College Football

Navy defensive players hope struggles are behind them

Time has done little to dull the sting of Navy's 34-point loss to Arizona State. Although that 62-28 outcome at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl took place on Dec. 29, Midshipmen on the defensive side of the ball are still carrying a grudge about that performance.

"We worked so hard all season and offseason and to go into there and not perform, it's not what we're about, and it's not what any team is about," junior cornerback Parrish Gaines said. "It was disappointing to us, it was disappointing to the coaches, and it was embarrassing. We don't want to do that. We were embarrassed to be out there playing like that when we know we can play better because we worked hard to play better than that."


Added senior inside linebacker Cody Peterson: "We couldn't stop them, and that's embarrassing for any defense, to get beat up like that. We don't want that to happen."

Even defensive coordinator Buddy Green can't shake that game from his memory.


"I lose sleep over it every day," he said. "There's not a day that I don't think about that last game. We got better after that bad start that we had, but defensively, you're only as good as your last game, and that game is right there on our minds. You just don't snap your fingers and it's gone. We were embarrassed with the way we played. We played awful, and that's one of our things on defense. You're always as good as that last game you played, and it's still there in our craw."

Navy — which holds its annual Blue-Gold Scrimmage on Saturday at 10 a.m. — harbors high expectations for the upcoming season after going 8-5 in 2012 with the offense under the direction of then-true freshman quarterback Keenan Reynolds. With the return of Reynolds as the undisputed starter, a veteran offensive line and a solid receiving corps, the team is considered the favorite to ward off Army and Air Force for the academy's ninth Commander-in-Chief's Trophy in the past 11 years.

But that goal could depend largely on the progress of the defense, a unit that struggled early in 2012, regained its footing during the middle stretch, and swooned in the team's last four contests.

Through the first nine games of the season during which the Midshipmen went 6-3, opposing offenses averaged 23.1 points, 360.8 yards and 20.0 first downs. In the final four contests, opponents averaged 31.5 points, 517.0 yards and 27.8 first downs and split those games with Navy.

A defense that introduced four new starters found its rhythm during a five-game winning streak in October and November, but Peterson acknowledged that the good vibes stemming from that stretch may have inflated the players' confidence.

"We might have been a little complacent after that long win streak," he said. "I don't think there was too much difference except maybe we might have gotten too comfortable. It's going to take discipline to know that if you are winning games, you have to keep playing at a high level. So we have to have the maturity to do that."

This year's defense also returns seven starters, but has to find production to replace the loss of linebackers Matt Warrick (team-leading 93 tackles and three interceptions), Keegan Wetzel (79 tackles and team-best seven sacks) and Brye French (79 tackles).

But the strength of the unit may lie in the defensive backfield. Gaines (69 tackles and two interceptions) and sophomore Kwazel Bertrand (39 tackles and four pass breakups) man the cornerback positions, senior Wave Ryder (53 tackles) moves from free safety to rover, and junior Chris Ferguson (37 tackles) is expected to replace Ryder at free safety.


"I think we have a little more experience even though we're still a little young," Green said. "I look at the secondary and we've got one senior in that whole secondary. But a lot of guys played as freshmen and a lot of guys started as sophomores. We are a little more experienced, but we're still a young team, and I think one of the key things for us is to find depth in camp."

The defensive leaders are beginning to see some commitment from their teammates. During summer workouts, players were permitted to miss a maximum of two weeks, but the most a player missed was one week, according to Gaines.

"That's a step toward getting better and doing what we have to do to not have another bowl game like that," he said.

And there it is again, that loss to Arizona State. It is a specter that continually haunts the players and coaches, who have picked up Green's mantra.

"You're only as good as your last game, and that was our last game," Ferguson said. "That was how we played. That really stuck with us."

The Midshipmen's first opportunity to wipe that loss from their memories will take place Sept. 7 when they face Indiana in Bloomington, Ind., in the season opener for both programs. Navy escaped with a 31-30 decision Oct. 20 in Annapolis as the Hoosiers racked up 417 yards of offense, 26 first downs and 7 of 13 third-down conversions.


Indiana, which has played in just one bowl in the past 19 years, has traditionally been one of the weaker teams in the Big Ten, but the Hoosiers were voted in June as the conference's most surprising team in an informal poll of the league's beat writers. Green is fully aware that repeating that result against Indiana will be more difficult as he is anticipating an emotional and amped up Hoosiers squad.

"They were the best offense in the Big Ten last year," he said. "People really overlook the fact that they had one of the best offenses in the whole country. From what I saw in the spring, they're running on all cylinders. They've got a very experienced offensive line, and they've got experience at every position. They're got a great situation at quarterback where they can give you certain things depending on the quarterback. So it's going to be a tremendous challenge for us. We've got to be big-time prepared for what they're going to do."