PHILADELPHIA — The Navy football team jogged onto Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday eager to banish the sour taste of two consecutive losses from its mouth. Instead, the flavor still lingers.
In a city that feels like Navy's second home, the Midshipmen never got comfortable against the Temple Owls and fell, 34-26. Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo was searching for a way to get his team back to playing "Navy football," how he defines it — tough and disciplined. But a third straight loss in which Niumatalolo said the team simply felt off-kilter means the Midshipmen (5-3, 3-3 American Athletic Conference) return to Annapolis with some soul-searching to do.
"Not going in the right direction," Niumatalolo said. "We've got to figure things out quickly. . . . We're on a landslide right now. I felt it, you know, even though we were 5-2, I felt it. I coach by feelings, and just something has been amiss with this. We're out of sync, we're out of sorts, and we've got to get better."
Needing a victory not only to end its losing streak but also to become bowl eligible, Navy instead suffered its first loss at Lincoln Financial Field, which has been the site of the Army-Navy game 10 times since 2003 and will host this year's game in December.
The Mids are 12-1 at the home of the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.
Outside of Annapolis, no city has hosted more Navy games than Philadelphia — Thursday's game marked the 142nd time Navy has played in the city.
But the Midshipmen lacked the energy of a team that had dominated on this field. Niumatalolo credited Temple for outplaying Navy — a change from the previous two losses, in which he said Navy beat itself. But if one number summarizes how off-balance the Mids were, it is average yards per rush: Navy gained an average 2.6 yards per carry Thursday. Their season average entering the game was 5.9.
"We had to grind everything out in the first half to even get down, and we weren't finishing with touchdowns," Niumatalolo said. "They were just gashing us in the first half."
"We kind of played like they were going to lay it out for us," senior linebacker D.J. Palmore added.
Meanwhile, the Owls offense hummed under first-year Coach Geoff Collins and received plenty of help from a Navy defense that was a step behind all night long.
The Owls averaged 6.8 yards per play, above the season-average 5.2 they had entering the game, and converted 8 of 13 third downs behind quarterback Frank Nutile, making his second start of the season.
The Midshipmen defense afforded Nutile time and space from the start. He was 22 for 30 for 289 yards and four touchdowns. He threw one interception.
Wide receiver Adonis Jennings had 127 yards on five receptions and caught one touchdown pass of 40 yards and another of 34 yards, easily outrunning his defender, senior cornerback Elijah Merchant, on both scores.
With the defense lacking and Temple clicking, Navy trailed 17-6 at halftime and only made the final margin respectable with two late scores. Down by eight in the final minutes, Temple recovered an onside kick to seal the victory.
The Midshipmen had amassed just 95 yards on offense in the first half, 87 of which came on the ground. The second half got off to a demoralizing start when officials ruled that sophomore wide receiver Zack Fraade had called for a fair catch on the first kickoff of the period when it appeared that he had not. Navy's offense started at its own 4 and advanced just 15 yards before the Mids were forced to punt.
Temple made it 24-6 on the next possession when Nutile needed just over a minute to drive the Owls 60 yards and capped the series with a beautiful 34-yard throw to Jennings.
Navy had to get creative to score its first touchdown of the night.
With 6:05 left in the third quarter, the Midshipmen ran a trick play in which senior slotback Darryl Bonner took the snap and flipped the ball to fellow slotback Malcolm Perry, who played quarterback for Navy briefly last season. Perry tossed a five-yard touchdown pass to starting quarterback Zach Abey, waiting wide open in the end zone.
Abey, who left the game early in the fourth quarter after landing hard on his right shoulder, was under pressure from a diligent Temple defense all night.
The junior quarterback led Navy with 87 rushing yards on 25 carries and was 6 for 9 for 111 yards and one interception, which came on the play before he left the game. The loss was Abey's first game without a touchdown this season and the second consecutive game that he left early with apparent injury.
Palmore, the team captain, said a Friday meeting with the squad's seniors is in order.
"Tomorrow, we just get together with our senior class and see what we're letting slip," he said. "Coach, he took the blame, but we don't expect our coaches to coach a perfect game every week. It's our fault too. We need to dig deeper, figure out who we really are. Because this isn't who we are."