Navy’s defense had a golden opportunity Saturday to seize momentum before its offense ever stepped onto the field.
Instead of trying for a field goal, Pittsburgh decided to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the Navy 28. The result was a 22-yard completion that set up a touchdown a play later in the Midshipmen’s 27-14 loss.
“We had our chance to get off the field. We had a corner underneath, a safety over the top - it looked like pretty good coverage - but Pittsburgh makes a good throw and a good catch,” defensive coordinator Buddy Green said. “That was really disappointing. When we get an opportunity to make plays and get off the field, we’ve got to do it.”
For the most part, Navy’s defense has played well this season, but the unit has given up a touchdown on the opening drive in all three games. In the season opener, Ohio State had a six-play, 49-yard drive capped by a 34-yard touchdown throw-and-catch from Terrelle Pryor to Dane Sanzenbacher. A week later, Louisiana Tech went 74 yards in 10 plays and scored on a 3-yard run by Daniel Porter. Last week, Pittsburgh quarterback Bill Stull found receiver Oderick Turner to close a 12-play, 89-yard drive.
“Those are definitely not the starts that I want, that Coach Green wants or our team wants,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “I still think the defense is our strength. Once they’ve settled down, they’ve played better, but we’ve got to start off the game better.”
The Mids’ defense has gotten stronger as the games have progressed. The unit has forced a punt on the opponents’ first drive of the second half in all three games. Navy has allowed only four touchdowns outside of the first quarter and just one after halftime. Two weeks ago, it was particularly stout in shutting out Louisiana Tech after the Bulldogs scored twice in the first six minutes.
Those spurts of success have made the opening-series struggles even more frustrating.
“I don’t know what it is with us,” defensive captain Ross Pospisil said. “Sometimes it takes our backs to be against the wall for us to respond as a defense.”
Added defensive end Jabaree Tuani: “There’s something about the second half coming out. It seems like we play harder. We need to bring that intensity to the first half.”
The Mids’ defense has worked on just that in practice this week. Green said he has situational drills to simulate the beginning of a game and that he structures practice to emphasize getting off to a good start.
But the players agreed it is ultimately up to them to be prepared from the opening kickoff, starting with Saturday’s visit by Western Kentucky.
“I know everybody has the physical capability to do their jobs on the field,” Tuani said. “But when we first get out there, I know I don’t do my job sometimes. When the other team’s offense is on the field, I’m just like, ‘I gotta get mad at myself.’ I know other people probably do the same thing, so we just got to fix the mental mistakes.”
The Mids aren’t panicking about their slow start - they were 1-2 last year before going to the EagleBank Bowl - but they realize their season could spiral downward if they don’t start playing better soon.
“From my perspective, we’ve squandered a lot of opportunities,” Pospisil said. “We’ve had some chances to do things and just haven’t capitalized. This is the biggest game on our schedule. Our backs are against the wall, and we’ve got to respond this week.”