- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2011

ANNAPOLIS — It was warm Monday on Rip Miller Field — almost too warm for a college football team to be facing its most crucial crossroads in nearly a decade.

There are many ways to handle the situation facing Navy, owners of a three-game losing streak and a date at Rutgers on Saturday.

As the Midshipmen ran to conclude practice, there was no panic or implied pressure in coach Ken Niumatalolo’s voice. Instead, he offered a reminder of what Navy represents.

“Let’s get back to who we are,” Niumatalolo hollered as players sprinted around him. “How are we going to respond as a team? What are we going to do? It’s your choice.”

Plenty of questions — rhetorical or otherwise — cropped up this week for Navy (2-3), which is in the midst of its longest losing streak since 2002. The first two losses came by a combined four points; last week’s 63-35 pummeling at the hands of Southern Mississippi proved more jarring.

Bowl bids are never inevitable for the Mids, a fact Niumatalolo so often hints at when he discusses his program’s minuscule margin of error. Yet with road trips to Rutgers (4-1), Notre Dame (4-2) and Southern Methodist (4-1) coming in the next month, the path to the postseason is hardly a breeze.

Still, there’s a legacy of eight straight bowl invitations and eight-win seasons, an extended level of success unprecedented in program lore. Fairly or not, it adds to the curiosity of how the Mids will handle their current predicament.

“Who do we want to be as a team? Who do we want to be as a senior class?” quarterback Kriss Proctor asked. “Is this something we can take and move on with and get over the hump, or is this going to define our season and are we going to continue to kind of fall off the cliff?”

It’s hardly a hopeless situation. Fullback Alexander Teich returns from a one-game suspension. The Mids’ defense probably can’t be shredded much more than it was in permitting Southern Mississippi to score touchdowns in its first three possessions. And Navy isn’t far from owning a 4-1 record.

Conceptually, Navy isn’t changing its basic identity. In turn, it was unsurprising when Niumatalolo stressed fundamentals and technique more than anything in the aftermath of last week’s blowout.

“We haven’t had 19 Knute Rockne speeches or have someone come speak to the team,” Niumatalolo said. “It’s about tackling and blocking and lining up right.”

And running the triple-option efficiently. And pursuing the ball on defense. And protecting against blocked kicks on special teams. And avoiding turnovers (particularly against Rutgers, which leads the country in takeaways).

All are usual aims for Navy, which finds itself both acknowledging the gravity of its situation and understanding the best way to improve is to do what it does best rather than make the mistake of attempting to reinvent itself.

“Our theme is ‘Where do we go?’ ” Niumatalolo said. “We can sit and sulk and feel sorry for ourselves. We still have a ton of games to play. We’re 2-3, have two close losses, got our doors blown off us last week. It is what it is. What are we going to do now? Are we going to go to work?”

Like so many others in Annapolis, Niumatalolo asked plenty of questions as Navy sought to revive its season. It’s both an unexpected and unfamiliar situation for players accustomed to earning success.

Either way, a big answer will probably reveal itself Saturday.

“We’re on a downhill slope climbing up,” defensive end Jabaree Tuani said. “This game is going to define who we are.”

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