<
>

Navy, Army looking for answers

Consider the way Navy has lost this season and you will understand why coach Ken Niumatalolo says he has never been through a season quite so excruciating.

  • Navy could not hold on to a 21-17 third-quarter lead on South Carolina and lost 24-21.

  • A missed extra point in overtime against Air Force cost Navy, as the Falcons won 35-34.

  • Navy had a 34-yard field goal blocked in the fourth quarter against Rutgers that would have given Navy the lead. Instead, Rutgers won 21-20.

  • What appeared to be a touchdown was called an incomplete pass when the ball came loose on the goal line in a 38-35 loss to East Carolina. Navy missed a field goal with no time remaining.

"Fortunately we have resilient kids, but the manner in which we’ve lost all our games -- it’s tough," Niumatalolo said in a phone interview. "I feel like we could easily be 6-1 right now but we’re not. When you lose by a total of eight points, it’s hard to swallow.

"We know we're going to be in close games. We’re not Alabama or LSU. We’re not going to blow people out. We’ve been on the other end of the stick in some of those games, but the ball hasn’t been dropping for us. In every way it matters, we lose. We’ve been a team that’s prided ourselves in not beating ourselves, and we’re just not doing that."

The Midshipmen (2-5) have lost five straight headed into their game at Notre Dame on Saturday and are in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time in nine seasons. After a year in which all the service academies made a bowl game for the first time in history, Army (2-5) also is in danger of missing a postseason game.

Navy is hoping for its third straight win over the Irish, but will have to do it without starting quarterback Kriss Proctor, who has an elbow injury. Trey Miller would make his first career start.

For Navy, the performance this season has been downright surprising. This is a team that generally wins nine games a season and has had incredible success for a service academy.

As Niumatalolo mentioned, Navy usually is involved in it share of close games, but generally wins them. The last time the Midshipmen posted a losing record in games decided by eight points or less was 2003 (1-2). The last time they were winless in games decided by that margin was 2002 (0-3). That was the last time they failed to reach a bowl.

This year, Navy is 0-4 in those games.

Special teams has been a particular area of concern. Navy has missed at least one kick (extra point or field goal) in six of its seven games this year, including four straight contests.

The defense also has struggled, ranking No. 95 in the nation in total defense and No. 119 in third-down conversion defense. The Midshipmen are allowing opponents to convert 57 percent of the time on third down. Red zone offense has been a problem, too. Navy moves the ball just fine but breaks down inside the 20.

Meanwhile, Army is having a tough time getting into close games. The Black Knights are hurting themselves, too. After being one of the best teams in the nation in turnover margin last season, they are one of the worst in 2011, having given the ball away 15 times. Third-down conversion defense ranks No. 115 as well.

Army still has service academy rivals Air Force (3-4) and Navy left on the schedule, along with Rutgers (5-2) and Temple (5-3). Navy has a slightly easier stretch to close the season after its game against Notre Dame: Troy (2-5), SMU (5-2) and San Jose State (3-4). The finale against Army could have bowl eligibility on the line.

“We’ve just got to find a way,” Niumatalolo said. “We need one to bounce off the backboard and go in for us. They’ve been rimming out. I have faith in our coaches and our players. We’re going to keep fighting. We’re not giving up.”