For two straight weeks, Navy has had to answer the same, tired question: How do you overcome being on the wrong end of a 65-19 blowout?
Stay positive, the Midshipmen always reply. Work harder. Execute and play better.
Today against Northwestern, Navy gets its first real opportunity to prove if that's the truth, or just lip service.
"We had plenty of time to go back and look at all the things we messed up on [against N.C. State]," Navy linebacker Eddie Carthan said. "All you want to do after a loss like that is go out and play the next opponent. You can't get it back once it's over, so we've just been trying to get ready for Northwestern."
But will Northwestern be ready for Navy? The Wildcats are coming off their first victory of the year last week, 26-21, over Duke, but just like the Mids, they are in the middle of a major rebuilding project. Northwestern has only five seniors on its roster, and on defense the Wildcats start three freshmen and six sophomores. That inexperience was evident in Northwestern's opener against Air Force, when the Falcons rushed for 484 yards in a 52-3 rout.
Lost on no one is that Air Force and Navy run similar option-based offenses, but Mids coach Paul Johnson downplayed the suggestion that the Falcons' success might mean good things for his team.
"That's water under the bridge," Johnson said. "You could look at that and say we didn't stop N.C. State's passing game much either, so does that give them hope? It's a new game. I'm sure they will come in with a good plan, and we feel like we have a plan, so we'll see who can execute the best."
Things should open up a bit more for Mids quarterback Craig Candeto. The junior rushed for 153 yards and three touchdowns in Navy's 38-7 season-opening win at Southern Methodist, but against N.C. State, he mustered only 58 yards and one score against the Wolfpack's fast, aggressive defensive scheme.
"We watched a lot of film of them against Air Force and against Duke," Candeto said. "We know what kind of defensive schemes they like to run. We just need to got out and execute our stuff now."
Defensively, Navy has a lot to prove. The Wildcats have a promising freshman quarterback in Brett Basanez, and Northwestern coach Gary Walker will ask him to take chances against the Mids.
"They like to spread people out and get their guys in a one-on-one situation," Carthan said. "We've got to be good tacklers and not give up big plays. We've got to have some turnovers, too."
Northwestern has been hurt by turnovers, losing seven fumbles and throwing three interceptions in its three games. Navy managed to take care of the ball in its opener, but gave it away three times against the Wolfpack.
"I don't know if they are turnover-prone," Johnson said. "Certainly, if a team turns the ball over a bunch it's hard to win, whether it's us or them, so that will be a big part of the game."
The area where Navy most desperately needs to play better, however, is special teams. Against SMU, the Mids were barely adequate, and against N.C. State, Navy got embarrassed, getting two punts blocked while fumbling on a kickoff. Navy's kickoff coverage will also be tested by the Wildcats; junior Jason Wright leads the country with a return average of 49.0 yards.
"That is a big concern, and it's something we've worked on ever since we've watched their tapes," Johnson said.
With a win, Navy would be off to its best start since 1997, when the Mids went 7-4.
"I feel like they can embarrass us if we don't play well," Johnson said.
NOTES: Navy's kicking situation is still undecided. Eric Rolfs has handled field goals, extra points and kickoffs in Navy's first two games, but Geoff Blumenfeld might get the call today. Rolfs is 1-for-2 on field-goal attempts and 5-for-6 on extra-point tries this season. ... Defensive end Steve Adair and wide receiver Brandon Rampani remain suspended from the team for violating academy rules.
Northwestern (1-2) at Navy (1-1)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
Radio: WNAV (1430 AM), WJFK (1300 AM)
Line: Navy by 3
Series: Northwestern leads, 2-0
Last meeting: Northwestern won, 16-7, in 1951, in Evanston, Ill.
Last game: N.C. State defeated Navy 65-19; Northwestern beat Duke, 26-21.
Navy offense vs. Northwestern defense: The Wildcats are giving up 296 yards a game on the ground, which just happens to be the Mids' forte. Already, Northwestern's young defense has had trouble defending the option; Air Force ran all over it in a 52-3 win to start the season.
Navy defense vs. Northwestern offense: Freshman quarterback Brett Basanez has thrown for 477 yards and one touchdown, but the Wildcats have turned the ball over 10 times in three games. Navy linebackers Andy Sinitiere, Eddie Carthan and Ben Mathews need to have a big game shutting down Northwestern's ground attack and forcing them to throw.
Special teams: Navy's special teams were terrible against N.C. State: Two punts by the Mids were blocked, they fumbled away the ball on their first kickoff return and they missed an extra-point try. That's good news for Northwestern. Junior Jason Wright leads the country in kickoff return average at 49.0 yards.