Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo tried to lighten the mood at practice last week, finishing one session with a 40-yard dash between pair of plebe defensive linemen who don't play and preaching to his Midshipmen that they needed to forget their six-game losing streak when they stepped onto the field Saturday to play Troy.
In retrospect, what it really took for Niumatalolo and his team to forget what he called a "Halloween October" was a win -- any kind of victory would do. That it came in a 42-14 dismantling of Troy before an announced Senior Day Crowd of 33,359 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium certainly allowed the Midshipmen to savor it a little more.
After nearly everything went wrong for the Midshipmen in the team's longest losing streak in nine years, nearly everything went right for Navy (3-6) on Saturday. Led by senior quarterback Kriss Proctor and senior slotback Aaron Santiago, both of whom returned after being sidelined with injuries, the Midshipmen scored on five straight possessions in the first half to take a 35-0 lead at halftime. They had seven plays of 25 yards or more in that first half alone.
"For them to finish their careers with a 'W' here, their next memory will be here when they're graduating," said Niumatalolo, who received a Gatorade shower after the game from two of the team's 33 seniors, offensive linemen John Dowd and Ryan Basford. "The last two memories they'll have in the stadium will be very memorable ones."
They were created mostly, but not solely, by a few of Navy's seniors.
Proctor, who missed last week's 56-14 loss at Notre Dame after dislocating his left (throwing) elbow the previous week against East Carolina, orchestrated the triple-option offense with precision. He rushed for two touchdowns and threw a career-long 48-yard touchdown pass to junior slotback Gee Gee Greene before giving way to sophomore Trey Miller for the second half.
Santiago, who missed all six defeats after suffering a broken arm Sept. 10 against Western Kentucky, rushed for a game-high 80 yards, all in the first half, on six carries before also sitting out the second half as a precaution. Senior fullback Alexander Teich added 71 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. The Midshipmen gained 517 yards, including 127 yards on 4-for-6 passing by Proctor.
"He's a tough sucker, man," Niumatalolo said of Proctor, a first-year starter who has accounted for 16 of his team's 35 touchdowns this season. "He provided a lot of inspiration for our team. I didn't know two hours before the game if he was going to play. It was great to see 26 [Santiago] back out there. The last time he was on the field, we won, and we won again. Those two guys' being out there gave our team a spark."
Said Proctor, who didn't throw passes longer than 5-10 yards in practice but managed to hit three passes of 25 yards or longer Saturday: "I just kind of left it up to the big man upstairs. It's his will whether [the shoulder is] going to pop out again. I knew after Notre Dame, I didn't care how it felt, I was coming back."
What also lifted Navy was its much-maligned defense, ranked near the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision in several categories. The Midshipmen held Troy (2-6) to 118 yards rushing and didn't give up a play longer than 14 yards until the Trojans had a 21-yard pass and scored a meaningless 22-yard touchdown on their last possession of the game.
With defensive coordinator Buddy Green watching from the press box for the first time since the last four games of the 2007 season, the Midshipmen benefited from a botched handoff that resulted in one fumble recovery and a strip by freshman cornerback Parrish Gaines that resulted in another. Navy scored off both turnovers to take a 14-0 lead.
The first touchdown -- a 1-yard run by Proctor -- marked the first time Navy had scored a touchdown in the opening quarter since the season opener against South Carolina on Sept. 17, the first time it had scored any points in the first quarter since its game against Air Force two weeks later and the first time it had taken the lead in seven quarters, since the East Carolina game.
"I think it worked out well," senior defensive end and co-captain Jabaree Tuani said of Green's decision to watch the game from the press box. "At first, it was kind of hard because we're looking at Coach Green for the signals. But he drew up a master gameplan for us."
Said Green: "I thought they [the Trojans] played hard, they ran for the ball and made some plays. We played better. That's the key."
While its first win in nearly two months allowed Navy to momentarily forget close road losses at then-No. 10 South Carolina and Rutgers, a pair of heartbreaking home defeats at the hands of Air Force and East Carolina, and a couple of blowouts by Southern Mississippi and Notre Dame, the reality is that the Midshipmen still have to win their remaining three games to become bowl-eligible.
"We put amnesia to September and October; those months haven't happened," said Niumatalolo, whose team plays at Southern Methodist on Saturday. "The only thing we're thinking about is November."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun