SMU Review: The Pony Expression

The Navy Midshipmen know how to express their best and boldest virtues as a football team whenever they play the Ponies of Southern Methodist. That truth was borne out yet again on a sweet Saturday in Annapolis, as a bowl bid – a very uncertain proposition two weeks ago – is once again a very likely part of Navy's football future.

Postseason reservations were most certainly on hold on the evening of Oct. 2, after Navy uncharacteristically made the wrong mistakes at the wrong times in a disappointing 14-6 loss at Air Force. The first loss in a Commander-In-Chief's Trophy game since 2002 put a hitch in Navy's git-along, but if the full frontal force of that blow wasn't bad enough, it put the Mids under the gun to deliver something more, much more, as October unfolded. The sterling reputation of this 2010 team, but also the program as a whole, stood in jeopardy of giving way. The aura of resourceful flintiness (or flinty resourcefulness) this program had established over the past several years was beginning to give way to a far more frail feel and texture. Navy football had been synonymous with the fourth-quarter gut check during its rise to college football prominence, but the first four games of 2010 were beginning to suggest a darker and different narrative.

How handy, then, that Navy – revived a little bit by a last-minute win over Wake Forest on Oct. 9 – cemented its resurgence by slithering out of the clutches of the team that has come so close to beating the Midshipmen in recent times. While Ken Niumatalolo presides over a winning locker room and can worry less about motivating his club, the SMU Mustangs have to be muttering to themselves in disgust. That's just the way Navy wants to leave opponents as they hop on a miserable flight out of the state of Maryland.

In 2008, Navy didn't win a nail-biter, but the Mids flummoxed the Mustangs in signature fashion by throwing not one pass in the course of a Ricky Dobbs-led demolition. That pass-free triumph represented Navy's first win over a June Jones-coached SMU crew. In subsequent years, Jones has built SMU into a winning program and the 2010 leader in the West Division of Conference USA. The Mustangs have fully and finally recovered from the 1987 "death penalty" that struck down the program, and they've acquired a winner's mentality under Jones, who led Hawaii to the big stage in the 2007, courtesy of a Sugar Bowl invite.

It was one thing for Navy to beat a sagging and flagging Wake Forest team last week; winning isn't a part of the Demon Deacons' DNA. SMU, on the other hand, is a team that erased two decades of post-death penalty misery in a very short time. Moreover, the Ponies will be hard-pressed to miss this year's C-USA Championship Game, given the quarterback injuries and overall struggles being experienced by their foremost competitors, the Houston Cougars. The notion of foiling Wake Forest was one thing; getting past SMU would have affirmed the mid-course renewal this season for the Men of Ken.

Renewal, confirmed. The Mids completed their second straight Pony expression of excellence against a good SMU team.

Last year, Navy was on the ropes on multiple occasions in suburban Dallas. The Mids fell behind by 14 at halftime but tied the game in the third quarter before gutting out an overtime victory thanks to the defense's ability to stuff the Mustangs on the first possession of overtime. SMU lost a yard and was forced to kick a 43-yard field goal, which the Ponies missed. Navy's Joe Buckley banged through the winner on the next play, and the Mids dug out a 38-35 triumph in the Lone Star State. Let's reiterate that Navy's Houdini act came against an SMU team that went on to throttle Nevada – yes, the same Nevada team that's making strides this year with quarterback Colin Kaepernick – in the 2009 Hawaii Bowl. Navy beat a good opponent 12 months ago. It didn't come back against a bottom-feeder or a tomato can.

Now, once more and with feeling, the Mids have beaten a June Jones outfit that's going to be playing a postseason game… just like Navy will, too.

Yes, it was a story Mids fans are well acquainted with, but a story that never gets old: On Saturday at Memorial Stadium, the same 14-point halftime deficit greeted the Men of Ken. The same slow start marked this matchup with the Mustangs. The first-half flavor of 2009 carried into 2010 against SMU, but blessedly and beautifully, so did the second-half sensation. For the second time in 365 days, Navy – which will always find it easier to play with a lead and not a double-digit deficit – was still able to climb a big hill, limit SMU's defense to just seven second-half points, and claim the upper hand when this tilt hung in the balance.

Last year, SMU tied the game on a touchdown with 1:35 left, and this time around, the Mustangs – trailing late just as they did in 2009 – evened the score on a touchdown with 2:51 to go. A back-and-forth, pendulum-swinging pulse-pounder careened to a clamorous climax, and when SMU got the ball back after forcing a three-and-out from Ricky Dobbs, the Mustangs had to feel good about their chances.

They wouldn't feel good for long. They were going up against the Men of Ken.

Kevin Edwards, Wyatt Middleton and Russ Pospisil – among many, many other players – have stepped into the breach to make clutch defensive plays for Navy over the past few years. Niumtalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green have regularly coached young men who emerge from the shadows to display a defining bit of defense in the dying moments of a fourth quarter stalemate. This year's hero, this year's tormentor of SMU, was Tyler Simmons. The senior linebacker, following a long line of defensive heroes in these Paul Johnson-Ken Niumatalolo glory years, swiped a pass from SMU quarterback Kyle Padron and returned it to the Mustang 13 with 1:55 left. Navy instantly inherited chip-shot field goal position, but when Alexander Teich danced into the end zone two plays later, the Mids owned a seven-point advantage and were able to play the final 1:38 with the knowledge that a touchdown wouldn't (couldn't) beat them. That extra bit of scoreboard leverage enabled Navy to play a lower-risk defense which shut off the big play from Padron's formidable right arm. When SMU got to the Navy 41 on the final play, the Mustangs – shockingly – refused to throw a Hail Mary; they opted for the multi-lateral approach, and when the Mids easily parried that threat aside, another close-shave conquest of SMU was complete.

Beating a losing team (Wake Forest) in dramatic fashion lets you know that you're not about to fall off the cliff. Beating a winning team in a similarly thrilling way indicates that a program's longstanding identity – a gridiron brand built on ballsy, bold brilliance in make-or-break situations – is still very much intact.

Long live Navy football, once again restored to a place of appreciable health in 2010.

GoMids.com Top Stories