ANNAPOLIS | Trey Miller returned to the Navy sideline after Saturday’s first possession as he had so often in September.
He had done some good, leading the Midshipmen on an efficient drive into the red zone. Then he wiped out his progress, coughing up a fumble to dash what would prove to be Navy’s best scoring opportunity of the day.
“After that first turnover, I was like ‘This is happening again,’” Miller said. “[Teammates] were just trying to keep me positive and just letting me know to put it behind me and go onto the next drive.”
Except the Mids never really put the early giveaway behind them in a 12-0 loss to San Jose State. They would punt on the next five possessions. Then came an interception from Miller, who would spend the final eight minutes on the bench after committing his 10th turnover in four games.
It prompts an increasingly necessary query: How long can the Mids (1-3) afford to rely on a starting quarterback who cannot take care of the ball?
“We’re definitely going to have to look at it,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said. “We have to sit down as a staff and just do what’s right for our program. I still in my heart believe he gives us the best chance to win, but not if we turn the ball over.”
Navy’s offensive foibles are not all on Miller. The Mids’ inexperienced offensive line was flummoxed against San Jose State and often overwhelmed in earlier games against Notre Dame and Penn State. Projected starting wideout Matt Aiken (preseason knee injury) has yet to play. It’s uncertain how long slotback John Howell will be out after absorbing a right knee injury of his own Saturday.
And it’s not like Navy can trot out a tested alternative. The Mids used Keenan Reynolds in all four games last month, but the freshman has yet to take a college snap with a one-possession margin. Sophomore John Hendrick has only one garbage-time appearance.
At some point, though, a jarring change will need to be made if Miller can’t fix a glaring shortcoming the nature of Navy’s triple-option offense exposes to an especially great degree. Consider:
* Of Navy’s possessions with Miller at quarterback, 30 percent (10 of 33) have ended with a turnover.
* Half of Miller’s giveaways have come inside the opponent’s 30.
* Miller has committed a red zone turnover in the first quarter in three consecutive weeks.
* As a point of comparison, Miller already has the same number of giveaways as 2011 starter Kriss Proctor had in 11 appearances last season. In 2010, Ricky Dobbs had 13 turnovers in 12 games.
“I just have to take better care of the football,” Miller said.
Miller’s giveaways have led to only 19 points for opponents, a remarkably low figure that speaks well of a Navy defense now two games removed from yielding a touchdown. But the Mids’ best efforts to slow San Jose State did only so much as the offense sputtered to 144 yards, its lowest single-game total since 2002.
After Miller’s early fumble, Navy managed just 69 total yards in his final seven drives under center.
“Close game like that where you lose 12-0, those turnovers are huge,” Niumatalolo said. “Instead of us coming out to start the game with three or seven, we get nothing. That’s hurt us in the past and we have to find a way either to get that corrected or make a change.”
That’s arguably the closest thing to an ultimatum Niumatalolo has issued his quarterback. The coach nearly yanked Miller after two early turnovers Sept. 22 against VMI before sticking with his starter in a 41-3 rout.
Niumatalolo showed similar patience against San Jose State. Whether Miller receives similar latitude going forward is one of the Mids’ biggest uncertainties as they head into Saturday’s trip to Air Force.
“I just feel like I can’t catch a break, but it’s still all on me,” Miller said. “I get the offense going and when I have turnovers, it just hurts the team.”
—- Patrick Stevens