For most of Ken Niumatalolo’s first four years as coach at Navy, the references to the past were nearly all positive reminders of how the program had kept up the standard set by his mentor and predecessor, Paul Johnson.
Even last year, when Niumatalolo suffered his first losing season and Navy had its first losing record in nine years, there seemed to be a feeling that the Midshipmen weren’t very far off, with five of the seven losses coming by a total of 11 points.
This season is different — a painful flashback to what Navy football was like when Johnson first arrived in 2002.
A 12-0 defeat Saturday to San Jose State at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was the third in four games for the Midshipmen in 2012 — matching their worst start since Johnson’s first year, when Navy won its first and last game in a 2-10 season.
It was also the first shutout defeat for Navy (1-3) since a 34-0 loss to Rutgers in 2006.
While the defense held the Spartans, who had averaged 41 points in their past three games, to four field goals by freshman kicker Austin Lopez, the Navy offense was limited to 144 yards — its lowest output since gaining just 82 yards in a 38-0 loss to Connecticut in 2002.
Junior quarterback Trey Miller, plagued by turnovers in his first season as a starter, fumbled away Navy’s best chance on the game’s opening drive and helped seal his team’s fate when an underthrown pass resulted in an interception in the fourth quarter.
“Defensively, we did a good enough job to win,” Niumatalolo said. “Offensively, you can’t win if you don’t score any points.”
Miller’s continued problems resulted in his ninth and 10th turnovers of the season, and will renew discussions about making a change at quarterback. Freshman Keenan Reynolds came off the bench for the third time this season, but didn’t play as well as he did two weeks ago at Penn State.
“I have to take better care of the football,” Miller said, in what has become a familiar refrain for a player once compared favorably to former Navy star Ricky Dobbs. “I feel like I’m not catching a break, but it is on me.”
Asked whether he will consider making a change at quarterback going into next Saturday’s road game against bitter rival Air Force, Niumatalolo said, “We’re definitely going to look at that and do what’s right for the program. We’ve got to find a way to get this corrected or make a change.”
The game started with promise for Miller and the Midshipmen.
Navy drove from its own 25 to the San Jose State 12 before Miller was stripped as he came close to a first down on third-and-5. Navy never got past the Spartans’ 33 again, with the help of a penalty late in the game with Reynolds at quarterback.
“I think we got a little discombulated out there,” Niumatalolo said about Miller’s first turnover. “I thought we were on track on the first drive. It took so much steam out of us and offensively we weren’t able to bounce back.”
Said senior slotback Bo Snelson, “We are not a team that turns the ball over a lot. It is not characteristic of us. But that has become a problem this year.”
But Snelson also credited San Jose State’s much improved defense causing some of Navy’s offensive struggles. The Spartans, who came into the game ranked fourth in the country in sacks, put a lot of pressure on Miller and Reynolds, sacking them five times.
“They were well-disciplined compared to last year,” Snelson said. “They were dialed in.”
After losing at San Jose State by three points last year — a game that cost Navy a shot at its ninth straight winning season and corresponding bowl appearance — the Midshipmen seemed to get beat at their own game of ball possession Saturday.
In winning its fourth straight game since a season-opening 20-17 loss at Stanford, San Jose State had five drives of more than 10 plays, including a 14-play, 73-yard drive that ate up more than seven minutes to start the second half. Spartans quarterback David Fales completed 29 of 34 passes for 274 yards.
“It’s extremely tough to ask the defense to play lights out the entire game when the offense keeps going three and out,” Snelson said.
The loss was costly for Navy in terms of the team’s experience and depth. In a matter of six plays in the first quarter, Navy lost senior slotback John Howell with what appeared to be a serious knee injury and senior rover Tra’ves Bush with a concussion.
Freshman cornerback Quincy Adams also left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter.
The Midshipmen now have to regroup for Saturday’s game against Air Force. They’ll try to beat the Falcons for the first time in three years and bring the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy back to Annapolis.
“There is a trophy case in our locker room that is empty because of this game,” Snelson said.
That too is a reminder of what the Navy program was like when Johnson first arrived.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun