There’s only so much the Navy defense can do. And yet, the group was united with the other side of the ball in its loss to Air Force on Saturday.
One unit improved while the other did not. After a woeful defensive performance against Marshall last week, the Midshipmen defense held the Falcons to just one first-down conversion for most of the first two quarters.
The first significant offensive play for Air Force came late in the second quarter — a 15-yard rush — before the visitors eventually made it into the end-zone.
Considering Navy’s defense allowed 49 points against Marshall seven days ago, surrendering one first-half touchdown seemed like progress. Even the two more that came later, in the second half, shouldn’t have been a death sentence for the home team.
But time and time again, Navy’s offense, mostly piloted by quarterback Xavier Arline, withered in three plays and let Air Force cruise to its second win, 23-3.
Still, the defense did not condemn the offense for Saturday’s loss.
“It’s not that it doesn’t mean anything, but as long as they put points on the board, I feel like we could have done something better,” sophomore nose guard Donald Berniard, Jr. said. “If you look back, some mistakes really cost us on defense. We don’t put the blame on anyone on offense, we could’ve done better on defense.”
The Falcons (2-0) accumulated 420 total offensive yards against Lafayette last Saturday. They had less than 100 yards by halftime against Navy, and just 225 by game’s end.
The Navy (0-2) offense fared worse, punting every drive but four — one a fumble, one a turnover on downs, one a safety and the other a field goal.
“You lose as a team. It is deflating just to lose,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “But we’re one team. It’s not like we have different parts of the team.”
Assuming the offense will find the end zone in the coming weeks, it’s worth noting improvements among the defense.
The Navy defense lacked the typically suffocating impact from senior captain Diego Fagot against Marshall. The hulking linebacker’s performance didn’t crack the top three performances as he turned in just four solo tackles, to go with two assists.
By the end of the first quarter Saturday, Fagot had five tackles already. His total was up to eight by the end of the second half and he finished with a team-high 13 tackles by game’s end. Fagot’s turnaround reflected the whole of Navy’s defense.
Some highlights included the defense limiting Air Force to three completions out of 10 passing attempts for 49 yards. The defense also amassed 79 total tackles, 13 more than a week earlier.
“Really excited. Bounce back from last week,” Niumatalolo said. “I thought they came back and played really, really well this week defensively. They weren’t getting anything on us.”
The defense’s first big moment came when a 54-yard punt by the Falcons’ Charles Bein slipped through Chance Warren’s fingers and into the diving clutches of Air Force’s Kyle Patterson. The Falcons started at the 23-yard line — a go-ahead touchdown seemed imminent.
Instead, the Mids’ defense corralled Air Force like an elite pack of herding dogs for three straight plays. After J’arius Warren and Will Harbour (nine total tackles) claimed responsibility for the third-down stop, 11 Midshipmen waved their arms — “no good” — as Falcons kicker Matthew Dapore’s 35-yard field goal attempt flew wide left.
“We just played Navy football. We worked our [butts} off this week,” Harbour said, “and got after it. We played how we were supposed to play.”
The defense made sure to revel in the good moments.
“We keep to the positives, keep it going, keep doing and focus on your job,” Harbour said. “If everybody does their job, we keep doing things right.”
Much of that came from plenty of film study and preparation, Berniard, Jr. said. After Marshall, he said, they had a chip on their shoulder.
“In this game it wasn’t enough,” the nose guard said. “Back to the drawing board.”
There were downsides to the Navy defense on Saturday besides losing. Two defensive players — starting safeties Mitchell West and Kevin Brennan — exited the game due to injuries. It was an unfortunate touch of déjà vu: Navy suffered two defensive injuries in Colorado Springs last October, too, which had an immediate effect on the next game.
“Losing Mitch early on hurt us,” Niumatalolo said. “At one point, we had two backup safeties in there.”
Harbour also suffered an injury, and Niumatalolo said afterward that Fagot also “got banged up.”
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“Diego’s a warrior, he fought the whole time,” Niumatalolo said.