A Moment Must Come To Pass
On a fundamental level, there are no secrets between these two rivals who are brothers off the field but spirited opponents on it. It goes without saying that the vast preponderance of snaps in the latest Army-Navy Game will be triple-option or flexbone snaps, plays in which bread-and-butter option football will need to be applied. Two teams that practice against this basic style of offense on a weekly basis will be exposed to it on gameday in Philadelphia. Payam Saadat and Chris Smeland, Army's defensive braintrust, will match wits with Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper. Ian Shields and Buddy Green will joust, parry, thrust and adjust. Two very similar modes of working, two closely related football philosophies, will exist in close proximity to each other. Billy-basic execution will tell most of the story, and with Army now headed to a bowl game alongside Navy (and the Air Force Academy as well), the psychology of this year's showdown will be a little different.
It also needs to be said that while there's an obvious tactical similarity in play for this game, Army will also contest the Midshipmen on slightly more even terrain than it has in the past. Last year's game was much closer than the 17-3 score indicated. Army was less than 20 yards from tying the score in the fourth quarter but couldn't travel the last mile in the City of Brotherly Love. It would be extremely surprising for a blowout to occur this year. Navy has struggled more than it did in 2009, and the Midshipmen have shown certain degrees of vulnerability despite racking up nine more wins. The more you look at Army-Navy 2010, the harder it is to separate these two teams at "The Linc." Therefore, what's going to make the difference on Saturday, aside from the eternally obvious factors that always decide football games (turnovers, red-zone plays, special teams)?
The answer should be pretty clear: Army has to run for show but throw for dough. Army must literally pass through the coals of confrontation against its 21st-century nemesis from the state of Maryland.
Here's the larger point about recent Army-Navy history: The problem for Army is not that "vast majority of snaps" referred to above. The problem for the Black Knights of the Hudson is not the ability to contain Navy's offense, either – that's been achieved in two of the past three seasons, and Navy has been kept under wraps in the first 24 minutes of each of the last three games.
In the 2007 game in Baltimore, Army allowed only one offensive touchdown to Navy with six minutes left in the first half. What killed the Black Knights on that day was an inability to hold onto passes in or near the end zone. Passing-game failures – despite having open receivers throughout the first half – blunted Army drives and fed Navy's sense of confidence. Ten Navy points in the final six minutes of that first half supplemented a kickoff return for a touchdown by the Midshipmen; before the first half ended, the Naval Academy had scored 17 points in rapid-fire succession en route to a 24-3 halftime lead. Navy didn't really play all that well on that afternoon inside the home of the Baltimore Ravens, but Army's inability to make available pass plays spelled instant doom against a superior bunch of sailors who knew how – and when – to move in for the kill.
Last year, the ingredient Army lacked was… you guessed it… the passing game. The Black Knights needed the ability to find a difference-making pass play in the red zone. This is a reality magnified by the fact that in most – if not all – of Navy's eight straight wins over The Long Gray Line, the Midshipmen have usually been able to pull an aerial arrow out of the quiver and puncture Army's back line of defense.
In some years, Navy's triple-option has simply run roughshod over Army, but not so much in the past three years. Army has regularly played good, tough first quarters in this game and has played quite competently on defense. It's been offense, offense, offense that has been lacking against the Mids. Army has stayed in games for 1.5 or 2.5 quarters – last year it was 3.5 – but the vibe that permeated the ballpark was that Army had to get a lot of Navy miscues to win; the Black Knights never had the confidence or the chops needed to smoke Navy's secondary with an impactful long ball or a long-distance dagger from the arm of a quarterback.
This year, with the gap between the two teams being smaller than it has been in a long time, Army has to win not the majority of snaps that inch the ball up the field for three or four yards and a cloud of dust (though that would be nice), but the 10 to 15 plays that carry a disproportionate amount of weight. Army has to hit the five or six extra passes it couldn't find the past three years, when a close game was realistically attainable. Army will almost surely need to convert a clutch fourth-and-three in the second half near midfield, or a fourth-and-goal at the five in the final seven minutes of regulation when trailing by four to seven points. These situations will call upon Trent Steelman and ask him to be better than he's ever been before.
Steelman has become a markedly better quarterback this year, but that's been confined mostly to the realm of turnover reduction. Against Navy, turnover reduction isn't enough; at least, it doesn't figure to be – not if recent history in this series is any indication. Army needs the addition of seven-point strikes, not just the reduction of Navy-aiding mistakes; the results should make that point plain.
Army knows how to play a close-to-the-vest game and keep Navy nearby on the scoreboard into the fourth quarter; we know what that movie looks like. It's played out a few times since 2002, don't you think? "Playing close and having a chance to win in the fourth quarter," the familiar coaching mantra, has applied to Army during its run of futility. The new mantra is more akin to Marty Schottenheimer's recognizable refrain with the Kansas City Chiefs, mic'ed up for sound on NFL Films: "Focus and finish."
In order to finish and actually – you know – WIN one of these games against Navy, Army will need the forward pass to become its friend. It's that simple. Army needs ingredients it's been missing over eight long years. The Black Knights can run, they can defend, they can maneuver their way into the fourth quarter. They haven't shown they can drive the dagger into Navy's heart.
The ability to throw the football will likely be the source of that magic moment when Navy finally buckles under Army's assault. The people of West Point – and soldiers around the world who call the United States Military Academy their special home – will shout with joy when their Brave Old Army Team allows a bit of gridiron greatness to finally come to pass.
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