ANNAPOLIS — Navy Midshipmen lead disciplined lives. They wake up promptly at 0530 every morning and go through each day exactly according to schedule. Even touchdowns on the football field are celebrated by pushups behind the end zone.
That discipline has served Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo well in his past four seasons at the helm. The Mids have finished either first or second in the nation in fewest penalties committed and averaged no more than 3.4 penalties per game during that span. They have prided themselves on protecting the ball and minimizing turnovers.
But this season has been different.
Even in a 41-3 shellacking of the VMI Keydets on Saturday afternoon, Navy continued to make uncharacteristic mistakes. Quarterback Trey Miller lost two fumbles to up the team’s season total to eight. The Mids lost nine fumbles in all of 2011. They also committed seven penalties Saturday after posting the fewest penalties in the NCAA last season with only 2.33 penalties per game.
“We’ve still got way too many penalties, way too many turnovers, and we’ve got to get that cleaned up,” Niumatalolo said after Saturday’s win. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out, or a football guru or an expert to figure that out. We’ve got to get better.”
Rough outings against No. 11 Notre Dame and Penn State were understandable, but Saturday’s game against an FCS squad was supposed to be different. In his first game starting against a nonpowerhouse, Miller was expected to calm down and have a solid performance. He did run for 116 yards and three touchdowns, but three fumbles gave him nine in three games.
A botched exchange in the first quarter led to VMI’s only points, a 42-yard field goal by senior Jeff Sexton. Miller’s second fumble ended another Navy drive in the red zone, and a third was barely recovered by left guard Josh Cabral.
An equal ratio of touchdowns to fumbles is not what Miller hoped for.
“I still don’t think I played really good,” he said. “We had too many turnovers once again, and we just got to keep working on that and come to practice working hard for this next game.”
Niumatalolo almost benched Miller early in the second quarter with the game tied 3-3. Freshman Keenan Reynolds was taking snaps on the sideline, and Niumatalolo was “very, very close” to making the switch. One more turnover, Niumatalolo told his starting quarterback, and he’d be gone.
Miller struggled to hold on to the ball again Saturday, but he doesn’t deserve all the blame. The Midshipmen’s penalties against VMI included offenses ranging from holding, illegal procedure and false start to a “failure to wear the required equipment” by slotback Bo Snelson in the fourth quarter.
Navy also committed seven penalties against Penn State last week, giving the team back-to-back games of seven penalties or more for the first time since 2000.
“Everything that’s happened in the past two weeks wasn’t Trey’s fault,” Niumatalolo said. “Some of it was his fault, and he’s accepted responsibility for that, and he just needs to continue to get better. But so does the rest of our team.”
The Midshipmen started a season 0-2 for the first time since 2005, when they finished on an 8-2 tear and beat Colorado State 51-30 in the inaugural Poinsettia Bowl.
Niumatalolo knows that this team is capable of achieving a similar feat. But to do so, the Mids will have to get back to the basics and rediscover their discipline. It’s a task that fullback Noah Copeland already is looking forward to tackling.
“A win’s a win,” he said. “We’ll have to come back Monday and just go to work.”