Just as motorists taking a wrong turn off the New Jersey Turnpike can get lost when they come here, the Navy football team has had its own share of misadventures when playing at Rutgers. The last time the Midshipmen beat the Scarlet Knights on their home field was 1999, and there have been four subsequents defeats — by six, 21, 10 and 17 points.
So how does a 2-3 team in the midst of its first three-game losing streak in nine years turn things around Saturday against a 4-1 Rutgers team on a three-game winning streak — at a place where historically the Midshipmen have had so little success?
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo thinks it's a matter of "doing your job," starting with his own.
Niumatalolo, in his fourth season as Navy's head coach, did not make any changes on his depth chart after last Saturday's 63-35 loss at home to Southern Mississippi except return fullback Alexander Teich, who had been suspended for the game, to his starting spot.
"You have to stay the course, the things we've been doing we've been doing for a while, we feel we have a pretty good idea of what it takes to win here [at Navy]," said Niumatalolo, who has won eight games or more in each of his first three seasons. "It doesn't mean that you don't look at things that you can do better."
Navy has had its issues defensively the past two weeks, including the first three quarters of a 35-34 overtime defeat to Air Force. The Midshipmen have struggled in the red zone, with their first two possessions against Southern Mississippi ending in a blocked field-goal attempt that was returned for a touchdown and a fourth-down stop at the goal line that led to the Golden Eagles getting a 77-yard completion to set up another score.
Niumatalolo chooses to look at how close Navy came to beating then-No. 10 South Carolina (24-21) three weeks ago on the road and how, if Jon Teague's extra-point try doesn't get blocked against Air Force, the Midshipmen might have won that game, too.
"People are trying to paint things as bleak," Niumatalolo said. "It's not like 2002 [when Navy finished 2-10 in Paul Johnson's first season] or whatever the case may be. We didn't play the No. 10 on the road in 2002. There are so many things. We're not that far off. We have to learn from it and move on."
Junior linebacker Matt Warrick said in practice this week that "there's definitely been a cloud hanging over us" after the two recent defeats and how those games served to sap some of the team's collective spirit. Warrick said leadership is not an issue, but that a lack of execution has hindered the Midshipmen.
Warrick jokes that his high school team outside St. Louis "pretty much never won," but said he and others have been spoiled by winning since they came to the Naval Academy.
"The last couple of weeks have been tough, but I think it's something that we can work at and overcome," Warrick said.
Junior slotback John Howell said the team's problems inside the red zone "has been the story of our lives" the past few weeks and that had the Midshipmen scored early against Southern Mississippi, it would have been a different type of game and might have had a different ending as well.
"You can't afford to go down 14-0," Howell said after the Midshipmen did that for the second week in a row and eventually fell behind 28-0. "If we had scored a couple of times early, it might have been a shootout. It definitely ended differently than it did. The motivation on our side would have been up. After they blocked the field goal and returned it for a touchdown, all the momentum was on their side."
Niumatalolo said Saturday's game "will be a great character test for how we stick together" and that this situation is not that much different from those in past seasons when the Midshipmen started slowly. Navy was 1-2 in Niuumatalo's first two seasons and wound up winning eight each year. Navy was 2-2 last season and won nine.
"Everyone tries to look at the big picture, but the big picture will take care of itself if you take care of the little things," Niumatalolo said.
NAVY (2-3) @ RUTGERS (4-1)
Time: 2 p.m.
Site: High Point Solutions Stadium, New Brunswick, N.J.
Radio: 1090 AM, 1430 AM
Series: Tied at 11-11-1
Last meeting: Navy won, 23-21, on Sept. 20, 2008, in Annapolis
Line: Rutgers by 4
Navy offense vs. Rutgers defense: The Midshipmen lead the nation in rushing with 366 yards a game, but the Scarlet Knights are 20th in rushing defense (101.2), lead the country in turnover margin at nearly three more than their opposition a game and are tied for the most turnovers total with 22. Navy gets back senior fullback and co-captain Alexander Teich, the team's leading rusher who was suspended for last week's loss to Southern Mississippi. Navy's red-zone offense has been an issue the past couple of weeks and will need to be more productive to give the Mids a chance to pull off an upset. Senior quarterback Kriss Proctor had 123 yards on 17 carries but was kept out of the end zone last week.
Navy defense vs. Rutgers offense: The Midshipmen look forward to playing a more traditional ground-and-pound offense used by the Scarlet Knights than what they faced the previous two weeks with Air Force and Southern Mississippi. Still, Navy, ranked 112th against the run (giving up almost 221 yards a game) and 97th in pass-efficiency defense, will have to stop a team that seemed much better in last week's 34-10 win over Pittsburgh when true freshman Gary Nova started at quarterback. Nova finished 11-for-24 for 174 yards and two touchdowns, both in the second half. At least Navy won't have to worry about any of the Rutgers backs resembling Ray Rice. The Scarlet Knights are 115th of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in rushing at 79.8 yards a game.