ANNAPOLIS — Navy football coach Ken Niumatalolo believed the one thing he didn't know entering his team's opener was how a bunch with inexperience scattered across the starting lineup would handle the tension of a real game.
The result, a 40-17 defeat of Delaware on Saturday, was welcome enough. The way it was earned was even better.
The Midshipmen did not commit a penalty - only their second game without a flag since 2003 - and yielded only one turnover while offering a textbook example of what they must do moving forward to succeed.
"You've got to do that for us to have a chance," Niumatalolo said. "We can't turn the ball over, we can't beat ourselves. That's always been our M.O. It's hard enough to beat people, much less if you're beating yourselves."
Throughout camp, such exhortations were common as Niumatalolo end-of-practice comments to his team often referenced the slim margin for error his team faced. Perhaps at no point in his four-year tenure did it seem like such a priority to reinforce the no-miscues message.
Navy's lineup featured nine first-time starters, including seven on defense. Another four players get the opening week nod for the Mids (1-0) despite owning no more than three career starts.
Perhaps there will be bumps along the way for Navy, which visits Western Kentucky (0-1) on Saturday. But there were no evident problems in the opener, particularly from quarterback Kriss Proctor.
The senior rushed for 176 yards and three touchdowns, including a 75-yard score on the game's third snap. But he also was as efficient as the rest of the Mids, who did not have a fumble. Navy improved to 8-2 since 2003 in games it was tagged with single-digit penalty yardage.
"I think the 22 guys on the field might be the most disciplined team in the country, and we proved that today," Proctor said. "We're usually [near] the top of the nation in penalties, and that speaks volumes of the coaching staff and what they emphasize and the discipline of the guys on the field."
Even Navy's lone opening-week foible on offense was plenty forgivable. Proctor lofted a deep third-down pass late in the third quarter, only for Delaware to intercept it at its 10.
Three harmless plays later, Delaware punted it back to the Mids, who quickly expanded their 26-10 lead.
"It might be one of the few times I can ever remember in all my years of coaching that I wasn't totally upset with that one turnover," Niumatalolo said. "It almost ended up being a punt."
Ultimately, there are few broad conclusions for the Mids to draw from a single game. A semblance of a passing game wasn't needed, not with the option attack operating as smoothly as it did. And as well-coached as Delaware typically is, it still doesn't possess as many scholarship players as most of Navy's opponents.
That means there's plenty more still to learn, especially with dates at South Carolina (Sept. 17) and against Air Force (Oct. 1) looming. Still, the win provided a reminder to Navy that it usually receives a pleasant payoff when it heeds Niumatalolo's pleas for disciplined play.
"It's something we harp on a lot in practice," fullback Alexander Teich said. "We pay the price when we do mess up. It's ingrained in everyone's head, and everyone was dialed in."
Note: Senior nose guard Jared Marks was suspended for a violation of team rules for the opener. Niumatalolo said Marks would return this week.
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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