Before the start of the season, senior co-captain and safety Wyatt Middleton talked about leaving a legacy unmatched in the history of Navy football. Included in those aspirations were winning an eighth straight bowl game and Commander-in-Chief's Trophy as well as getting to double-figure wins for a second consecutive time. The loftiest ambition of all was the program's first undefeated season of the modern era.
While the quest for perfection dissolved on Monday in a 17-14 loss to Maryland at M&T Bank Stadium, the Midshipmen's other objectives remain well within reach. That was the point of emphasis as they began practicing for Saturday's game against Georgia Southern in Navy's shortest week of preparation of the season, when it plays twice over six days.
"The sting of a loss, it ends once you watch film the next day," Middleton said. "Once you watch film the next day, you've got to move on or else you're going to carry it on throughout the week. You're not going to practice and prepare like you should and get ready for the next opponent. As of right now we're looking at Georgia Southern. I'm not even thinking about Maryland."
That Navy isn't stewing over the loss has a lot to do with how the team responded after a heartbreaker against Ohio State in last season's opener, when a two-point conversion attempt to tie the game was intercepted by the Buckeyes and returned 100 yards to secure a 31-27 victory. After that agonizing defeat, the Midshipmen went on to win six of seven en route to a 10-4 record that included a 35-13 victory over Missouri in the Texas Bowl. By then, the loss to Ohio State was all but forgotten amid the euphoria of one of the most memorable seasons in program history.
So, the blueprint for this season is in place after Navy uncharacteristically committed one blunder after another in a nationally televised game against its in-state neighbor before nearly 70,000.
"As big as that game was for us, all of the hype, the in-state game, a game we feel like we should have won, that we had some opportunities, we have no time to hold our heads down, sulk or complain," Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We've got to get ready to go, but we did look to last year."
Against Maryland, the Midshipmen lost two fumbles, both by quarterback Ricky Dobbs, but were in position to win at the end, having driven to the 1-yard line in the closing seconds. On fourth and goal, Niumatalolo elected to go for the win rather than kick a short field goal to tie and presumably force overtime. The plan went awry when Dobbs, who set an NCAA single-season record last year with 27 rushing touchdowns by a quarterback, was unable to get past safety Kenny Tate around the left side.
That final failed offensive snap diminished what otherwise was a statistically exceptional game from the Midshipmen. They amassed 485 yards to 272 for Maryland and ran for 412 yards, marking the third time in school history Navy rushed for more than 400 yards and lost. The Midshipmen had nearly a two-to-one advantage in time of possession and 26 first downs to the Terrapins' 11.
"When it comes down to it, whenever we run for 500 yards or whatever, how many yards we run for, that's supposed to be automatic win," said senior slotback Andre Byrd, who had a 10-yard touchdown run. "If we did all that and still lost, that's not Navy football."
To clean up short-yardage deficiencies, this week's practices included plenty of repetitions from the goal line. On Monday, Navy had five chances from Maryland's 7-yard line or closer, and only one yielded points. The other four resulted in a pair of lost fumbles by Dobbs, time expiring before the end of the first half as Navy was trying to set up for a field goal and the Terrapins' goal-line stand to secure the win.
Healing mentally from the loss is just the half of it for Navy this week. Perhaps even more daunting is the physical toll — Maryland ran on 34 of 39 plays — the game took on the players and to what degree they will have recuperated by Saturday's 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Yet the coaching staff did not pull back during practice despite the late afternoon sun.
"We actually had to turn it up," Niumatalolo said of practice intensity. "Just from the standpoint of it's our normal [Wednesday]. We got one padded practice day. We gave them off [on Tuesday], so hopefully that was their rest, and we just got to go."