Ken Niumatalolo has often said during his four seasons as Navy's head coach that developing leadership skills is more important for his players than winning football games. It was hard to tell during Niumatalolo's first three years whether the Midshipmen had their priorities right, considering that they won 27 games.
But the past month has given Navy (2-4) plenty of opportunity to prove its coach right, with a four-game losing streak heading into Saturday's meeting with East Carolina (2-4) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. It is at least double the number of consecutive defeats any of the current players have endured since coming to the academy.
"Our message to our team is that we're training you, the school is training you to lead our country — who can lead when things are going bad?" Niumatalolo said after practice in Annapolis on Wednesday. "Yeah, it would be nice for us to be 6-0 right now, but we're 2-4. We've got to find a way to rally the troops."
Since losing a close game (24-21) at then-No. 10 South Carolina on Sept. 17, the Midshipmen have sandwiched a pair of one-point defeats to Air Force (35-34 in overtime) on Oct. 1 and Rutgers (21-20) last Saturday around the team's most one-sided loss in five years, to Southern Mississippi (63-35).
It has led to a few lineup changes and included a one-game suspension of co-captain Alexander Teich because of what Niumatalolo described as "leadership issues," but mostly it has resulted in Navy's team leaders questioning what they have been doing.
Teich, Navy's second-leading rusher behind quarterback Kriss Proctor, returned last week from his suspension for the Southern Mississippi game saying he needed to be as positive as he is passionate.
Jabaree Tuani, the team's other senior captain, has thought about the players he looked to for leadership his first three years and what they would do when the Midshipmen lost games. Given the way the team has played lately, and the prospect of trying to prevent the first losing season in nine years, Tuani's job is decidely tougher than that of any of his recent predecessors.
"For me personally, it's definitely hard on the mind," Tuani said before the Rutgers game. "Especially those first two that were so close [South Carolina and Air Force, and the last one that was such a devastating loss, losing by 28 points is never good for anybody, I tried to think what would Ross [Pospisil] do, what would Wyatt [Middleton] do at this point. I will probably get on the phone with them and ask them for advice. Really, we've got to find our way. I know we have it in ourselves; we showed it the first two or three games."
Tuani, who did speak with former quarterback Ricky Dobbs this week, understands that there is a big difference between this year's team and the teams his first three years. Tuani and cornerback Kwesi Mitchell are the only seniors who returned this season as starters. One other senior, linebacker Jarred Shannon, currently starts.
"We definitely have a younger team right now, on the defensive side of the ball, the past years we had three or four seniors who were always really there — like a Ross Pospisil or a Clint Sovie or a Matt Nechak, [Michael] Walsh, Tony Haberer, the list goes on," Tuani said. "We have those seniors now, but we need them to show up regardless if they're on the field or not. If it comes from somone who's older and who's been there before, I bet the young guys can see the fire in their eyes and I think it can spark something inside themselves."
There have been breakdowns in all facets of the game. The offense has struggled in the red zone, the defense has given up its share of big plays on third down, and crucial kicks by senior Jon Teague have been blocked in each of the past three games.
Asked about the team's lack of consistency in the red zone, Niumatalolo said: "I don't know what the reason is. If we knew what the reason is, we would have got it fixed already. Sometimes it's been a lack of execution, sometimes it's been missed assignments. And it's not just one person, so I'm not going to blame anyone. I'm confident that we'll get it fixed."
Guard John Dowd said, "I think the details get finer down in the red zone, and there's less room for error."
Dowd said the recent lack of success in the red zone in particular, and Navy's losing streak in general, have the Midshipmen pressing a bit.
"When you repeatedly do it [not score], the mental aspect does play into it a little bit," Dowd said.
It has turned Saturday's game against East Carolina into almost must-win situation for the Midshipmen, given the difficulty of their remaining schedule.
Next week, Navy travels to Notre Dame, with the Fighting Irish looking to avenge a stretch of three defeats in four years to the Midshipmen. There are also games at Southern Methodist and San Jose State, and their outcomes will figure heavily into whether Navy will be bowl-eligible (six wins) to accept its predetermined invitation to the Military Bowl in Washington.
"It's a big game for both of us," Niumatalolo said of Saturday's matchup with the Pirates, whose 76-35 defeat at home to Navy last year has been a point of emphasis for both teams this week. "Our backs are not just up against the wall. Our backs are in the wall."
Saturday's game East Carolina (2-4) @ Navy (2-4)
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Navy leads 2-0
Last meeting: Navy won, 76-35, Nov. 6 in Greenville, N.C.
Line: Navy by 11
Navy offense vs. East Carolina defense: The Midshipmen shouldn't expect to score at will as they did last year, when they outscored the Pirates 48-14 in the second half. While East Carolina is still not a good defensive team — giving up 56 points to South Carolina and Houston — it has improved since last season's debacle. Conversely, the Midshipmen have seemingly taken a step or two back from the way they played offensively the first three games. Proctor had only 39 yards on 15 carries against Rutgers and needs to be more effective running the triple option near the goal line. The Pirates rank 115th out of 120 in points allowed (34 per game) and last in turnover margin (2.0 more than the opposition per game).
Navy defense vs. East Carolina offense: Navy has rarely stopped opposing quarterbacks the past three games — Gary Nova of Rutgers, Austin Davis of Southern Miss and Tim Jefferson of Air Force combined for 51-for-63 of passing for 490 yards and six touchdowns — and ECU's Dominique Davis could be as dangerous as any of of them. Davis has the Pirates 18th in the country in passing at nearly 300 yards a game, but he has thrown nearly as many interceptions (10) as touchdown passes (12). The Midshipmen must be opportunistic, as freshman safety Chris Ferguson was last week in returning the team's only interception in the past three games for a 16-yard touchdown and forcing a goal-line fumble in his first start.