Junior defensive end Jeff Vanak refuses to judge Navy's defense yet, but he thinks the Midshipmen finally are on to something good.
Senior linebackers Ben Mathews and Eddie Carthan have endured careers marked by lopsided defeats and general embarrassment, but they suspect their unit is no longer the butt of jokes.
Each of them says, in the wake of last week's gritty, 17-3 loss to then-No. 25 Texas Christian, that Navy at long last is learning how to stop opponents.
"You can't jump to too many conclusions after two games, but it felt like everyone had a different attitude at TCU, like we weren't going to be pushed around anymore," Vanak said. "The defense is finally starting to get a little bit of swagger."
"It gives you something to build on. It lets you know that maybe we are a better defense than a lot of people give us credit for," added Carthan, an outside linebacker and co-captain. "Now we have a chance to show [the critics] even more."
The Midshipmen (1-1), who were 3-30 in their previous three seasons, are flashing a pretty good hand so far. They have allowed 27 points in two games, which qualifies as a major development in Annapolis.
A year ago, Navy continued its downward spiral on defense by allowing 36.3 points a game, good for 108th among 117 Division I-A teams. Its 202.5 rushing yards allowed a game ranked 102nd in the NCAA.
Coming off its season-opening, 37-10 rout of VMI last month, Navy raised many more eyebrows last week in Fort Worth.
The Midshipmen took a 3-0 halftime lead, forced three turnovers, never permitted the Horned Frogs into Navy territory in the first half and made TCU cover hefty chunks of the field to score.
It was quite a contrast to some forgettable Week 2 showings of recent vintage. A year ago, North Carolina State feasted on early turnovers and rolled to a 65-19 rout. Two years ago, Georgia Tech abused the Midshipmen, 70-7.
"It's almost like I'm part of a new program around here," said Mathews, an inside linebacker. "We're playing with excitement, which is a lot different from the way we've approached the game in past years.
"We'd go out kind of flat, waiting to see what [the opponent] was capable of. This year, we're really focused on hitting them hard on the first play and letting them know where we're coming from."
Under second-year coach Paul Johnson and defensive coordinator Buddy Green, the Midshipmen are using a new scheme, an infusion of two promising recruiting classes and a dash of attitude to help them grind toward respectability.
Green said the young players, such as freshman cornerback Keenan Little and freshman linebacker David Mahoney, are adding beef to the depth chart and increasing the level of competition in practice.
The new scheme, a 3-4 alignment that puts more emphasis on speed and pursuit and less on size, is starting to bear fruit.
First of all, Navy is not being beaten by the long ball, which had been a regular occurrence. So far, the Mids have yet to allow a run or a touchdown pass of 25 yards. Last year, they gave up six touchdowns of 50 or more yards.
They already have forced six turnovers and have recorded shutouts in back-to-back opening halves for the first time in 17 years. They have recovered four fumbles, one shy of Division I-A co-leaders Arizona, Northwestern and Southern Mississippi.
"We're outsized up front by just about every team we play," Green said. "Our philosophy is to try to bring pressure. It's a better fit for us."
As a result, Navy runs an array of stunts, refusing to settle for a gap-control strategy at the line of scrimmage. It rarely send more than five pass rushers on a blitz, and relies mostly on a zone defense featuring a cover-two approach, meaning safeties such as junior Josh Smith emphasize preventing the long pass completion.
The presence of four linebackers provides more finishers and better pursuit.
Mathews, who has 12 tackles and a forced fumble, credits the offense and special teams for helping the defense in the important field-position game. But he added that, if the Midshipmen are to enjoy their first winning season since 1997, the defense must set the tone.
"This is the tightest team we've had since I've been here. Our defense is a lot mentally tougher than we were last year," Mathews said. "We're not the biggest guys or the fastest guys, but if we play hard and play with heart, good things will happen. That can be contagious."
Next for Navy
Matchup: Eastern Michigan (1-2) vs. Navy (1-1)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Navy by 13