ANNAPOLIS — Ken Niumatalolo was seething Tuesday, an uncommon state for the typically laid-back Navy football coach.
Three days had passed since an overtime loss to Air Force, and the Midshipmen still were lackluster. Defensive end Jabaree Tuani already had heard Niumatalolo yell at the offense on an adjacent field. Soon, the coach bellowed at a defensive player for selfishness.
Within an hour, Niumatalolo summoned the roster for an impromptu post-practice meeting in the team auditorium, a rare occurrence for the Mids.
“After last week’s big, devastating loss, you really have to let that go that week as soon you come back on Monday,” Tuani said. “It still kind of lingered a little bit Monday and you could see it on guys’ faces. Then it kind of lingered on Tuesday. At that point, coach felt like it was needed to step in and make sure to clear that up because it’s over with.”
Niumatalolo’s blunt message centered on the substantial role Saturday’s game against Southern Mississippi (4-1) could play in determining the course of the Mids’ season. And make no mistake, it is vital.
Navy (2-2) will try to avoid its first three-game losing streak since 2002. It’s perhaps more important with a stretch Niumatalolo described as “brutal” awaiting the Mids over the next month.
“I just felt like there’s a lot stuff going [on],” Niumatalolo said. “Our players weren’t taking responsibility for the game, and we were blaming other people. Whatever the outside distractions are, and there are a lot of them, the bottom line is we have to get ready for these guys.”
Saturday won’t be easy. Navy likely will be without fullback and offensive captain Alexander Teich, who Niumatalolo said Wednesday would probably not play because “there’s some leadership stuff and things he needs to address.” Teich leads the Mids with 408 yards rushing, and he handled a career-high 35 carries last week.
Niumatalolo frequently discusses the thin margin of error Navy faces, with the understood implication the Mids can ill-afford to concern themselves about anything besides the task at hand. That includes dwelling on a loss to a fellow service academy clinched in part because of an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and a subsequent blocked extra-point attempt in overtime.
It’s especially true this week against the Golden Eagles, who piled up a school-record 654 yards last week against Rice.
“I’m just trying to emphasize some of the small stuff and understand that we’d better forget about that game or this team will embarrass us this week,” Niumatalolo said.
The outburst was the latest sign of Niumatalolo’s ability to accurately gauge his team. A day after expressing his frustrations, Niumatalolo was at ease as Navy engaged in a vibrant practice. Seniors, meanwhile, were not stunned by how the coach read the situation.
“It didn’t surprise me,” guard John Dowd said. “We usually don’t lose a lot of games back to back here, so when it happens you kind of get into a rut. You kind of need something to get a good practice.”
Pushing those buttons served as a reminder of what the Mids already knew: They must let go of a wrenching setback. At the same time, Niumatalolo knows his team’s two losses are by a combined four points, so the on-field results are solid even if Navy is at .500.
Little can be done about those setbacks. But success in some form - notably a bowl invitation, another eight-win season and a defeat of Army in two months - remains attainable so long as the Mids heed Niumatalolo’s message.