Army-Navy: In Perspective

It might seem odd to look at a football game this way, but upon further examination, the contention truly seems to stand on its own merit: the 107th Army-Navy Game, like the previous two matchups between head coaches Bobby Ross and Paul Johnson, will likely be decided in the middle twenty minutes of play.

In each of the past two editions of this college football classic, the Midshipmen have blown the doors off the Black Knights in the final ten minutes of the second quarter and the first ten minutes of the third quarter. By finishing strong before the halftime break, the Johnson Boys have maximized momentum against their rivals from West Point. This advantage--a mental edge accompanied by scoreboard leverage, a hard-to-beat combination--has placed the run-first, pass-second Black Knights in a box. Bobby Ross and his staff did not have the answers--and the Army team did not have the staying power--to hang with Navy coming out of the blocks in the third quarter. After 40 minutes of play in each of the past two Army-Navy affairs, national college football fans without any military allegiances have switched channels to the USC-UCLA game, now regularly played when the Black Knights and Midshipmen are finishing their football fight in Philadelphia.

Yes, Army and Navy devotees will stay in the stadium or keep the tube on CBS to see, hear and sing the alma maters at the end of the contest, but what can Army do to make the final twenty minutes of play as compelling as the first 20 minutes? Everyone who has been following Army football in the Bobby Ross era will eagerly want to see if this gridiron Army mule can generate a newfound finishing kick.

Let's be honest: Navy has to rate as a huge favorite in this game. Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada hasn't staggered, stumbled or struggled as the backup quarterback for the Midshipmen. After being pressed into duty once Brian Hampton went down earlier in the year with a season-ending injury, Kaheaku-Enhada has played solid football in every game he's started. When he filled in for Hampton in the middle of the Rutgers game, Kaheaku-Enhada predictably struggled. But in every game since, the new Annapolis signal caller--having had the benefit of Paul Johnson's undivided attention in practice as the No. 1 quarterback heading into game day--has flourished.

Kaheaku-Enhada's success is a tremendous testament to the young man's abilities and work habits; Navy fans had to wonder if Brian Hampton's backup could steady the ship for Navy's offense. With that having been said, however, Kaheaku-Enhada's sterling season is an even greater indication of the mastery Paul Johnson has unfailingly displayed in his five years at the helm in Annapolis. Since 2002, the only Division I-A head coach that could rival Johnson as a maximizer of available talent is Pete Carroll out in Southern California... and it's not even close. (Jim Tressel had a down year in 2004; Bob Stoops had a rocky 2005; Steve Spurrier didn't coach NCAA ball each of the past five years; Mack Brown took his lumps in 2002 and 2003.) Johnson will become the greatest head coach in Navy history if he makes a career out of Annapolis... provided he stays that long. What the former Georgia Southern coach has done since taking the Navy job before the 2002 season has been nothing shor t of sensational, and it's Johnson's presence on the sideline, more than anything else, that makes Navy such a hard-to-resist pick in this pigskin passion play. Therefore, all the attention--and the intrigue--in this contest will rest on the shoulders of the Black Knights and Bobby Ross. There's no questioning Ross' credentials--the man won a share of the national title with Georgia Tech, and reached a Super Bowl with the San Diego Chargers--but he hasn't been able to find the winning touch in three years at West Point. True, this isn't a get-rich-quick kind of job Ross has, but then again, look at what Paul Johnson has done in Annapolis. (Memo to overwhelmingly undersized teams and noticeably low-rent college football programs: if you want to win quickly, run the triple option, wishbone, or cousin thereof.)

Ross has seen his team play with admirable fight and emotion on a number of occasions in 2006, and Saturday's game against Navy doesn't need a motivational pep talk from the wise old football man. Ross' main challenge on Saturday--even bigger than drawing up some very creative and daring ball plays--is getting his players to sustain their effort through sixty minutes. When Army did fight from start to finish in 2006, the results were impressive. The Black Knights won at Baylor, a not-as-bad-as-you-think team that, with a little luck, could have gone .500 in the Big XII Conference. Army also came within several yards--and one touchdown play--of stunning a Texas A&M team that rates as a legitimate top 20 squad. When Bobby Ross' boys brought their best effort to the ballpark, good things happened. The problem was that a sixty-minute show of survival was rarely displayed by Army in 2006.

Against Arkansas State, Rice and Tulane, Army simply didn't have the right stuff. On some days, that's simply going to happen. The games that should make Bobby Ross both encouraged and worried going into the Navy game are his team's tussles with Air Force and Notre Dame. In both contests, Army played with religious fervor in the first quarter, only to falter and fade as the game continued. The loss to the Falcons occurred because the Black Knights got down on themselves after a few crushing turnovers. The 32-point defeat in South Bend was more the result of a physically imposing team wearing down the Black Knights. But just the same, those two games had the same thing in common: Army played the first quarter well enough to stay even with its opponent. This forms the basis for Bobby Ross' main task: can he get his players to sustain their effort and performance levels as a high-stakes showdown passes the 20-minute mark.

You can almost set your watch to this: once the second quarter--and with it, the game--settles into a flow, the initial emotions associated with the beginning of the game wear off. As surely as the sun rises in the east, the Army football team's fortunes seem to set in the west at this point in a big game. As the adrenaline rush wears away and football becomes more about billy-basic X-and-O execution, the Black Knights lose the mustard on their first-quarter fastball. It's really rather simple: if Army can play the middle 20 minutes as passionately and purposefully as the first 20 minutes, then the final third of the game will mean something... and more people will avoid the temptation to switch to ABC for the Trojans and the Bruins in the Rose Bowl.

One can expect Paul Johnson's team to relentlessly use the triple option for 60 minutes. One can't expect Army to last for the same amount of time against a likely Midshipmen onslaught.

Does this current crop of Black Knights have what it takes to be worthy of the heritage of the Brave Old Army Team? Can Bobby Ross and his players prove a lot of skeptics wrong? Can the final 20 minutes of an Army-Navy headknocker be as exhilarating as the first 20? Tune into the middle 20 minutes to find out.

This is a game of primary importance, and there will be two secondaries on the field, but the flow of the 107th Army-Navy Game can be divided into tertiary portions. If the Black Knights can win the middle third on Saturday, they just might be able to make the third time a charm for Ross in his Army-Navy coaching career.


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