- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 7, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — It seemed to Navy offensive guard John Dowd his team was in a close game 20 times in his final two years with the Midshipmen.

Not quite, but he wasn’t far off.

He played in seven games decided by a possession or less in 2010, including four Navy victories. There were six this fall. The Mids won only one.

As Navy (4-7) closes in on its annual meeting with Army on Saturday at FedEx Field, it’s fair to wonder what could have been for a program whose eight-year bowl streak was snapped. With five losses by a combined 11 points, the Mids are both so close and so far from matching their impressive predecessors.

“I talked to a couple of the guys and it feels like Bizarro World [from] last year,” Dowd said. “We can’t control that. Once it’s over, you can’t control it. You take it and learn from it. We got a lot of lessons this year, unfortunately, but hopefully we can put the last one away.”

A 10th consecutive victory over the Black Knights (3-8) would provide a finish to savor for Navy, something to push the shortcomings of this past fall behind them.

There were one-point losses to Air Force and Rutgers, and the Mids wound up on the wrong end of field goal margins against South Carolina, East Carolina and San Jose State.

The results, and the way Navy arrived at them, have left coach Ken Niumatalolo scrutinizing every aspect of his program. He’s examined how the Mids prepare, what they do in practice and what sort of workout program they employ. The verdict? Not much of a difference at all.

“For us, I hope it’s made us realize it’s hard to win,” Niumatalolo said. “Don’t take anything for granted. Make sure we don’t cut any corners. But we’re still a couple plays away.”

Of equal significance is to remember Navy’s penchant for locking away tossup games in the past. In the previous seven years, the Mids were 25-14 in games decided by eight points or less.

Some of that was a function of smart, precise play, solid talent minimizing mistakes and catching some breaks along the way. And when a few breaks — an overtime penalty, a missed field goal attempt, a tackle - went against Navy? The chance at a winning season dissipated.

“The thing that happens with that is everyone tries to find an answer of what’s going on,” said wideout Doug Furman, who missed the last third of the season with a knee injury. “What is wrong with this team that’s different than last year? I really don’t think there was that much of a difference. It was just those little, tiny breaks here and there. I think the outside world tries to get in and tries to find a problem for that. It’s a really a game of inches.”

The accumulation of such issues during a six-game losing streak in the middle of the season left Navy with no margin for error entering November. But the Mids upended Troy and Southern Methodist before falling at San Jose State on Nov. 19 to dash their postseason hopes.

“Sometimes it’s just a slippery slope,” quarterback Kriss Proctor said. “You get down and it’s hard to recover and you stay down, no matter how hard you work and how hard you try. Sometimes, the dice roll and they land on what they land. All you can do is learn from it and move on.”

That will be the priority after Saturday at Navy. Niumatalolo spent an extended portion of a July interview describing how vital it was to prevent complacency from creeping into his program, from players and coaches to facilities and administrators.

This season, however close it was to yielding another bowl appearance, only renewed his belief that such vigilance is necessary.

“Let me speak quite frankly: I think people around our building and our athletic department, the people at the school, I think they forgot how hard it is,” Niumatalolo said. “They just think ‘Win-win-win,’ we’ll pop these wins out. We’re still the Naval Academy. There’s still an academic requirement to come in here. We’re not getting five-star guys. We’re getting good players, but it’s always going to be a battle. Hopefully, it resonates with everybody.”

For this week, though, such issues matter little. For the Mids who will play their final game Saturday, there won’t be a chance to play in a bowl game to cap their careers.

Nonetheless, they hope to provide a push to the next senior class as they depart — and avoid some of the lousy luck that helped define their last season.

“Army-Navy, what better opportunity than to do it here?” senior defensive end Jabaree Tuani said.