As one of Navy’s emotional leaders, Ross Pospisil is often the source of rousing pregame speeches. Before the Midshipmen took the field against Air Force last week, the senior linebacker might have delivered his most effective one yet.
Agitated by what had been a mediocre performance throughout the season, Pospisil’s message to the defense was clear: It’s time to pick it up.
“I just kept saying: ‘We’re going to have to put it all on our shoulders. If the offense was going to score 50 or score 16 like they did, it didn’t matter,’ ” he said. “I think too much in the past in the back of our minds we’ve been like, ‘Oh, the offense is going to score.’
“Coming into the [Air Force] game, we adopted the mentality that we can’t even to begin to think about that. We wanted to make a statement because we’ve been frustrated with the way we were playing.”
Pospisil backed up his talk with a team-high 12 tackles and a fumble recovery as Navy’s defense led the way to the 16-13 overtime win. The Mids forced the Falcons to punt five times, and their 13 points are the fewest Air Force has scored against Navy since 1997.
The unit’s change in attitude was apparent from the opening kickoff. Navy’s defense looked conservative and on its heels while giving up first-drive touchdowns to Ohio State, Louisiana Tech and Pittsburgh and in allowing Western Kentucky to march down to the Navy 1-yard line before the Mids fell on a botched snap.
But on the Falcons’ opening drive, Navy stuffed runs on first and third down and sniffed out a reverse to receiver Jonathan Warzeka for a 3-yard loss on second down. The three-and-out forced Air Force to punt from its own end zone and set up the Mids’ offense for an easy 35-yard touchdown drive.
“We all knew we could do it, but it’s just nice when you get that accomplished because you can just move on to something else and keep honing in on the rest of the game instead of having that hanging over your head,” Pospisil said. “Otherwise, when you get back to the bench you have to push it out of your mind and move on. But getting a chance to build off that just put us at that much of a higher point.”
Their resolve would be tested throughout the game, but each time they remained stout. The Falcons started one drive at midfield and two more in Navy territory but came away with just three points from those possessions.
“I thought our defense played great,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “Their attitude was, ‘If we start at the 1, we’ll stop them at the 1.’ ”
The Mids’ defense was more settled Saturday because outside linebackers Clint Sovie and Ram Vela returned to the starting lineup from injury, allowing safety Wyatt Middleton to return to the secondary. With Middleton forced to move to linebacker against Pittsburgh and against Western Kentucky, Navy gave up a combined 519 yards through the air.
Defensive coordinator Buddy Green was able to open up his package more against Air Force, dialing up blitzes trusting that Middleton would successfully play center field. And, in fact, the Falcons tried a pair of deep play-action passes early, but Middleton was in position both times to break up the play.
“We played really well together, and our chemistry was there,” Middleton said. “The hardest thing now is to keep it going. We can’t get complacent at all. You’re always looking to get better each week, and definitely after this game it’s important for us to build on things and clear up the mistakes that we made during that game so we can get better as a defensive whole.”