Navy came into the 2008 season hoping its defense could catch up with its offense.
After closing the regular season Saturday with a 34-0 victory over Army at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, the Midshipmen apparently have come full circle - their offense has finally caught up with the team's much-improved defense.
Navy (8-4) was dominant on both sides of the ball.
The defense held the Black Knights to 154 yards of offense and secured its second straight shutout, the first time that has happened since 1986. It was also the first shutout against Army (3-9) since 1978.
The offense gained 430 yards, with 368 coming on the ground. It was the most yards rushing for the Midshipmen since they had 404 on Oct. 25 against Southern Methodist and the most overall yards since they had 602 against Towson in the season opener.
First-year head coach Ken Niumatalolo said the two units seemed to be in perfect sync all afternoon.
"Our defense did a great job in getting them three-and-out, and we did a great job of sustaining the ball," Niumatalolo said in the coach's dressing room after the game. "That was the blueprint for how we're looking to play. Eat the clock, move, score and our defense did a great job of getting them off the field."
It was an interesting dynamic to watch - an offense that seemed to run more efficiently with the return of senior quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada after missing him for more than a month with a hamstring injury and a defense that didn't appear to miss three key members of the secondary.
Navy cornerback Rashawn King missed the game after the death of his father last week, cornerback Ketric Buffin sat out with a foot injury and safety Emmett Merchant left the game early with a concussion.
Asked how tough it was for his defense to play without so many key members, coordinator Buddy Green said: "It's fun. It's a tribute to the guys who wear the uniform. They made big plays."
From defensive ends Nate Frazier and Jabaree Tuani stopping Army quarterback Chip Bowden for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-three from Navy's 33 on the Black Knights' second possession of the game to linebacker Ram Vela's 68-yard interception return for a touchdown in the final minute, the Navy defense played a near-perfect game.
Roverback Jeff Deliz said the team's defensive improvement this season has had to do with attitude.
"I thought we had the talent there last year, but just the mentality and the confidence that we can do it," Deliz said. "Guys worked their butt off in the offseason. Just being forward-looking, not looking in the past. It's been a great year to be around these guys. Nothing's more fun when you're playing defense when everyone's in sync."
Frazier said the improvement might also be a result of taking advantage of opponents' mistakes.
"It's improvement, but it's just catching breaks," Frazier said. "Last year, the ball wasn't bouncing our way; we weren't getting that many turnovers. This year, you take the same guys, play a little harder, just keep fighting, and thing will keep happening for you."
Saturday's game also marked first time all season that the offense seemed to be at full strength.
Though he didn't have a great game statistically, Kaheaku-Enhada seemed to make the right reads and the perfectly timed pitches to slotback Shun White (148 yards on 13 carries) and fullback Eric Kettani (24 carries for 125 yards). He also looked enough downfield to keep Army's defense on its heels.
It marked the first time this season the Midshipmen had two players rush for more than 100 yards in a game. White and Kettani ran for touchdowns, and White caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Kaheaku-Enhada. White scored a 65-yard touchdown on Navy's first possession.
"If everyone executes the offense, I don't think the offense can be stopped," White said.
The first-quarter punt Kyle Delahooke got off after a bad snap sailed over his head and the ball rolled into the end zone. Though credited with only a 13-yard punt, Delahooke's kick sailed 52 yards in the air and Josh Jones was tackled for a 3-yard loss on the return. At the time, Navy led 7-0.
If Kaheaku-Enhada had been a little sharper with his passing (3-for-10 for 62 yards) the Midshipmen might have scored 50 points. After a good week throwing the ball in practice, Kaheaku-Enhada's right arm looked rustier than his legs.
Navy will play in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl on Dec. 20 at RFK Stadium in Washington. The Midshipmen will face Wake Forest (7-5) in a rematch of a game that Navy won, 24-17, on Sept. 27 in Winston-Salem, N.C.
NAVY (8-4) vs. WAKE FOREST (7-5)
EagleBank Bowl, Washington
Dec. 20, 11 a.m.
Radio: 1090 AM