Over its first two games this season, the Navy football team has scored 92 points, amassed 1,104 yards — including 796 rushing — converted 58 percent of its third downs and owned a 10-minute advantage in time of possession.
So it’s no surprise the Midshipmen are unbeaten given they rank in the top 10 nationally in each of those categories, plus are second in fewest penalty yards and third in fewest penalties committed. For good measure, Pablo Beltran is first in punting with a net of 56 yards, although he has only one attempt, underscoring how potent Navy’s tweaked triple-option attack has been.
Coming off their second bye week of this young season, the Midshipmen had an extra week to prepare for Saturday’s game against Western Kentucky (2-2), so the coaching staff put the team through rigorous practices, all the while reminding players how fleeting victories can be.
The Midshipmen, who are seeking to go 3-0 for the first time since 2006, conducted several practices without Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who was absent so he could attend his mother’s funeral in Hawaii. Niumatalolo entrusted offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper and defensive coordinator Buddy Green to oversee practices while he was away.
“Coach Green said something that stuck with me,” senior linebacker Cody Peterson said early this week. “He said, ‘In bye weeks, teams either take a step back or take three steps forward.’ The coaches, they worked us pretty hard last week. Some guys are banged up, so they got healed up over the weekend and got some treatment, so it wasn’t a bad thing. I think we’ll pick up where we left off.”
When the Midshipmen last played on Sept. 14, they opened their home schedule with a 51-7 rout of Delaware. Navy rolled to a 23-0 lead before its Football Championship Subdivision opponent scored, and after allowing 35 points in the season opener against Indiana, the defense stiffened considerably.
Navy forced three turnovers, converted on third down 10 of 13 times and did not commit a penalty.
Ensuring his players haven’t become enamored with their strong start, Niumatalolo began this week by delivering a stern rebuke in which he pointed out several flaws in individual fundamentals during an uninspired practice. He also reminded players how quickly Navy’s season unraveled two years ago, when it began 2-0 only to lose seven of 10, ending a streak of eight consecutive bowl appearances.
“I think sometimes when you have this long off, you tend to get a little complacent, and that’s something we can’t have, especially this early in the season,” senior wide receiver Matt Aiken said. “Just coming into this third game, I think we need to have a little bit more fire.”
Navy’s recent history with extra preparation suggests as much. The Midshipmen are 10-12 under Niumatalolo with more than a week to prepare for an opponent. Last year and in 2010, the Midshipmen went 1-3 under those circumstances.
The good news for Navy is it dispatched the Hilltoppers in Bowling Green, Ky., the last time the teams played two years ago. In that game, slotback John Howell had touchdown runs of 50 and 57 yards the first two times he touched the ball on the way to a 40-14 triumph at Houchens-Smith Stadium.
Aiken also was instrumental in the win, catching a 44-yard touchdown down the right sideline as the first quarter expired to give Navy a 14-0 lead.
“You can’t make any excuses. We’ve got to be ready,” Niumatalolo said. “Western Kentucky, they’re on a roll right now, had a good game last week, and they could care less if we had a bye or whatever. They’re going to come ready to go, and so, in this profession, in sports, you can’t make excuses if you had a bye or your ankle hurts or this happened. It doesn’t matter. When the game kicks off, you’ve got to be ready to go.”