Notice the word “could,” for the sons of Annapolis are hardly home-free; there are at least 10 (maybe 11) more occasions in which this team has to prove its worth. With that said, the foremost challenge of this particular Autumn has come and gone for the Mids; in the future, they should possess the sterner stuff that will see them through the season.
Before the season, we talked about the importance of overcoming likely losses against the top-shelf opponents on the schedule. Ohio State (which played pretty respectably against big, bad USC the other night) stopped Navy in week one, so the Mids immediately had to get over that defeat and post a “W” against Louisiana Tech. Yet, when the first six minutes of Saturday afternoon’s game blew up in the faces of the locals at Navy Memorial Stadium, it appeared to all the world that the minds of these padded, cleated, helmeted youngsters were still located in Columbus, Ohio, and not Annapolis.
Navy’s Jabaree Tuani, whose second-quarter interception (the only takeaway of the game for either team) led to the Midshipmen’s go-ahead score, flatly stated after the game that in those six squeamish opening minutes, the home team’s defense didn’t play with the emotion that coordinator Buddy Green so constantly emphasizes to his players. Navy started flat, and in the world of college football, that’s often a sign that a ballclub is either looking ahead to a sexy opponent the following week, or nursing a hangover from a stinging loss the week before. Two plus two, after all, still equals four.
So there it was: The damage had been done, as the Bulldogs from Ruston, La., had accumulated a 14-0 advantage before anyone’s seat was warm in Maryland. The question was, “Would Navy overcome this not-so-sweet hangover, or would the pain of the Ohio State loss essentially count as a double-defeat by extending into week two?” Navy needed to ensure that the Buckeyes didn’t beat them twice, even though the Bulldogs from the Bayou were the team standing on the other sideline this past Saturday.
After staring down a two-touchdown deficit, the Mids got to work and produced three straight scoring drives. One game ball belongs to kicker Joe Buckley, who nailed a 43-yarder to wipe the goose-egg off Navy’s side of the scoring column. That field goal might seem small in a wider context, but it’s important to realize that when nothing’s going right for a group of college kids, the value of somehow breaking the ice and blunting any kind of negative momentum cannot be overstated. Long field goals have not been comforting or high-percentage propositions for Navy… not just in the past few years, but over an extended period of time. Just think of the ill-fated football career of one Ryan Bucchianeri, or the other occasions when Army would stomach-punch the Mids with a long, last-second field goal. Buckley’s bold boot began Navy’s healing process, and once that kick split the uprights, the rest of the kicker’s teammates followed suit.
Ricky Dobbs, who is making sound reads under center, piloted Ken Niumatalolo’s offense to paydirt after settling for a field goal a drive earlier. Then, after Mr. Tuani’s momentum-sustaining pick, the Mids used a short field to go in front for good. With coach Green’s defense in full flight, a Louisiana Tech offense that started strong never rediscovered its rhythm. When one realizes that one of Tech’s two touchdowns came on a long punt return from diminutive by dynamic speedster Phillip Livas, Navy’s defense pitched a shutout after the Bulldogs’ first drive of the afternoon.
At the end of 60 minutes, Navy wound up with ball possession for 41 of them, while Tech controlled the pigskin for just under 19. By the time this duel was done and dusted, Navy had actually compiled a pretty comprehensive smackdown of coach Derek Dooley’s roster. Quite clearly, an early hangover from Ohio State was shrugged off with distinction and determination. Niumatalolo and the rest of his staff have to love the fact that their charges encountered a teachable moment, saw the inadequacies of their pregame mental preparation, but were nevertheless able to crank up the intensity, find their way into the fight, and eventually subdue an inferior opponent.
So, a lesson has surely been learned. As long as Navy doesn’t forget the false start experienced at the beginning of this lashing of Louisiana Tech, the Mids should steer clear of landmines and achieve what is expected of them as 2009 marches on in Maryland.