By no means did Navy play flawlessly in its home opener Saturday against VMI. As they had in blowout losses to open the season against Notre Dame and Penn State, the Midshipmen continued to struggle with turnovers and penalties, and at times they struggled in the red zone.
Facing the overmatched Keydets, however, mistakes could be forgiven.
Navy racked up 510 yards of offense, with fullback Noah Copeland and quarterback Trey Miller each rushing for more than 100 yards in a 41-3 win before an announced 35,671 — the largest crowd ever for a home-opener at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
In a game in which Navy scored the final 41 points against its lone Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) opponent this season, the final result was cathartic.
"This feels a lot better then the last two weeks," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "Not to say that we're perfect or we're the New York Giants or anything like that, but I'm just proud of the way our young men fought back."
Navy (1-2) improved to 9-0 all-time against VMI, outscoring the Keydets by a combined 271-43. That, despite a pair of costly turnovers in the first quarter by Miller, which helped keep VMI in the game early.
Miller struggled to hold on to the ball throughout the first half, losing fumbles on two of Navy's first three possessions. When he fumbled an exchange with 42 seconds left in the first quarter, it was the Midshipmen's 10th turnover in the past nine quarters.
Niumatalolo, in fact, went so far as to warm up backup quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a true freshman, late in the first quarter.
"I almost made a switch [at quarterback] after the second turnover," Niumatalolo said. "I was very, very close to making that switch, but I just went with a gut feeling to give Trey one more chance. I told him, `Hey, you can't have that anymore,' and he buckled down and finished strong."
Said Miller, "I just knew I couldn't make that turnover."
VMI, however, struggled to capitalize.
The Keydets settled for a 35-yard field goal by Jeff Sexton on their opening drive, but suffered a major blow near the end of the quarter when quarterback Eric Kordenbrock left the game following a crushing hit by linebacker Jordan Drake.
Though he returned in the third quarter, Navy by that point had firmly cemented its lead.
Miller, who ran for 116 yards and three touchdowns, eventually settled down and got Navy's triple-option offense rolling late in the second quarter. Following a 36-yard gain on a pitch around the right side by slotback Gee Gee Greene, the Midshipmen took their first lead of the game on Miller's keeper from the 7 with 3:12 left.
VMI (1-3) hung around until late in the third, when Miller's score from the 1 at the tail end of a 64-yard drive extended the lead to 20-3.
Miller later extended the lead to 27-3 on a spectacular 40-yard run, sidestepping one defender before hurdling prone defensive back James Fruehan near the 20. The Midshipmen further extended the lead in the fourth on Matt Warrick's seven-yard interception return.
"They just beat us, and you can't win games from the sideline," VMI coach Sparky Woods said. "They simply outperformed us. It was a big disadvantage for us in getting so far behind."