Ricky Dobbs (AP Photo/Rob Carr)
A normal piece of advice in any line of work is to avoid worrying about the little things. For the Navy football team in 2009, that kernel of wisdom will be turned upside down.
As another year of football arrives in Annapolis, the main mission for coach Ken Niumatalolo is not to stun Ohio State, pounce on Pitt, or knock off Notre Dame, as awesome as any of those three conquests would be.
No, the Men of Ken must practice a different kind of gridiron zen that is foreign to the college football fanatic. While this sport does indeed thrive on the euphoria of a big gameday against a sexy, brand-name opponent, Navy's path to another bowl game, and continued respect in the college football community, depends on this team's ability to be consistent on a weekly basis.
For perspective, just remember the ambush losses and close shaves that nearly derailed Navy seasons this past decade.
In 2003 and 2007, Navy teams that were enjoying fabulous seasons evidently felt that they could coast on their talent, much to their chagrin. October overconfidence and curious cases of complacency from the Midshipmen allowed Delaware's Blue Hens to storm into Maryland and leave Annapolis clucking with joy. Delaware dealt Navy a pair of stunning losses in those two seasons, bringing a strong dose of sobriety into the academy locker room on each occasion. It's worth noting that after those twin splashes of cold water, Navy rebounded to close the season in style and reach a bowl game. Nevertheless, the lesson had been taught: Overlook the lower-profile teams on a schedule at your peril. Navy revved up, geared up, amped up, and used all other forms of uppers for the five-star throwdowns against the Notre Dames, Pitts, and Wake Forests of the world, but lil' ol' Delaware threw a monkey wrench into Paul Johnson's plans.
In 2008's first season for Mr. Niumatalolo, success returned to Annapolis under a different head coach, but not without a supreme scare in week nine of the campaign. Temple, improving but still unheralded, marched into Navy Memorial Stadium and outplayed the guys in blue for 59 minutes and 23 seconds, only to have Russ Pospisil force a fumble that Clint Sovie took into the end zone to create a 27-all tie with 37 ticks left in regulation. Navy would win in overtime and move on to the EagleBank Bowl. Had the home team lost on that afternoon in Annapolis, a season without a winning record loomed as a distinct possibility. Yet again, this overachieving program--for all its virtues--had taken a nap on one Saturday, jeopardizing its aspirations in the process.
As 2009 beckons, then, the message has to be as blunt as it is boring: Yeah, everyone in the world is filled with flights of fancy about a conquest of Columbus; sure, young men's minds are going wild with fantasies about a punking of Pittsburgh or a foiling of the Fighting Irish; but for all those visions of grandeur, the most important thing for Navy football is to keep that hammer-lock grip on the Commander-In-Chief Trophy, just as Niumatalolo himself has said. A bowl game--now expected in the corridors of the U.S. Naval Academy--will be built on the backs of wins against the Louisiana Techs, the Rices, the SMUs and Temples of the sport. Call it as dull as a bowl of cotton; label it as bland as white bread with water; sulk about the simplicity; pout about the plainness of it all.
Tough--it's what Navy has to do in order to remain successful.
Without question, the Men of Ken will spill the tank against Jim Tressel's troops, Dave Wannstedt's studs, and Charlie Weis's charges, but if Navy allows itself to get depressed, disillusioned and distracted by losses in those high-profile games (and let's be clear about this: Navy should be a clear-cut underdog in all three tilts), the following weeks could lead to hangover-induced setbacks that could hijack the entirety of the season. It's not so much that Ohio State, Pitt and Notre Dame are games unworthy of major-league hype and breathless anticipation; no, the point of emphasis is that the other games represent the program's meal ticket to another postseason pageant and Commander-In-Chief glory.
Does Navy have the goods to make a BCS bowl? Most certainly not. Until this program can stockpile January 1 talent, no one in Annapolis should be thinking about an 11-1 romp and a spot in New Orleans, Miami, Glendale, or Pasadena in a prime-time spectacular. With that being the case, steady and simple remains the order of the day for the Men of Ken. Another CIC celebration, another assault of Army, another bowl bonanza--those three prizes can and will emerge as long as the season's three ballyhooed battles don't exact an excessive toll on this club.
Football players must pay a high price to play every Saturday, a price whose currency is physical pain and the ever-present specter of risk. Hopefully, the price paid by the 2009 Navy football team won't also include the psychological sting of falling to Ohio State, Pitt, or Notre Dame. If Navy shrugs off the high-profile losses that are likely to come its way, all the good things you've known and loved about Midshipmen football over the past six seasons will return for a seventh time in a decade that needs to end on a high note.
If you like bowling and you love being in command of Army and Air Force, tell yourself--and the Navy boys themselves--to avoid sweating the big stuff this season. A path to more football fulfillment lies in the form of the little guys. By taking care of the teams in non-BCS conferences, the Men of Ken will punch a ticket to the Texas Bowl and round up more accolades from their colleagues and competitors.