When Navy's defense caved during the second half of back-to-back road games at Ball State and Duke, the Midshipmen faced the same kind of criticism they experienced last season.
The only difference this time is that, unlike last year, Navy wasn't winning by outscoring the opposition.
"Obviously we didn't play well enough to stop people, and we didn't play well enough to win," Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. "The last two [games] we made some plays, got some turnovers and gave our team a chance to be in the ballgame."
After seeing different results against Rutgers and Wake Forest, what appeared to be the Midshipmen's weak spot suddenly has become a strength, helping them to consecutive wins by making big plays at crucial moments.
"I think it's just the attitude that people bring to the game; we're not doing a whole lot different scheme-wise," said junior linebacker Ross Pospisil, who made a key interception in each game. "Guys are just coming out there and realizing that, to even have a chance, we have to play all-out every single play."
Navy (3-2) will need more of the same tomorrow, when it tries to stretch the winning streak to three against Air Force (3-1) in Colorado Springs. The Midshipmen have beaten the Falcons five straight years.
"The biggest difference is that we're starting to play with more confidence," said sophomore safety Wyatt Middleton, who had one of the team's four interceptions in Saturday's 24-17 road upset of then-No. 16 Wake Forest. "That determines a lot."
So does experience. As Green predicted during the preseason, injuries last season to linebacker Clint Sovie and roverback Jeff Deliz allowed several younger players, including Pospisil and Middleton, to get playing time when it mattered.
Middleton started in 11 of 13 games and finished second on the team in tackles with 88. Pospisil started four times and finished fifth with 67 tackles, 20 of them coming in a win over Northern Illinois.
"Overall it's basically just being around the ball; when you're around the ball, you're going to make plays," Middleton said.
The linebackers and secondary have been helped in the past two weeks by a more active defensive line, which pressured Rutgers quarterback Mike Teel into a late-game interception by Pospisil to seal a 23-21 win in Annapolis and forced Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner into five turnovers in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Aside from the four interceptions, Navy recovered a fumble forced by defensive end Jabaree Tuani, the first freshman to start on Navy's defensive line in 10 years.
"That was the secret, that was the whole key: the pressure we were able to get up front," Green said.
The Midshipmen will have a markedly different challenge against Air Force. The Falcons, who are ranked last in passing among Football Bowl Subdivision teams, are sixth in the country in rushing at 281.8 yards a game.
"Air Force presents you with a lot of problems," Green said. "They spread it out all over the place; they give you 100 different formations; they've got the option game; they've got the play-action off the option; they've got reverses, double reverses; they make you defend the whole field."
Pospisil doesn't believe the defense will rest on what it has accomplished.
"We have so many guys that have been coming in and playing great," he said. "It's just fun watching it come together, but by no means are we anywhere. We just have to keep getting better every week."
NAVY @AIR FORCE
Tomorrow, 4 p.m.
Radio: 1090 AM
Line: Air Force
by 5 1/2
Navy's first three games:
Average passing yards allowed: 324.3
Average rushing yards allowed: 90
Turnovers forced: 3 INTs, 1 fumble
Navy's past two games:
Average passing yards allowed: 200.5
Average rushing yards allowed: 124.5
Turnovers forced: 5 INTs, 3 fumbles