An Unhappy Homecoming

As the first Polynesian-born head coach in the Football Bowl Subdivision returned to his old stomping grounds, a feel-good reunion turned sour. Near the end of another largely successful season, the Men of Ken learned one more lesson before their defining duel with Army.

Navy's place as a world-class college football overachiever didn't take a huge hit in Saturday night's very late 24-17 loss at Hawaii, in a game Ken Niumatalolo badly wanted to wrest from the Warrior program that gave him a start as a player and coach. Yet, the seven-point setback at Aloha Stadium in Honolulu did add an extra degree of importance to the Dec. 12 clash with the Black Knights of the Hudson. After playing Ohio State on even terms and sending Notre Dame into a tailspin, it would be considerably less than satisfying for the Midshipmen to end their regular season at 8-5, and lose hope of a double-digit win total when they eventually travel to the Texas Bowl.

Losing to coach Greg McMackin's confident and amped-up roster – which has now won four straight games and stands one victory away from bowl eligibility – isn't a supremely shameful occurrence, but the sluggish outing in Island Country does reintroduce a recurring pattern that the Men of Ken must solve in two weeks.

Even in the best moments of this Paul Johnson-Ken Niumatalolo run over the past seven seasons, Navy football has been prone to the lapses and the overall listlessness that often effects the Midshipmen's more high-profile opponents. Much as Notre Dame has flatly failed to match Navy's intensity in recent years, the boys from Annapolis have often let down their guard against similarly hungry and scrappy underdogs.

Temple is a fine team, but still a Mid-American Conference team; Navy's ability to compete with elite programs should have made the Owls a more-than-beatable foe a month ago, but the Mids didn't find the fire needed to turn back Al Golden's group. Losses in past seasons to the likes of Delaware and Duke serve as a reminder that while Navy's precision and polish are in evidence in spotlight showdowns, the Midshipmen have been unable to carry that same high-level consistency into less-hyped battles.

Even in a number of their wins this season – admirable wins, mind you, but still ugly ones – the Midshipmen have left points on the field, fumbles on the turf, and big plays in the playbook. Despite their considerable amount of perseverance, which has seen them through so many rough spots in 2009, the Men of Ken have rarely played a complete game, the Notre Dame contest being the distinct exception and not the rule. There is still a higher plateau this program can attain, a vista even more marvelous than the one that's emerged for the Mids in this delightful decade.

How can Navy football get better, and fix its outstanding issues before taking the field against Rich Ellerson's Army recruits? Simply stated, the A-grade sharpness that characterizes Navy's best games must enter the stadium on a more regular basis. Saturday's loss to Hawaii showed why.

The Mids didn't commit a turnover against the Warriors, and Niumatalolo's charges were flagged only once. In terms of penalties and cardinal football sins, Navy didn't do a whole lot wrong.

How, then, did an eight-point favorite get dusted in a game attended by Niumatalolo's former coach at Hawaii, Bob Wagner, plus dozens of other friends and colleagues for the native of the islands? The answer was simple: Hawaii played the game fast and well, while the Midshipmen were stuck in the mud.

Time and again, UH quarterback Bryant Moniz threw a short or short-intermediate-range pass to receivers – such as Greg Salas – who were sharper, quicker, and generally more alert than any of Navy's corners. The Midshipmen's back line of defense played incredibly well against Golden Tate and Michael Floyd of Notre Dame, but in this contest, Salas (10 catches for 147 yards) and teammate Kealoha Pilares (8 catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns) dominated Navy. Moniz averaged less than 12 yards per completion, but he completed 32 passes and racked up 366 yards in the process. Hawaii moved the ball while possessing it, and preventing Navy's offense from finding any rhythm.

The fact that Hawaii's passing game could devastate Navy, whereas the Mids were able to rise up against Notre Dame, reflects an uneven quality to Navy's month of November. The Mids should thrive in games when they commit just one penalty and zero turnovers, but Hawaii's short-passing-game prowess – revealed by the disparity in speed on the Aloha Stadium field – indicated a lack of mental preparedness on the part of Navy's players.

Dobbs said all the right things in the postgame press conference, expressing deep regret that the boys weren't able to win this homecoming game for their beloved coach. Nevertheless, the only true statement a team can make doesn't come in pressers after the fact; teams must do the deed between the painted white lines, and in their final pre-Army outing, the Midshipmen simply got waxed by a better, stronger and faster foe.

Maybe Hawaii played over its head on Saturday; the Warriors – now 6-6 in their chase for bowl eligibility (UH plays Wisconsin next week to decide its postseason fate) – were surely waiting to welcome Niumatalolo with a vigorous effort and an attitude hell-bent on reaching the .500 mark. Nevertheless, the attitude Hawaii gave to Navy – the same attitude Navy devotes to Notre Dame and Ohio State games – must become the mindset the Midshipmen acquire in every game they play.

Army will naturally be revved up on Dec. 12. Will Navy be sluggish on that day, too, against an underdog intent on turning the tables against these scrappy overachievers from Annapolis? If the Men of Ken don't learn to play with consistently high quality, they'll get ambushed in two weeks, and suddenly the sheen of a winning season will dim to a considerable degree. Top Stories