If Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo has sprouted a few gray hairs, or even ripped out a few, you could hardly blame him.
Navy (4-2) has taken on a life as the “Cardiac Mids” as it goes into its big game against Notre Dame (4-3) on Saturday, living on the line between barely winning and barely losing.
Five of Navy’s six games this year have been decided by eight points or less. In three of its four wins, the Midshipmen overcame halftime deficits. In its two losses, Navy was a few plays away from turning them into wins.
“We feel like we’re three plays away from being undefeated,” Niumatalolo said in a phone interview. “It seems like every week we go through this.”
He cites a failed rush on fourth-and-goal late in a 17-14 loss to Maryland as one of those plays. Navy had a blocked punt that Maryland converted into a touchdown, and a holding call that negated a run down to the 1 in a 14-6 loss to Air Force.
That was a particularly devastating loss, considering the ramifications. Navy had won seven straight against Air Force, and seven straight Commander-In-Chief Trophies. The loss gives Air Force a leg up in the competition for the trophy, but both teams still have to play Army.
Niumatalolo had no idea how his team would respond to the loss, and had no idea what he would say when he gathered the players for a team meeting the following Monday.
“I had some thoughts prepared, but the captains had already had a team meeting, and they told the team, ‘We have so much to play for. We’re not going to let that loss destroy the rest of our season,’ ” he said.
Navy has won two straight since that loss, though neither win came easily. In a 28-27 triumph against Wake Forest, Ricky Dobbs threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jones with 26 seconds remaining after trailing 17-14 at halftime.
Then last week, Navy dug itself a 14-0 hole at the break before rallying to beat SMU28-21.
“The drive and determination that we have offensively and defensively -- the never die, never quit mentality we have – is what makes the difference,” Dobbs said. “We know we have to finish strong.”
Of course, Navy would love to get out to quicker starts to begin games. Dobbs has taken responsibility for much of the offensive struggles this season because he has not been playing at the level he did in 2009. After setting an NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback last season with 27, Dobbs only has five rushing touchdowns this season and is averaging a career-low 2.9 yards a carry.
There are several reasons for that. First, Dobbs says he pressed early because he felt the responsibility to lead this offense, and the pressure that comes along with the high expectations placed on his shoulders. Second, teams began keying in on him, forcing him to reluctantly pitch the ball out. Third, he tweaked his ankle in the opener and dealt with a groin injury, too.
Niumatalolo said he takes some blame for what has happened to Dobbs as well. Dobbs sat out spring practice because of knee surgery, and the team limited his contact during fall practice.
“We put a bubble around him so to speak,” Niumatalolo said. “We tried to simulate ball security as much as we could with guys trying to rip at it. You don’t want your quarterback to get hit, but when he got hit in the Maryland game, it was the first time he got hits since December. I feel like I could have done more things to help him coming back.”
Niumatalolo and Dobbs both say the quarterback is playing more like the Dobbs we saw last season because he has stopped pressing and is having more fun. Dobbs also says he feels as healthy as he did going into the season.
“I feel things are coming together. I just have to calm down and not overthink things, let the game come to me,” Dobbs said. “If f I’m having fun, then the sky’s the limit for this whole offense. They can feel my energy and my drive and they can fly off that, too.”
Navy also has done a good job overcoming injuries to many of its starters. Right tackle Matt Molloy (concussions), nose guard Shane Bothel (toe) and receiver Mike Schupp (knee) are out, while fullback Vince Murray (knee) is questionable and safety Emmett Merchant (concussion) is doubtful for the game. Kicker Joe Buckley (leg) is also out after getting hurt last week against SMU on the final extra-point attempt of the game.
Despite some big losses, Navy has had players step up. Alexander Teich, a former starter himself, replaced Murray and had the best game of his career against SMU, rushing for a career-high 95 yards and two touchdowns. His 4-yard touchdown run with 1:38 remaining won the game.
Navy will need big games from Dobbs and Teich to have a shot Saturday. But the way things have gone this season, make sure not to miss the fourth quarter.
That has proven to be must-see TV.