Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo reminded his players after a practice this week that they are not like other college football teams that can simply show up and win on sheer talent alone. "We're not like Alabama or LSU," he said.
As Navy (3-2) heads to Toledo (3-3) Saturday after one of its more one-sided losses in Niumatalolo's six years as head coach, the Midshipmen need to resemble the team that beat Indiana and Delaware to start the 2013 season, as well as the one that dominated academy rival Air Force in the second half.
In short, Navy needs to play like Navy in order to have any chance to win on the road against a respectable Mid-American Conference team. That means the Midshipmen must eliminate the turnovers (three) and penalties (four) they had in a 35-7 loss at Duke last week.
Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds, who has been dynamic for most of his career at Navy, was uncharacteristically sloppy in Durham. Reynolds committed two turnovers, including a fumble deep in Duke territory late in the first half that prevented Navy from tying the game at halftime.
Reynolds said Monday after practice that he didn't think the Midshipmen underestimated the Blue Devils — nor will they Toledo.
"When we come into a game, we respect every opponent," Reynolds said. "We treat every opponent, like coach says, like the New York Giants — the historical New York Giants. We didn't underestimate them. We came out flat and we didn't execute."
Said senior linebacker and co-captain Cody Peterson: "We came out flat and we weren't prepared, and we have to make sure it doesn't happen again. This one hurts everybody. We're a resilient group of guys, and I think we'll prepare and do a lot better."
Defensively, the Midshipmen allowed Duke quarterback Anthony Boone to look like Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe's most famous protégé (hint: he wears No. 18 and now plays for the Denver Broncos). After stopping Duke twice on third down in the first quarter, Navy watched the Blue Devils convert on 11 of 13 third- or fourth-down situations, twice for touchdowns.
"I was very frustrated with the opportunities that we had and [that] we couldn't get off the field on third down," defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "I was totally disappointed the way we played. You can't play that way and expect to win. We've got to be ready to play probably the best team we've faced all season."
Offensively, Navy has averaged nearly 400 yards rushing in its three victories, including a season-high 444 against the Hoosiers in the season opener. In their two defeats, to Duke and Western Kentucky (19-7 on Sept. 28), the Midshipmen have managed a total of 337 yards rushing.
While winning six games to become bowl-eligible and beating Army in Philadelphia in December are still attainable goals, the 2-0 start for the Midshipmen is a distant memory. After Toledo, Navy plays Pittsburgh at home and Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
"Every game is huge for us," Reynolds said. "The one thing I try to remember is that it's never as bad as it seems and it's never as good as it seems. We've just got to keep a level head and get ready and put Duke behind us."
Navy (3-2) at Toledo (3-3)
When: Saturday, noon
Site: Glass Bowl, Toledo, Ohio
TV: ESPNEWS, ESPN3
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Toledo leads 2-1
Last meeting: Toledo won, 21-20, on Oct. 27, 2001 in Toledo
Navy offense vs. Toledo defense: After playing well in their first two games, the Midshipmen have struggled offensively in all but one half of the past three games. Sophomore quarterback Keenan Reynolds, a candidate for the Davey O'Brien Award given to the top quarerback nationally, is coming off one of his worst games since taking over as the starter midway through last season. Reynolds rushed for only 31 yards on 16 carries and committed two costly turnovers in the 35-7 loss at Duke. Unlike past seasons, when offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper had the luxury of a backup he was comfortable playing, the Midshipmen have little in the way of depth at quarterback. But Reynolds also needs to get better blocking from an offensive line that lost two starters to injuries earlier in the season, and more production from fullbacks Chris Swain and Noah Copeland in order for the triple option to be effective. The Rockets had two weeks to prepare for the triple option and have played solidly against the run this season (142.7 rushing yards allowed per game). The Midshipmen will have to contend with Jayrone Elliott, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound defensive end who leads the MAC in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (7).
Navy defense vs. Toledo offense: The Midshipmen have been successful over the years keeping teams between the 20-yard line by not allowing opposing quarterbacks and receivers to go vertical. But after allowing Duke's Anthony Boone to complete 31 of 38 attempts for a career-high 295 yards in his first game back in more than a month, Navy has to do a better job against Toldeo's Terrance Owens. The 6-4 senior quarterback has thrown for nearly 7,000 yards in his career. After injuring a knee the previous week against Eastern Washington, Owens came off the bench two weeks ago to complete 13 of 17 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown in a win over MAC rival Central Michigan. Navy will also need to contain senior tailback David Fluellen, who leads the MAC in rushing with 141 yards per game and has five straight games with at least 100 yards.