- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2008

ANNAPOLIS | After getting his first career win in the season opener against Towson, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo remarked how much better he felt than in the week after last year’s loss in the Poinsettia Bowl. He said he slept easier and joked about the beautiful scenery around Navy’s practice fields.

That has become a fleeting feeling in recent weeks. The Midshipmen (1-2) have dropped two straight games and are at a crossroads. With two road games upcoming - at No. 18 Wake Forest and at rival Air Force - Saturday’s home date with Rutgers has become more significant.

“It’s important in two ways,” linebacker Clint Sovie said. “It’s important to get back to .500, and it’s important to win our game at home. We like to defend our turf, and hopefully we’ll do well doing that.”

The Mids have led the nation in rushing the past three years, but they have been inconsistent this season. They are averaging 21.3 points in the first half and 10.3 in the second.

Navy has dealt with injuries to key players, and Saturday won’t be different. Starting fullback Eric Kettani is battling a hip strain, and quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada is still getting in shape after missing the first two games with a partially torn hamstring. Kettani, Kaheaku-Enhada and slot back Shun White, the nation’s leading rusher, have only been on the field together for three plays this season.

After converting 51.1 percent of their third downs last year, Navy is 15-for-38 this season. Touchdowns are at a premium for the Mids because their defense is allowing 414.7 yards a game.

“We need to finish drives and finish the games,” Niumatalolo said. “The offense is still averaging 30 points per game, but the standard we have here for the offense is pretty high.”

Rutgers (0-2) has its own struggles. The Scarlett Knights dropped their first two games by a combined score of 68-19. Surprisingly, the Scarlet Knights’ main shortcoming has come on offense. They returned seven starters from a unit that set a school record for scoring and total offense last season, but they rank 116th out of 119 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring.

Rutgers lost star running back Ray Rice to the NFL, but the tandem of Mason Robinson and Kordell Young has filled in successfully. However, quarterback Mike Teel has underperformed. Teel last season set a school record with 20 touchdowns but has one this year and five interceptions. Despite his foibles, Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has confident in the senior.

“I think Mike is fine,” Schiano said. “As odd as it has sounds, that was Mike’s best bad game of his career. He kept calm. He didn’t get discouraged. Every quarterback has tough games, but I think Mike really turned the corner.”

Rutgers has defeated Navy the past three seasons. The Mids expect another strong performance from the Scarlet Knights, who likely will try to exploit their size advantage.

“We’re in the same boat,” safety Jeff Deliz said. “We’re trying to get back on track, and they are, too. There’s no reason why they aren’t going to come out here with their head on fire trying to get a win.”