Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo paces the sideline during the first… (Tommy Gilligan / USA Today…)
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo didn't celebrate very long after his team's bowl win over Middle Tennessee State last December.
The preparation — at least mentally — had already started for the 2014 season opener against Ohio State in Baltimore.
"It heightens everything you do, I couldn't even enjoy our bowl game," Niumatalolo recalled Saturday. "As soon as you win the bowl game, you're thinking the next game you're playing is Ohio State, everything you do you've got to take it to the [n]th degree, the way you eat, the way you stretch, the way you meet."
In some ways, losing to the fifth-ranked Buckeyes, 34-17, before a pro-Buckeye crowd of over 57,000 at M&T Bank Stadium should help the Midshipmen focus on their next opponent and the rest of their season. But Saturday's game at Temple could be even more difficult for Niumatalolo and his staff.
As the coach said in his postgame remarks, Navy had eight months to get ready for Ohio State and has six days to get ready for the Owls. It also can't help Navy that Temple, 2-10 a year ago under then first-year coach Matt Rhule, will be coming off an impressive 37-7 win at Vanderbilt.
"It's hard because our guys have invested so much, these guys have worked their butts off for eight months, everything we've done this off-season has pointed toward this game, we didn't think about Temple or anybody else, all of our focus was on Ohio State," Niumatalolo said. "I was proud of our guys for three quarters, I thought they were fighting their butts off, but we didn't finish.
"So, it's hard knowing that we had a chance and didn't get it done. We've got to move on. We got a team that just beat up an SEC team pretty good and we're going to their place, so we've got to find a way to bounce back."
It actually sets up like a typical season for Navy.
In 2008, Niumatalolo's first season after succeeding Paul Johnson, the Midshipmen lost back-to-back road games at Ball State and Duke to start 1-2. But in a season in whcih Niumatalolo had to use all three quarterbacks because of injuries, Navy beat Air Force and Army, went 8-5 and made a bowl game.
In 2010, the Midshipmen lost a heartbreaker to Maryland in the season opener at M&T Bank Stadium, 17-14, when quarterback Ricky Dobbs was stripped near the Terps' goal line late in the game. But after also losing at Air Force three weeks later, Navy finished 9-4.
In 2012, Navy was smoked in its first two games, losing by a combined 84-17 to Notre Dame (50-10) in Dublin, Ireland, and Penn State (34-7) in State College. After a 1-3 start that included a 12-0 loss at home to San Jose State, the Midshipmen won seven of their last nine games.
Senior captain Parrish Gaines believes what happened two years ago helped the Midshipmen stay competitive well into the second half against the bigger, stronger and faster Buckeyes. What happened against Ohio State doesn't change Navy's goals this season — win the Commander in Chief's Trophy and become bowl-eligible.
"Everything stays the same," Gaines said. "Playing those two big-name teams two years ago, I feel like that helped us for today. I was playing in that game and there were some other seniors playing in that game. They knew how we had to compete in practice to start out in a game like this and they got everybody else ready. We just came up a little short."
The difference the past two years for Navy has been its quarterback, Keenan Reynolds. But as resourceful and resilient as Reynolds had been in winning 15 of his first 21 career starts — not including coming off the bench to beat Air Force — Reynolds was simply human Saturday.
The junior quarterback made some big-time plays, tying a school record by scoring a touchdown for a ninth-straight game, but his indecision on a pitch to slotback Demond Brown on the first snap of the second half led to a fumble and 61-yard touchdown return by freshman linebacker Darron Lee.
As much as his father, Donnie, implored him before the game not to think about being what some have called a darkhorse candidate for the Heisman Trophy, the younger Reynolds seems to carry the hopes of a special Navy season on his not-so-broad shoulders.
"I treat is just like any other game, every game I'm very critical win or loss. So whatever it is that I did wrong, acknowledge it, fix it and try to not repeat the same mistakes against Temple," Reynolds said. "Like we've said many, they're a very good team, there's no letdown, there's no time for a letdown."
Not with a schedule that suddenly appears more daunting after Temple's win and Rutgers' victory at Washington State.
Not many outside the Navy locker room expected the Midshipmen to beat Ohio State, but many will expect the Midshipmen to beat the Owls at Lincoln Financial Field, where Navy has played eight games — all against Army — without a loss.
As bad a 0-1 tasted Saturday, 0-2 would taste a lot worse.