy is 0-2 for the first time since 2005 and seeking to avoid its first 0-3 start during the triple-option era. The Midshipmen play their home opener on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. against Virginia Military Institute (1-2), a Football Championship Subdivision school.
Miller “definitely needs to play better, but a lot of times he’s back there running for his life,” said Navy Coach Ken Niumatamolo, who did not rule out turning to freshman backup Keenan Reynolds against VMI. “He’s still got to take care of the ball. He doesn’t have to throw the ball up. Taking into account who we’re playing too, but he’s definitely got to improve his play.”
In a 50-10 dismantling by Notre Dame three weeks ago, Miller won the admiration of teammates and the coaching staff by refusing to come out after a sprained left ankle caused him to limp badly. As Navy’s untested offensive line continues to come together, breakdowns in protection also have left Miller exposed and forced to flee the pocket.
But instead of throwing away the ball, poor decisions have yielded turnovers.
In Navy’s 34-7 loss to the Nittany Lions, the Midshipmen had driven to the Penn State 5-yard line in the first quarter when, on third and goal, Miller came under heavy pressure. He rolled right and tried to get the ball to slotback John Howell, but a weak throw allowed linebacker Gerald Hodges to step in front of the ball for a routine interception.
The Nittany Lions converted that turnover into a touchdown to extend the lead to 20-0, and Navy was all but done given an offense that’s ill equipped to score quickly and in bunches.
“I’ve got to practice hard and perform better in the games,” Miller said, “because like coach said, Keenan is right there.”
Miller is averaging less than one yard per carry, and his long run is nine yards. He’s fumbled four times, including one deep in Notre Dame territory that resulted in a 77-yard return for a touchdown to give the Fighting Irish a 28-0 lead late in the first half.
Miller’s early troubles have underscored those of the entire offense, which has eight turnovers and ranks last out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in turnover margin. Last year Navy was 15th (plus 0.8) in turnover margin.
Inattentive ball security has caused the rushing attack to suffer as well.
Navy is averaging 202 rushing yards per game, which ranks 41st in the FBS.
The Midshipmen have not finished lower than sixth nationally in rushing in any season over the last decade.
Senior slotback Gee Gee Greene is the only Navy player with at least 100 rushing yards and the only running back with a touchdown. The Midshipmen’s only other touchdown this season came via Miller’s 25-yard pass to junior wide receiver Shawn Lynch.
In another uncharacteristic development, Navy committed seven penalties for 41 yards against Penn State. The Midshipmen were the least-penalized FBS team in each of the past three seasons.
“Everybody’s focused. Everybody’s coming out to work hard,” Greene said. “Coach has us working real hard this week in practice. Everybody’s mind-set is just to get the win, get the first win and get that taste out of our mouth.”