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Navy righted ship with business-as-usual approach

After two straight wins, Military Bowl is a realistic goal

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 15, 2011

As Navy stared at a 2-6 record and no wiggle room in its search for a ninth straight bowl invitation, coach Ken Niumatalolo offered a steady message to his reeling team.

It was meant to be reassuring, even if it was counterintuitive. The Midshipmen, despite a long losing streak, simply had to stay the course.

Two victories later — including Saturday's 24-17 defeat of Southern Methodist in Dallas — Navy's postseason hopes are revived, even if little is different in how the Mids (4-6) go about their business.

"It's something that's definitely hard to do when you're 2-6," defensive end Jabaree Tuani said. "But it's our attitude, the way we compose ourselves during the week. Even though during some of the games we played we found ourselves falling behind by three touchdowns, we find a way to fight back and make it close. That's just because that's the way we're bred here. That's the way you're taught to be."

Only two victories stand between Navy and a date in the Military Bowl: Saturday's trip to San Jose State (3-7) and a Dec. 10 meeting with Army (3-7) at FedEx Field. A prospect that seemed daunting two weeks ago — rattling off four straight victories — looks more manageable from the outside.

Internally, though, Niumatalolo realistically took stock of the situation facing his team. Yes, they had dropped six games in a row, but four of the setbacks came by a combined eight points.

The quality of those losses mattered, too. The two blowouts in that stretch came against teams that have since climbed into the Top 25 (Southern Mississippi and Notre Dame), and the Mids fell by only a field goal at South Carolina.

So Niumatalolo, along with veteran coordinators Buddy Green and Ivin Jasper, stuck with the same formula that had worked for several years.

"Somebody asked me 'What are you guys doing? Are you yelling more at the players?' " Niumatalolo said. "You guys have been at practice. Nothing has changed. Buddy hasn't gone ballistic. Ivin hasn't gone ballistic."

Stability in the secondary helped, too. After starting four cornerbacks in as many weeks at the same spot and moving freshman safety Chris Ferguson into the lineup last month, the defense is improving.

It was different personnel at work. It wasn't a different approach.

"You get better and work on getting better at the fundamentals, and that's what we did when we weren't playing well and that's what we did when we started getting a little better and we continue to do that," Green said. "There's no other answer. You just work and keep working and hopefully guys get better and start making plays. That was the tone from day one, and it never has changed."

The results, though, are considerably different. After wrapping up the program's first 0-5 month since 1976, the Mids throttled Troy in their home finale. Then at SMU, Navy attempted only two passes and managed no passing yards.

It didn't matter. Navy ran effectively, converted third downs, was efficient in the red zone and committed only one penalty.

In short, it followed the successful script of the recent past.

"It was about getting back to the basics of where you come from," fullback Alexander Teich said. "Sometimes you get outside that with wins and success. You start tasting a little of that, and you start forgetting who you are as a team."

Such amnesia can also happen with prolonged losing, which Tuani said he could sense last month. But as the Mids attempt to cap their November to remember with a third straight win, Navy's defensive captain is optimistic he and his teammates have rediscovered themselves for good.

"I feel like if you let that linger on your team — and I think that's what happened on some of those weeks, without a doubt — it really affects you," Tuani said. "If it affects one person, it can start to spread throughout the team, and it can really start to crumble your season. I'm glad our guys started to embrace what Navy football is about."

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