Nevertheless, a partisan who cheers for the Midshipmen every Saturday should be allowed to feel a certain degree of discomfort after a game that was far closer than anyone anticipated.
Just what in the name of heaven is going on around here? That's what head coach Ken Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green have to be asking after a creaky and crack-filled defense surrendered 37 points on Saturday afternoon to the Central Michigan Chippewas at Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. Yes, the Mids stood tall on a 2-point conversion to earn a raucous 38-37 win when all was said and done, and yes, this sure beats the tar out of 6-4, but after another home game met a less-than-inspiring performance, one has to wonder why consistency – regular, weekly excellence and high-level output on both sides of the ball – is proving to be so gosh-darn elusive for the Men of Ken?
Of course, this year did not figure to provide smooth sledding for a Navy defense that was younger, thinner and generally less imposing than its recent predecessors. Green and the rest of the Midshipmen's defensive coaching staff knew they'd have to coach up some less-than-proven players in 2010. That's understood and accepted through and through. What's alarming, though, as the season winds toward next week's clash with Arkansas State, is that this defense is actually regressing relative to the start of the season. Weakness is acceptable, but a lack of improvement is not. On a day which confounded the college football cognoscenti, the extent of Navy's defensive breakdown needs to be addressed.
Despite the win, here's the unfortunate aspect of the Midshipmen's defensive outing on home turf in the state of Maryland: We should be talking about backup quarterback Kriss Proctor's ballsy and brilliant performance in place of concussed signal caller Ricky Dobbs. We should be sitting here lauding Proctor – a man who has regularly answered the bell for Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper over the years. We should emphasize the extent to which Proctor – who rushed for 201 yards on 20 carries against Central Michigan – has always been ready to step in on a moment's notice and lend stability to Navy's attack. We should note and then underscore (in big, bold letters) Proctor's essential role in allowing Midshipmen to remain both a threat and a force in college football and, more specifically, among the ranks of non-automatic-qualifying teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Yet, instead of all that, we are forced to wonder what's wrong with Navy's defense.
You will note that the Duke offense which posted 34 points against the Mids in Annapolis a few weeks ago got shut down by Boston College this past weekend. The Blue Devils were limited to just 16 points by the Eagles while getting stuffed in the red zone time and again. If Boston College can contain Duke, what does it say about Navy's defense that it couldn't pen in quarterback Sean Renfree and the rest of a less-than-fully-proven Duke attack?
It stands to reason, then: If that performance from Oct. 30 against the Dukies was an aberration and not a clear indicator of Navy's defensive well-being, Central Michigan needed to be smothered this past Saturday. Instead, the Chippewas (Chips for short) cracked open the code of the Buddy (Green) System, prying loose the Navy secondary with far too much ease and expertise.
After being shredded for 394 passing yards by not-that-proven CMU quarterback, Ryan Radcliff, Navy's back line of defense must go back to the drawing board. It's a portrait of discouragement which stands in contrast to the happiness which should ordinarily prevail following a victory. That's no fun at all, but this fun-free perspective has to take precedence over Proctor's prime-time performance, sad as it may be to say so. There's just no excuse for Navy's defense – in November, mind you – to allow at least 34 points in three straight games against Duke, East Carolina, and now Central Michigan. That's just not going to get the job done against better opponents, this year or in 2011, so the point should be emphasized now rather than later. Niumatalolo and Green, plus the other defensive coaches, will have to become especially serious in the film room this week so that Arkansas State – with a mobile and crafty quarterback, Ryan Aplin – doesn't slip through the Mids' defensive fingers the way Radcliff did on Saturday.
To illustrate the problems facing Navy's defense, let's indeed consider the meaning of Ryan Radcliffe's big game for a moment. Central Michigan's signal caller – who went 36-of-58 for 394 yards passing and three touchdowns without a pick against the Midshipmen – has not enjoyed a particularly good first season in Mount Pleasant, Michigan. It's Radcliff's predecessor who terrorized the rest of the Mid-American Conference and anyone else who was willing to oppose the Chips on the gridiron.
Indeed, the man who came before Ryan Radcliff is the man who made Central Michigan relevant on the football field again. Dan LeFevour rewrote the CMU and MAC record books. The plucky and mobile field general led the Chippewas to three conference titles in his four seasons under center; that's the most important effect of a quarterback's on-field presence. Moreover, though, LeFevour owned the stats and hard numbers – raw, production-based, hard-data gems – that could prove his worth in a more tangible way. In his 2009 senior season, LeFevour became the Mid-American Conference's all-time leader in total offense for a full career. He currently holds MAC records for career completions, attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns, total touchdowns, and total offensive yards. LeFevour is the only player in NCAA history with over 12,000 passing yards and 2,500 rushing yards, and is currently in second place on an all-time level in terms of total offensive yards. LeFevour owns the FBS record for total touchdowns with 150, and he's also one of just two quarterbacks (a guy named Vince Young is the other) who have thrown for 3,000 yards in a season while rushing for 1,000 yards as well. If Navy had been eviscerated by LeFevour, there would have been absolutely no shame in giving up 37 points. None. At. All.
However, being cut apart by Ryan Radcliff is entirely another matter. Radcliff entered this contest after four distinctly rough outings in which he threw eight interceptions against just four touchdowns. The Mid-American Conference does not feature particularly speedy or imposing secondaries, so the reality of Radcliff's struggles is even worse than the stats might indicate. Radcliff was playing lousy football as he accompanied his teammates on the trip from Michigan to the Atlantic seaboard; the fact that he got healthy and kick-started his season against Navy's defense should be galling and very unacceptable to this team's defense. The nature of the Mids' defensive breakdown is something which defies honest description. It's startling enough that it makes Kriss Proctor's resourcefulness seem like a minor piece of the overall game story.
Is it strange that Mr. Proctor should be so manifestly overshadowed in a moment of victory? Yes. Has this Navy season been anything but strange at virtually every step along the way? Absolutely. Don't expect normalcy or any reversion to low-key common sense as long as the 2010 college football campaign continues for the Men of Ken. Applaud the victory over Central Michigan? Yes. And that's about it. An up-and-down team which continues to mystify fans and pundits alike must access the ability to follow one strong outing with another.
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