Mike Stukel (GM/Alison Althouse)
Third downs are to football what putts are to golf. You can hit a big drive on the fairway or begin a long drive on the gridiron, but without putts or third-down conversions, you’re not left with a favorable result at the end of the day. This set of comparisons helps explain Navy’s latest victory.
Navy won the most important down-and-distance confrontations against Western Kentucky on Saturday afternoon, and that’s why the Mids bested the Hilltoppers at Navy Memorial Stadium. The home team wasn’t always on its game in Annapolis, but when crunch time arrived, the boys in the blue jerseys lifted their level of performance.
The analogy between putts and third downs gains credibility when one realizes that putts fully crystallize the concentration elite athletes require. Sure, it’s not as though drives or iron shots don’t demand intense focus, but putts necessitate a unique ability to increase one’s internal awareness and block out noise in the gallery or other places on a course. When using a driver, a wood, an iron, or a sand wedge, a golfer is trying to put the ball into a general area. When putting (within an acceptable length, of course), a golfer is attempting to put the ball in one precise spot: the bottom of the cup.
This mirrors football’s down-and-distance dynamic in a number of entirely relevant ways.
First of all, the opening two downs of a series are somewhat open-ended in nature. A gain of four yards on 1st and 10 doesn’t really represent a win for either side of the ball, and the same can be said for a gain of three yards on 2nd and 6. But when 3rd and 3 arises, both teams know exactly what they need to do to either keep a drive alive, or fend off a hard-charging offense. It is on third downs (and the occasional fourth down) when football teams announce just how hungry and composed they really are. Third and fourth downs comprise the crucibles from which upper-tier teams emerge.
With this explanation as prelude, then, Navy established manifest superiority on this afternoon against the talented Hilltoppers from the Sun Belt Conference. By sharpening their resolve in key situations, the Mids fought off their visitors from the Kentucky Commonwealth.
The first play in which Navy really got down to business on third and fourth down came late in the second quarter. The Mids—behind running back Bobby Doyle—converted a 4th and 2 to stay on the march to paydirt. Once Ken Niumatalolo saw his charges overcome that hurdle, they wouldn’t need another third-down conversion on the rest of their drive. After Doyle’s 8-yard run gave Navy a first down inside the Hilltopper 30-yard line, the Men of Ken cruised into the end zone to regain the lead before halftime, at 17-14.
Then it would be time for coordinator Buddy Green’s defense to get dirty on third down.
Western Kentucky began the second half by rolling to the Navy 11. With WKU quarterback Kawaun Jakes smoking the Navy secondary—Jakes finished 22-of-28 for 276 yards and two touchdowns (plus two interceptions)—the Mids were in danger of handing back the lead they worked so hard to attain. On 3rd and 3 from the Navy 11, the Hilltoppers stood one conversion from a probable (though not guaranteed) 21-17 advantage. But Navy was up to the challenge, forcing an incomplete pass from Jakes to receiver Bobby Rainey. When WKU kicker Casey Tinius missed a 29-yard field goal on the ensuing snap, the Mids were gifted with a bonus; once in danger of surrendering the lead to their Sun Belt opponent, they were able to retain their lead instead of falling into a 17-all tie. Let this much be said, however: If Buddy Green’s guys hadn’t produced that ballsy third-down stand in the red zone, the Men of Ken wouldn’t have been in position to benefit from a missed field goal. Navy made its own luck by standing strong on third down.
Then came one more fateful third down, the one that set Navy on a primrose path for the final 25 minutes of action in Annapolis.
Up only 17-14 and still in need of some scores, the Mids and quarterback Ricky Dobbs (who had 243 total yards on the afternoon, 143 rushing and 100 passing) had to turn the Hilltoppers’ red-zone failure into a turning-point play. When faced with a 3rd and 7 from his own 23, Dobbs confronted the fact that he’d need to conjure up a ballsy throw in order to cement his team’s forward surge. Sure enough, Dobbs delivered, hitting Doyle on a 10-yard pass that prevented WKU from getting its offense right back on the field. That third-down conversion punctured the emotional balloon of the visitors while adding to Navy’s rapidly ascending level of confidence. A few plays after that 3rd and 7 dart to Doyle, Dobbs was found strolling into the end zone from two yards out. Up 24-14 midway through the third, the Men of Ken found their footing, and bumped their lead to 38-14 before the Hilltoppers added a meaningless tack-on touchdown before the final gun.
The Mids might have led by 24 points and won by 16 (38-22, for the record), but this game was far closer than the final totals might suggest. Four snaps—Bobby Doyle’s two huge first downs on Navy scoring drives, and WKU’s unsuccessful back-to-back plays on its ill-fated opening drive of the second half—defined this donnybrook. This is a great win by a Navy team that knows how to get down to business when the sideline yard marker says “3” or “4”, but if the Mids don’t start games more authoritatively (they’ve been a poor first-half team throughout September 2009), they might suffer a loss in this midseason stretch against opponents they should be able to handle.
Time for Navy to get down and dirty to an even greater degree.