On the heels of two red-zone defensive stands -- including a blocked field goal attempt returned for a touchdown -- Southern Mississippi overwhelmed Navy Saturday, taking advantage of three game-changing plays in the first quarter to silence Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium en route to a 63-35 victory.
The loss drops Navy to 2-3 on the season and marks the first time since 2002 in which Navy has lost three consecutive games, when the Midshipmen dropped 10 straight. Southern Miss improves to 5-1 on the year, inching one win closer to clinching the school's 18th consecutive winning season. Following the game, Navy's coach took full responsibility for the loss.
"It's been a long time since we got our butts whipped like that," said a remarkably composed Ken Niumatalolo following the game. "That starts with me – it was a thorough beating."
The game started almost exactly to script for the Midshipmen, who drove the length of the field on the game's initial drive behind strong performances from fullback Delvin Diggs and quarterback Kriss Proctor. Diggs, starting in place of suspended fullback Alexander Teich, moved Navy into scoring position after a 20-yard run, but the drive stalled at the Southern Miss six-yard line. Looking to go up by an early field goal, Navy instead received a rude awakening when Khyri Thorton blocked Jon Teague's 29-yard field goal attempt. USM's Marquese Wheaton picked up to loose ball, running 79 yards for the game's first score.
Navy's unlucky day was just beginning. Continuing with where they left off on the first drive, Kriss Proctor and the Navy offense went 76 yards in 13 plays, taking the ball all the way inside the Golden Eagle 1-yard line. Proctor appeared to score from six yards out on first and goal, but a subsequent review moved the ball just outside the one. But Navy was unable to punch it in three plays, as Bo Snelson and Kriss Proctor were stood up on back-to-back plays by the Southern Miss defense.
"Obviously they got out to a fast start, and we couldn't convert in the redzone," Niumatalolo said.
Three plays later, Southern Miss' offense put a momentum dagger into Navy's hopes, when quarterback Austin Davis threw a 77-yard pass to receiver Ryan Balentine on 3rd and 7 from the Southern Miss four-yard line.
"It kind of took the wind out of our sails" said Niumatalolo. "I've got to give them credit. The way they came out and executed, they played well."
From there the Golden Eagles needed just three plays to score, with running back Jeremy Hester slicing through the Navy defensive line for a three-yard touchdown run. Momentum wise, Navy never quite recovered, with the next two Navy drives ending in punts, and the next two Southern Miss possessions ending in touchdowns.
"My hat goes off to their offense. They definitely came out and played a hell of a game," said Navy defensive captain Jabaree Tuani, who finished the game with three tackles.
"We always expected them to be a hurry up, fast-past, throwing-the-ball team," Tuani continued. "But actually we saw their running backs, and there were some good plays. As captain, I put the blame on myself for not getting this team emotionally ready."
Down 28-0, Navy's offense sprang back to life, going 70 yards in just six plays to cut the lead to 28-7 thanks to a 1-yard touchdown run from slotback John Howell. Following the scoring drive, the Midshipmen defense forced its first Southern Miss punt of the afternoon, giving the ball back to Proctor and the offense with just over three minutes left in the half. However, the Mids were unable to generate any momentum in three plays, and were forced to give the ball back to the Eagles with 1:37 left on the clock. From there, Austin Davis and the Golden Eagle offense continued their blitzkrieg, capping a seven play, 58-yard drive when Davis found Ryan Balentine for a 5-yard touchdown pass.
The 35-points given up in the first half were the most Navy points given up since 2008 when Navy surrendered the same amount to Pittsburgh in 2008, while the 28-point deficit was the largest Navy first-half hole dug Navy fell behind Connecticut in 2002. All told, the Golden Eagles outgained Navy 327-215 in the first half, going 4-for-5 on third down conversion attempts.
Navy attempted a second half comeback on several occasions, but it was all for naught. Proctor hit his fifth touchdown pass in as many games by finding Brandon Turner streaking downfield for a 43-yard score early in the third quarter, cutting the Golden Eagles lead to 35-14 and finally giving Navy fans something to cheer about. But the Mids couldn't follow up on defense, with Davis and the Southern Miss offense continuing to carve up the middle of field behind their zone-based attack.
"We saw little sparks here and there," Tuani said. "We couldn't capitalize on defense to get the offense the ball back, so it was very hard. You have to play a full game for sixty minutes. You've got to show up every time -- if you show up here in this series, but not the next series, bad things can happen."
Each time Navy tried to answer, Davis and the up-tempo Golden Eagle offense would come right back. The senior quarterback finished the evening a remarkable 21-of-23 for three touchdowns (75 yards, 1 TD rushing) while the two-headed monster of Jeremy Hester and Tracy Lampley combined for 200 yards and three scores on the ground. All told, Southern Mississippi finished with 584 yards of total offense, averaging 7.8 yards per play. Ironically, Navy finished with the same average yards per play.
Navy will look to bounce back next week when visiting Rutgers, while Southern Miss will play host to Southern Methodist. With the a challenging slate ahead of his team, each week now becomes essential for Navy, which can extend its bowl streak to nine seasons by achieving six wins this year.
"We've just got to go back to work. We're going to go back and watch the tape, evaluate all the coaches, all the practices, what we're doing -- we don't have any alternative," Niumatalolo said. "I have great faith in our young people. I have great faith in these guys – I just have great faith in them."
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