Navy stays Zen during losing streak with Houston and its star defensive tackle up next
By AVA WALLACE | The Washington Post | Published: October 18, 2018
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Since Navy football tallied its third straight loss Saturday, two mantras, somewhat conflicting but undeniably intertwined, have been repeated in the locker room and on the practice field.
The first: There is a lot of season left. The Midshipmen still have seven regular season games to play. Not only that, the last time they started 2-4, in 2014, they rebounded to finish the season 8-5.
"That's a good note," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said in practice this week after he brought up the stat, unprompted, before changing course. "But we're not really concerned about that, we've got to get better now. Eliminate the mistakes from the 2018 team - 2016, '15, '14, you can look at, but it doesn't really mean anything now."
That's where the second mantra comes in: Take the rest of the season one game at a time.
"At this point we're doing it one rep at a time, one practice at a time," defensive captain and safety Sean Williams said Wednesday. "Not overlooking things means being detailed."
Navy's latest loss stung, a 24-17 letdown against Temple that was a rare home defeat. In an attempt to rebound on Saturday against visiting Houston and avoid their first four-game losing streak since 2011, the Mids are trying to find some happy medium between not panicking and playing with urgency.
Taking the long view of the season isn't exactly the prettier option.
Though Navy (2-4, 1-2 American Athletic Conference) believes it has time to right the ship, it knows wins will be particularly hard to come by for the rest of the season. The AAC is the only conference in FBS with three undefeated teams heading into Week 8; in fact, the ACC is the only one with more than one, and those teams, Clemson and North Carolina State, will play each other Saturday.
The Mids' next four opponents - Houston, No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 20 Cincinnati and No. 10 Central Florida - are a combined 24-1.
After that, neither Tulsa nor Tulane are surefire wins. Army, which Navy will play on Dec. 8, is 4-2 with a win against a Hawaii team that dismantled the Mids and a strong performance in an overtime loss at then-No. 9 Oklahoma. Winning four games to become bowl eligible for the 15th time in 16 seasons isn't an easy task.
"Well the league, Temple beat the crap out of Maryland and should have had a chance to beat [Boston College], so they're a good team, obviously Houston's coming, they're a good team . . ." Niumatalolo said, trailing off.
"We're talking about the here, that's our psyche."
If the idea is to focus on the short-term, the Mids have plenty to keep their minds occupied with Houston (5-1, 2-0) and all-American nose guard Ed Oliver Jr. coming to town Saturday.
Oliver tied an AAC single-game record last week when he recorded five tackles for losses in a 42-20 beatdown of East Carolina, which Houston held to 41 rushing yards. Oliver is no stranger to Navy's offense - he had 14 tackles against Navy last year, nine of which were solo tackles. The Texan presents such a threat that Navy prepared an offensive game plan specifically to account for him. In Niumatalolo and Jasper's 11 seasons together at Navy, only Aaron Donald of Pittsburgh, now a four-time Pro Bowler and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year with the Los Angeles Rams, received such attention.
"His effort level is so unique," Niumatalolo said of Oliver. "I've never seen a nose guard - sometimes you see a linebacker or a safety play with that kind of effort, but I've never seen a nose guard play like that, relentlessly, play after play."
Niumatalolo believes there is a balance between focusing on the game directly ahead and keeping the long season in mind. His coaching staff has taken that to mean some self-reflection is in order.
When Navy slides like they have, the coaches go back to the fundamentals: Is what they're teaching too complicated? Are they teaching the right way? Do they have the right people at the right position? Niumatalolo thinks finding answers to those questions help in the short and long term.
"There are things we normally don't do," Niumatalolo said. "We've been good in the past with not beating ourselves, and there's too much of that. So we're making sure from an assignment standpoint that we're cleaner that way."
Part of that is evaluating the quarterback position yet again. Just as it was last season, Niumatalolo is considering Malcolm Perry, Garret Lewis and a fully healthy Zach Abey for the starting job against Houston.
Perry has started every game this season except against Temple, where he slid to the slotback position because of injuries at that spot and ceded the starting quarterback gig to Lewis. Abey, who missed the Air Force game after suffering a lower-body injury at SMU, played at wide receiver in the Temple game but wasn't ready for full-on quarterback duties. He continues to practice with a stabilizing brace on his left knee.
While coaches struggle with the big questions, for the players, focusing on Navy's two mantras may not be so complicated. Williams, the defensive captain, said they simply push one to the back of their minds.
"We realize every week is new, and really, it excites us because we know we're going to get better as the progression goes, and we're going to face better competition," Williams said. " . . . So knowing we got that on the back end, we focus on the opponent in front of us."