Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said that his Midshipmen played near-perfect games to beat Notre Dame in 2009 and 2010, and came close to nirvana again before losing last season to nationally ranked South Carolina on the road.
To get its first win of the 2012 season, Navy (0-1) might have to do it again Saturday.
Despite Penn State's 0-2 record and the turmoil that still surrounds the scandal-scarred program, Niumatalolo said earlier this week that a similar performance will be needed by the Midshipmen to upset the reeling Nittany Lions at Beaver Stadium in State College.
"The last two times we beat a big team, like Notre Dame, we almost played perfect, we did everything perfect and they were slightly off," Niumatalolo said after practice in Annapolis on Wednesday. "It has to be the same way.
"We can't turn the ball over. We've got to get some turnovers. The ball's got to bounce our way; it can't slip out of our hands. That's just reality. They are more talented than we are. We have to play perfect to have a chance."
While the Nittany Lions have struggled holding leads in their first two games under new coach Bill O'Brien, losing at home to Ohio (24-14 after being ahead 14-3 at halftime) and last week at Virginia (17-16), Navy was anything but perfect in a season-opening 50-10 defeat to Notre Dame in Dublin, Ireland two weeks ago.
With junior quarterback Trey Miller making only his second career start — and injuring his left ankle early in the game after a Notre Dame player fell on him — Navy's triple-option offense looked out of sync. The Midshipmen committed an uncharacteristic four turnovers, including a fumble by Miller that was returned 77 yards for a touchdown.
Though Miller had more success throwing the ball (14 of 20 for 192 yards and a touchdown) than the Midshipmen had running it (40 carries for 149 yards), Navy needs to establish its trademark clock-eating running game early against Penn State. Navy's only touchdown against Notre Dame came on an uncharacteristic three-play, three-pass drive on the first possession of the second half.
"The longer scoring drives will help keep the clock moving, but we'll take the short scoring drives if we're getting the ball in the end zone," said Miller, who was held out of practice last week because of the injury but seemed to be moving better as this week's preparations progressed. "I'm sure they're going to notice [the possibility of passing] more, but I think they will concentrate on the run."
Said offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper: "It's always important for us to get off to a fast start. It's always good to have long drives and sustain them. That goes with us staying on track in terms of down and distance and not getting into too many third-and-longs. It's a goal for us and a must for us to keep our drives going."
Asked what Miller had to do better this week, Jasper said, "Take care of the ball."
Navy's defense against Notre Dame was as shaky as its offense. The defensive line, trying to replace star end Jabaree Tuani, got little penetration. It led the Fighting Irish to rush for 293 yards and five touchdowns and allowed first-time starter Everett Golson to complete 16 of 23 passes for 197 yards, throwing one touchdown and being intercepted once.
"I look at it as growing pains. You've got to work from that game. A lot of guys were playing for the first time and making mistakes," said long-time defensive coordinator Buddy Green. "A lot of corrections to be made from that game and build from it."
Niumatalolo knows that despite Penn State losing several key players among the 13 who have either transferred or simply quit the team since the NCAA sanctions were announced in July, beating the Nittany Lions in a place that few refer to anymore as Happy Valley will still be a formidable task for the undersized Midshipmen.
"They're a proud program, their pride's been hurt a little bit, their ego's been hurt, their reputation's been questioned," Niumatalolo said. "When you have a proud, rich tradition like that, there's no doubt in my mind that they want to set people straight. Right now they're like a wounded animal; they've got their backs against the wall. You have to be ready for a ferocious fight."