Navy wasn't as angry after Saturday's 21-20 loss to Rutgers as it was after its one-point overtime defeat at home against heated rival Air Force and was not as embarrassed as after a 28-point demolition by Southern Mississippi last week in Annapolis. Nor did the Midshipmen seem to be suffering from the same kind of letdown they had after last month's three-point defeat at then-No. 10 South Carolina.
Mostly, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo and his players appeared numb after extending the school's longest losing streak in nine years to four games.
Then there was senior kicker Jon Teague, who came out of the team's locker room nearly an hour after Navy (2-4) left the field at High Point Solutions Stadium, his voice resolute but his eyes reddened.
Rutgers (5-1) blocked Teague's 34-yard field-goal attempt with 4:43 to go to help preserve its lead and gain its fifth straight win here over the Midshipmen.
It was the third straight week in which Teague saw a kick blocked, after a 35-yard extra-point try (following a 15-yard penalty) in overtime against Air Force that opened the door for a 35-34 win by the Falcons and a 29-yard field-goal attempt that was returned for a 79-yard touchdown to open the floodgates in a 63-35 romp by Southern Mississippi.
"It's just tough when it comes down to the last one these last few times," said Teague, who a little more than three minutes earlier had cut Navy's deficit to a point with a 41-yard field goal into the wind. "We've got to keep finding a way to bounce back. I'm going to look at the negatives, and I'm going to look at the positives, work on getting [the kick] off quicker."
Unlike the crucial extra-point try against Air Force, when it appeared Teague shanked the kick that was tipped, this time Rutgers cornerback Brandon Jones came through unblocked and according to Teague "was horizontal" by the time he reached the ball. Jones, who also had one of two interceptions of Navy quarterback Kriss Proctor, said after the game that he had nearly blocked Teague's previous field-goal attempt.
"I felt really confident going out there," Teague said. "When I hit it, I knew immediately it was going in, and of course, I heard the block and it went from there."
The sound of the block is similar to that of Navy's season — a dull but deafening thud. After winning their first two games against Delaware and at Western Kentucky, the Midshipmen gained national attention for their near victory against the Gamecocks.
Now, Navy sees its chances for a ninth straight winning season — and potentially a ninth straight bowl appearance — quickly slipping away. Starting with Saturday's game against East Carolina, the Midshipmen have to go 4-2 the remainder of the season to be 6-6 and bowl-eligible, with road games at Notre Dame in two weeks as well as at Southern Methodist and San Jose State next month.
Niumatalolo watched as his team lost for only the second time in 26 games after holding a third-quarter lead. But by the time the fourth quarter began, the momentum had swung in favor of the Scarlet Knights, who would erase a 17-7 deficit in the third quarter with a pair of touchdown passes by freshman quarterback Gary Nova.
"I thought we battled until the end," Niumatalolo said. "Unfortunately we had some mistakes there. Some similar things have happened in the past, and we couldn't find a way to finish."
Navy seemed to have a chance to win — and Teague an opportunity for redemption — when Nova threw his second interception of the game. His first had been picked off by freshman safety Chris Ferguson, who in his first career start returned it for a 16-yard touchdown and helped tie the game at 7 in the second quarter.
This time, senior linebacker Caleb King made his first career interception and gave the Midshipmen possession at the Rutgers' 23-yard line with a little less than seven minutes left. But on three straight conservative running plays, Navy could manage only 6 yards.
"We're always going to [try to] score. Hats off to them, they came out and made a great stop," Proctor said. "It's unfortunate that we had to kick a field goal. We had the momentum. We should be able to get into the end zone. That one's on the offense."
The offense struggled throughout Saturday's game. Proctor was stopped on fourth-and-goal from 6 inches away in the second quarter and saw an apparent touchdown pass dropped by senior slotback Mike Stukel early in the third.
Their 164 yards rushing were their fewest of the season by more than 100 yards — and less than half their season average — for the nation's leading rushing team. Nova, who made his first start in last week's win over Pittsburgh, completed 23 of 31 passes for 271 yards. While improving on the nation's worst third-down defensive efficiency, Navy did allow the Scarlet Knights to convert seven of 14 opportunities, several for large gains.
The last came on third-and-8 from the Navy 49 with less than two minutes left when a pass that was tipped by cornerback David Sperry was caught by Quron Pratt for a 20-yard gain. Though Navy blocked a 41-yard field-goal attempt with 24 seconds to go, it was too late. After completing a 12-yard pass and throwing an incompletion, Proctor was sacked for the fourth time on the game's final play.
It left many Midshipmen with a hollow feeling, none more so than Ferguson. Early in the game, he had forced a fumble near the goal line. Then came the interception return for a touchdown. But ultimately, it was followed by another narrow, numbing defeat.
"At times, we made plays, but sometimes we weren't where we were supposed to be," said Ferguson, who took over for sophomore Shawn Lynch, a converted wide receiver.
Though Niumatalolo is 6-7 in games decided by three points or fewer, the Midshipmen seemed to have a knack of pulling out games at the very end under the fourth-year head coach, including one-point wins last season over Wake Forest and Central Michigan, as well as a two-point win over Rutgers in Niumatalolo's first season.
"It's kind of heartbreaking because we've had so many close games this season, games you got accustomed to finishing at the end," said senior fullback and co-captain Alexander Teich, who returned after sitting out the loss to Southern Mississippi because of a suspension. "We've been on the other side of these losses, and that's what hurts, because we do know how to win. For some reason, through the course of the [season] we haven't been finding the opportunities to do that."