Hurricane Sandy shut down the Naval Academy on Monday. Classes were cancelled and all military activities were suspended. However, neither heavy rains nor strong winds could prevent the Navy football team from getting its work done.
Head coach Ken Niumatalolo moved practice from the afternoon to the morning and kept it short. The Midshipmen performed worked out briefly at the new indoor complex in Halsey Field House then shifted to Ricketts Hall for weightlifting and film study.
"We're trying to get in a good workout then get out of here," Niumatalolo said. "Above all else, I'm concerned about making sure our people -- players, coaches and support staff -- are safe. As bad as we want to win this football game, there are more important things in life."
Navy is riding a four-game winning streak that has improved its record to 5-3. The Midshipmen can become bowl eligible by beating Florida Atlantic of the Sun Belt Conference on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
With his team in such a good groove, Niumatalolo had to weigh the dangers of the approaching storm against the desire to maintain a normal routine. Because classes were cancelled, the fourth-year head coach was able to alter the typical Monday schedule and get conditioning, lifting and meetings completed before the weather really deteriorated.
"One good thing about the Naval Academy is that all the Midshipmen are here on the yard. Nobody is living in off-campus apartments or anything. As a coach, the two places you feel confident your players will be safe is here in Ricketts or at Bancroft," said Niumatalolo, referring to the academy's main athletic building and massive dormitory.
A review of the film from Saturday's 56-28 rout of East Carolina showed what was obvious to the coaching staff in-person: Navy's offense executed at a high level in posting season highs for points, rushing yards and total yards.
"That's as well as we've played offensively in a long time. We operated very efficiently," Niumatalolo said. "Keenan ran the offense very well. I thought all the slotbacks did a really good job, and the offensive line had by far its best performance of the year."
Niumatalolo said on a bench in the Ricketts Hall weight room and looked around at a room full of football players pumping iron or doing other exercises. He said that workmanlike attitude is what enabled Navy to overcome a rough 1-3 start that featured blowout losses to Notre Dame and Penn State along with a dismal shutout defeat at the hands of San Jose State.
"Our approach is always the same. Win or lose, we come back to work on Monday and get ready for the next game," he said. "Our players have been steady and consistent with their work ethic. That is what it takes to be competitive week-in and week-out."
Of course, the Midshipmen have received a measure of vindication by the fact Notre Dame, Penn State and San Jose State now have a combined record of 19-5. San Jose State (6-2) has already become bowl eligible while fourth-ranked Notre Dame (8-0) is a national championship contender.
"People got so caught up in 1-3, but they failed to look at the caliber of opponents those losses came against," Niumatalolo said. "People wanted to throw us off the Bay Bridge after that first game. Well, Notre Dame just beat Oklahoma on the road."
While those early losses were discouraging on some levels, Niumatalolo is proud of the players for working even harder to turn things around. He feels the Mids have improved across the board -- offensively, defensively and special teams -- with each passing game.
"I'm just encouraged with where we're at. We just keep getting better and better each week," he said. "We want to be going on an incline as the season goes along, and hopefully we are doing that."
On paper, Navy's final four games come against opponents that are not quite as good as the previous four. Navy righted the ship by knocking off service academy rival Air Force in Colorado Springs, Central Michigan the following Friday night on the road, an Indiana squad with a potent fastbreak offense and an East Carolina club that won the 2011 meeting between the schools.
Florida Atlantic comes to Annapolis with a 2-6 record while fellow Sun Belt Conference school Troy lost to Navy by a score of 42-14 last season. Texas State is playing its first season at the Football Bowl Subdivision level while archrival Army is really struggling at 1-7. Niumatalolo expects his team to treat Florida Atlantic with the same respect as it did Notre Dame, to get as keyed up to beat Army as it did Air Force.
"We're still the Naval Academy. We're still not as big, strong or fast as most teams. So we have to work harder and prepare better," he said. "I'll put the way we work against anybody. We respect all of our opponents because we know anybody can beat us."
This will be the first meeting between Navy and Florida Atlantic, which snapped a six-game losing streak with a 34-27 victory over Troy last Saturday. That also ended the Owls' skid of 14 conference losses dating back to 2010.
Florida Atlantic has only been playing varsity football for 11 years. Carl Pelini, who spent four seasons as defensive coordinator at Nebraska under younger brother Bo, was hired last December to turn around a program that had suffered three straight losing seasons and went 1-11 in 2011.
Howard Schnellenberger, a college football legend, is the only other head coach in Florida Atlantic history. Schnellenberger led the Owls to 11-3 record in 2003 and a 9-3 mark in 2004 at the Division I-AA level. FAU moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision and joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2005 and became the youngest program in history to reach the postseason by playing in the New Orleans Bowl.
MID BITS: Niumatalolo said slotbacks Marcus Thomas (concussion) and Darius Staten (shoulder) are probably for Saturday's game after getting hurt in the first half against East Carolina... Navy is seeking to win five straight games for the first time since 2009 when it finished 10-4 after defeating Missouri in the Texas Bowl... The Mids are 5-0 all-time against Sun Belt Conference members.
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