While preparing his team for last Saturday's game against Duke, Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo repeatedly spoke of the hazards of prosperity. The Midshipmen had won three in a row (including a thumping of Notre Dame on national television), received votes in the Associated Press Top 25 and were feeling indomitable with the Blue Devils coming to Annapolis for what looked to be a homecoming romp.
So Niumatalolo warned his players about the perils of treating Duke as a gimme. The Blue Devils might have dropped six consecutive games, but overlooking a team with little at stake other than personal accountability could spell disaster.
The 34-31 loss unfolded as Niumatalolo had feared and then some, with Navy playing the first half as if it expected Duke to concede simply because oddsmakers had installed the Blue Devils as two-touchdown underdogs. Duke instead built a 24-0 halftime lead, and while the Midshipmen made it exciting in the fourth quarter, their disregard for a statistically inferior opponent kept them from becoming bowl-eligible for at least one more week.
"We knew it was going to be a challenge because you're getting patted on the back everywhere," Niumatalolo said. "How do I say this without offending people? We're still the Naval Academy. As long as I've been here, maybe four times we've blown out people. We're in a dogfight every week. Our big thing is we can never forget who we are. Once we forget who we are, we're in trouble."
Navy's identity is that of the perennial long shot, not the bully that regularly handles opponents with ease. Even in their recent victories, save for the 35-17 win over the Fighting Irish, the Midshipmen had to rally, with the outcome in doubt until the final moments.
Navy came roaring back against Duke as well, but missteps in the first half, including losing a fumble on its first series, proved too much to withstand. It was by far the worst half of football this season for the Midshipmen, who will enter today's game at East Carolina as a slight underdog.
"It comes back to you can't take any team lightly," said senior wide receiver Greg Jones, who had nine catches for 134 yards and one touchdown against Duke. "Especially coming off a win against Notre Dame and the great tradition that they've had, you can't be like: 'OK, well, we beat Notre Dame. Hey, let's look at the rest of the season and let's do this.' We've got to focus on that week."
Navy lost its first game of the season to Maryland, 17-14, amid similar circumstances. The Terrapins were coming off a 2-10 season that had coach Ralph Friedgen's job security in serious jeopardy. The Midshipmen, meantime, had walloped Missouri, 35-13, in the Texas Bowl to reach 10 wins for just the third time and began this season with aspirations of taking the program to uncharted heights. There also was talk of senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs perhaps moving into consideration for the Heisman Trophy after rushing for 27 touchdowns, an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback.
That exhilaration turned to disgust after a performance against Maryland in which the Midshipmen's attention to detail was lacking. They failed to score on five of seven trips inside the Terrapins' 20, fumbled five times and committed five penalties. It's no wonder Navy departed M&T Bank Stadium completely deflated, much the same way it felt after the Duke loss that prevented the Midshipmen from winning their 19th game against a BCS team in the past eight seasons. The Midshipmen's 18 wins against BCS teams are the most by a non-BCS program over that span.
Though handling good fortune has been tricky for Navy, recovering from hardship has come regularly. Since 2003, when the team's triple-option attack became fully functional, it has lost consecutive games in a season just five times. The Midshipmen have never lost more than two in a row during the triple-option era, and only once during that time have they lost consecutive games twice in one season.
"One main thing is our coaches really keep us focused," senior safety and co-captain Wyatt Middleton said. "They keep us thinking take everything with a grain of salt. We lost. It's over with. There's nothing I can do about it. There's nothing we can do as a team. There's nothing coaches can do about it now. A loss is a loss, and it's time to move on. That's how you have to play."
NAVY (5-3) @ EAST CAROLINA (5-3)
Time: 3:30 p.m.
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Line: East Carolina by 2 1/2
Last meeting: Navy def. East Carolina, 28-23, on Sept. 2, 2006
Staying the course: While the Midshipmen rang up a season-high 227 passing yards in last Saturday's 34-31 loss to Duke, that was by necessity rather than design, as Navy was trying to rally from a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter. Against East Carolina, count on the Midshipmen getting back to their rushing attack, which ranks 10th in the country at 259 yards per game. The Pirates give up 184 rushing yards per game, 92nd out of 120 Division I-A teams. Last weekend in a 49-35 loss to Central Florida, East Carolina gave up 265 rushing yards.
Defensive pressure: East Carolina coach Ruffin McNeill employs a high-octane offense similar to that of Texas Tech, where he served as an assistant head coach before joining the Pirates. East Carolina is ranked 16th nationally in scoring average at 36.6 points per game, so Navy will have its hands full. Senior Dwayne Harris caught nine passes for a career-high 146 yards last weekend against Central Florida, and has a reception in 39 straight games, the second-longest stretch in Division I-A. The Midshipmen do have experience defending against frenetic offenses this season, having played Louisiana Tech and Southern Methodist and winning both games.
A welcome return: Navy fullback Vince Murray is expected to be back in the lineup against the Pirates. Murray has been out the past three games since injuring his knee during the first half of Navy's 28-27 victory over Wake Forest. The senior is fourth on the team in rushing with 283 yards. Junior Alexander Teich has filled in admirably for Murray.