At 2-3, Navy still far cry from 2002

Navy's Ken Niumatalolo is normally an even keel guy, even following a loss. But after Navy's 63-35 "whooping" to Southern Mississippi on Saturday, the fourth year headman showed some fire, defiantly rejecting concern that the program's three-game skid may be indicative on something more.

"I ain't talking about that," sprang forth from Niumatalolo's mouth even before longtime Annapolis Capital writer Bill Wagner had finished his question.

The question -- more of a comment, really -- was posed in the waning stages of Niumatalolo's postgame press conference, and was one I'm sure all of us reporters had on our minds, but were not quite willing to ask. Wagner had begun to phrase a question by bringing up a statistic provided in the press box during the game – that with their third straight loss, the 2011 Midshipmen had compiled their longest losing streak since a 2-10 season in 2002. That year, the first under former Navy and current Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, was the program's last losing season, and more of a history lesson than a distant memory for Navy's current group of players.

Maybe it was the phrasing of Wagner's comment, or maybe it was just a worry that the run of success we've witnessed from Navy in the triple option era was losing momentum. But for whatever reason, the ominous statistics hung on the tips of our tongues with frustrating inefficiency for most of the press conference. Wagner, to his credit, was undeterred. So was Niumatalolo.

"Throw that stuff out the window," responded Niumatalolo. "One of those games we are playing South Carolina, the #10 team. How many times do we play the #10 team in the country during that three game streak? That (statistic) means nothing."

Short and concise though it was, anxious fans might be well inclined to take a step back from the ledge and think about Niumatalolo's comments in a wider context. While astute followers would rightly answer "one" to Niumatalolo's rhetorical question – Navy played then ninth-ranked Notre Dame amidst the ten game losing streak in 2002 – the 2002 Midshipmen also fell to some ho-hum teams that same year. A 43-17 loss to a 2-10 Duke team comes to mind, as does a seven point loss to a 4-7 Rice team. And despite losing close games to some very good competition that year, Navy's 2002 team was nowhere near as talented as its 2011 counterpart.

Once more, Niumatalolo's comment probably should be taken in the context of the 2001 season, not the 2002 season. It was in 2001 in which Navy went an abysmal 0-10, as opposed to the 2-10 season in 2002 which, while not reflected on in the wins and loss columns, showed promise. The comment, whether intended or not, seemed to bite at Niumatalolo not so much because it represented the possibility of Navy's first losing season since 2002, but because it hinted that Navy could be regressing to a time fans would none-too-affectionately refer to as "the dark ages."

I've got news for those fans though: This isn't 2002. Navy may be in the midst of a three game losing streak, but there's nothing to say that the team has to find itself amidst a four, six, or even ten-game losing streak. To borrow a phrase from Churchill, Navy's player and coaches are still masters of their fates and captains of their souls, and with seven games left on the slate, a lot can happen. Remember, this is still a team with decided talent, and it's still a team with dedicated coaches who remain committed to one of college football's most resilient standards over the last decade. I know there has been some questions about Ken Niumatalolo's ‘leadership' with this particular group, but having sat in his presence after two of those three losses, I get the distinct impression that he is a man with a plan, and that he has the focus and determination to get the most out of his team.

Make no mistake about it. Navy was humbled on Saturday. This wasn't the close loss against South Carolina or Air Force, but, as Niumatalolo said, a "whooping." But, at 2-3 with nearly half of the season complete, this year's Navy team is not the same team as Paul Johnson's in 2002, and definitely not the one of 2001. Sometimes they say you have to hit the bottom before you bounce back up. In just the same way 2001 was that bottom for the Navy program, Saturday's drubbing at the hands of Southern Mississippi might prove the bottom for the 2011 Navy team.

AdamNettina – at – gmail.com

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