Navy came into Beaver Stadium on Saturday afternoon hoping to add to Penn State's collective misery from the past 10 months. The Midshipmen had designs on keeping the Nittany Lions and their new coach, Bill O'Brien, winless.
Hours later, as Navy was leaving this scenic campus after playing a once-dominant football program transformed by scandal and tragedy, the Midshipmen had already set another goal — finding a way to win a game in what has been an unusual but not unexpectedly tough start to their 2012 season.
A 34-7 loss to the undermanned but unrelenting Nittany Lions was nearly as one-sided as a season-opening 40-point demolition by Notre Dame two weeks ago in Dublin, Ireland. It also might have been more disappointing given the number of players (13) who have left Penn State since NCAA sanctions were announced this summer in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case.
“We're going to have a hard time beating high school teams if we don't take care of the football, much less [against] a program like Penn State,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the Midshipmen started a season 0-2 for the first time since 2005.
Navy committed four turnovers for the second straight game and also committed seven penalties, an uncharacteristically high number for a team that typically is among the least penalized in college football.
“That's probably the most disheartening thing. We did things that we normally don't do,” Niumatalolo said. “Two weeks in a row we've played two good teams. I don't know if we would have won, but I wish we would have played better against two very good programs.”
Niumatalolo said junior quarterback Trey Miller, who had three of the turnovers for the second straight game, was not completely to blame.
“Everything that happened wasn't Trey's fault. He's running for his life back there,” said Niumatalolo, who added that he planned to stay with Miller despite using both of his backups, freshman Keenan Reynolds and sophomore John Hendrick, in the second half. “But Trey will also tell you that he has to take care of the football.”
Still, Niumatalolo was not happy about the mistakes, particularly a false start by Miller and members of a reshuffled offensive line on a third-and-goal at the Penn State 5-yard line late in the first quarter. With Navy trailing 14-0 at the time, it led to Miller throwing an interception on the very next play and Penn State scoring on its subsequent 90-yard drive.
Niumatalolo wouldn't use crowd noise as an excuse.
“We knew that coming into the game,” he said. “This isn't study hall, where people are going to be quiet.”
Miller called the pass that wound up being intercepted around the Penn State 10-yard line “a bad decision” and said that “we weren't on point together as a team.” That included a defense that was shredded for much of the first half by Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin, who led the Nittany Lions on three straight touchdown drives to start the game.
McGloin, a fifth-year graduate student, completed 13 of 20 passes for 231 yards and four touchdowns, while sophomore wide receiver Allen Robinson, who had a team-high 19 catches the first two games, finished with five receptions for 131 yards and three touchdowns.
Only a 12-yard touchdown by senior slotback Gee Gee Greene with a little more than 10 minutes left in the game prevented Navy from its first shutout loss in 10 years. Still, the two-game start is the worst for the Midshipmen since 1994, when they were outscored 103-24 by San Diego State and Virginia.
As dejected as Niumatalolo seemed afterward, Penn State (1-2) and an announced crowd of 98,792 were equally joyful after giving O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, his first victory. A couple of his players showered O'Brien with Gatorade in the closing seconds.
“I wish they didn't do that,” O'Brien said. “I think it's more about the players. It's really about the players and the staff.”
Unlike the loss to the Fighting Irish, when Navy had an offseason to prepare, the Midshipmen will have only a few days to recover. But the competition for much of the rest of the season gets decidedly easier from here on out, with Navy's only Football Championship Subdivision team on the schedule, Virginia Military Institute, coming to Annapolis on Saturday.
“We're a proud program. We've won a lot of games over the past nine years,” Niumatalolo said. “Not to take anything away from Penn State. Our kids are crushed. We didn't come here for Military Appreciation Day, we came here to win.”