For a few fleeting moments in the fourth quarter of Navy’s third straight loss to Army, it looked like the Midshipmen might find some way to salvage this awful season.
Backup quarterback Garrett Lewis came on in relief of struggling Zach Abey (Archbishop Spalding) and got the stagnant offense moving. The Mids scored a late touchdown and seemed to steal the momentum that the Black Knights had owned since the opening kickoff.
Then reality blindsided them again … and again … and again.
Two late fumbles allowed Army to hold back the tide and score a clinching touchdown, which assured there would be no break in the soul-searching that will be taking place in Annapolis over the next few months.
With this defeat, the Mids fell to 3-10, and that’s just this season. The wheels actually started to come off the Ken Niumatalolo era 14 months ago. Now, he and his coaching staff have to figure out how to put them back on.
Since Navy beat Air Force on Oct. 7, 2017, the Midshipmen are 5-16 — the major highlight over that period was a lopsided victory over Virginia in last year’s Military Bowl.
There has been a lot of frustration and disappointment since then, and it might be fair to examine whether the bloom has come off the vaunted triple-option offense former coach Paul Johnson and Niumatalolo used to bring the program back to national prominence.
The Mids used it to build a 14-game winning streak against Army (2002-2015) and make a big splash in their first two seasons in the American Athletic Conference. However, with Army coach Jeff Monken adopting it to turn his program around and their AAC rivals playing against it every year, that familiarity has to come with a price.
Niumatalolo didn’t want to think about any of that after such a disappointing defeat, but he conceded that everything comes under review at the end of a season such as this one.
“We always look at things,’’ he said. “It would be arrogant on my part to say that you’re still status quo. You always do things in the offseason to see how you can get better. It’s a combination of a lot of things. We’ve got to go back and see what we are doing.”
The Army game presents a unique situation, since both teams use the same system and practice against it throughout the season. That level of familiarity was clearly on display as both defenses stuffed the run for most of the game.
So, when the Mids managed just 39 yards of total offense in the first half, was it because the Black Knights played defense or because Navy did not execute the offense?
“It was both,’’ Niumatalolo said. “It was a hard-fought game. Our defense was playing well. Their defense was playing well. When those things happen, it’s always tough to move the ball. They’re playing well, so we’ve got to make some blocks, make some plays. We had some opportunities to make some plays and we didn’t.”
The Mids were held scoreless for three quarters and fumbled away a chance to stage a remarkable rally in the final minutes. Since the seniors were heading into their military commitment on the heels of three straight losses to Army and such a difficult senior season, Niumatalolo wasn’t in a mood to focus on anything but them.
“It was hard on all of us,’’ he said. “I don’t want to make this about me. I’ve been coaching a long time and these seniors are ready to join the fleet. We just need to look at what we can do in order to continue to improve. It’s been hard on all of us — the players, the coaches, the staff.
“We like to win, and we’ve been winning a lot of games, and nobody likes to lose. It’s been hard because our program has not been accustomed to what happened this year.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.
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