Navy taking it game-by-game after hype of last season fizzled

A year ago, there was talk of an undefeated season and a possible BCS invitation, a Heisman Trophy campaign for senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs and a seemingly assured eighth straight Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.

It all unraveled quickly for the Navy football team.

First there was a 17-14 opening game loss to Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium in which Dobbs fumbled three times and was stopped at the Terps' 1-foot line with seconds remaining. A month later, Navy's streak of 15 straight wins over service academy teams ended with a 14-6 loss at Air Force.

The Falcons would eventually stop Navy's unprecedented run of seven straight Commander-in-Chief's trophies. The Midshipmen are reminded of it every day when they see an empty trophy case in Bancroft Hall as they go to meetings before practice, which began last Wednesday in Annapolis.

"It definitely boils your blood," senior co-captain Jabaree Tuani said at Media Day Saturday. "The legacy we've had the last couple of years, of it being there, and not being there anymore, it really frustrates you. It's definitely something we do want back and we're going to strive to get it."

Said fourth-year coach Ken Niumatalolo, "That was hard. That's like somebody ripping your heart out. You've got to figure out a way of putting it back and try to keep breathing. It's the nature of sports. You've got to move on."

Tuani said that all the preseason talk leading into the nationally-televised game against the Terps on Labor Day might have been a distraction.

"I think we did kind of get ahead of ourselves and we got away from Navy football, of trying to take it one game at a time, one play at a time," said Tuani, who has started at defensive end since he was a plebe. "Talking with the other seniors, this year we want to take it one practice at a time."

Despite a nine-win season that included the school's third victory over Notre Dame in four years, the Midshipmen feel they have something to prove in 2011. The season opens Sept. 3 against Delaware, which reached the Football Championship Subdivision title game last year.

Dobbs, who finished with a school- and NCAA-record 49 career rushing touchdowns, has departed, leaving the quarterback job to senior Kriss Proctor. The leadership void left by the graduation of Dobbs and safety Wyatt Middleton is expected to be filled by Tuani and senior fullback Alexander Teich.

"They led by example and when they got on the field they produced and made plays," Teich said, "They also taught the younger guys how Navy football is done. That's kind of what me and Jabaree are trying to do now to the next generation of Navy football."

The biggest question marks going into the season for Navy are the collective inexperience of a defense that has to replace eight starters as well as the relative inexperience of Proctor, who played in eight games and started once last year, rushing for 201 yards in a wild 38-37 win last season over Central Michigan.

"Expectations are going to be there, and I can't control the expectations," Proctor said Saturday. "I've just go to do my part. I've got to work hard, and lead by example and not worry about the past. I've got to do what I've got to do right now, in the present."

Or, as Niumatalolo said about his team's focus, "We've got to look through the front windshield, not the rear-view mirror."

Except when it comes to losing the Commander-in-Chief's trophy.

"It's really fueled the fire during the spring, during the summer," Teich said. "Any time you're working, it's easy toward something, especially when it's something so great like the CIC trophy. You've got to give it to Air Force, they did a great job last year, they handled business and we didn't."

The Midshipmen play Air Force Oct. 1 in Annapolis — where the Falcons nearly won two years ago before succumbing in overtime — and still improving Army at FedEx Field in Landover on Dec. 10. Navy also plays at South Carolina (Sept. 17) and plays the Fighting Irish in South Bend (Oct. 29).

Niumatalolo said that the two high-profile non-service academy games are important.

"As a competitor, it forces you to raise your game," said Niumatalolo, whose team nearly knocked off Ohio State in Columbus in the 2009 season opener. "You know you're playing the best of the best. It's exciting playing at those venues, but we also understand who we are and not get ahead of ourselves."

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad