2011 Navy Preview: Steady the Ship

The first thing that needs to be said about the Navy football program is that if a 9-4 season represents half a step backward, life is really good. The second thing that needs to be said is that the 2010 campaign could not have been viewed as a step forward, or even a straight lateral movement. Navy did slip last season – not by much, but it happened. How can the Mids mend their ways in 2011?

Was it the pressure of high expectations? Was it the restlessness of wanting to do something bigger, even though a BCS bowl wasn't a realistic goal? Was it the preseason tension of knowing that a 12-0 regular season was attainable? All those things seemed to sneak up on the Navy football team last year, taking Ricky Dobbs out of his comfort zone against Maryland and Air Force. All those forces took the Mids out of their psychological sweet spot. Navy didn't need to go 11-1 or 12-0 to be "Navy" last season, but the 2010 Mids weren't quite the outfit we've become accustomed to (and spoiled by).

The fact that Navy lost four games last year wasn't the problem; it was the way the Mids lost three of their four contests (San Diego State was simply better in the Poinsettia Bowl). The goal-line fumbles against Maryland? That wasn't Navy. The crucial holding penalty on the Dobbs scramble that got the Mids near the Air Force goal line, in position to take the lead? That wasn't Navy. The spectacular collapse of coordinator Buddy Green's defense against the unheralded Sean Renfree and a lowly Duke offense? That was not Navy.

For some programs looking to make a bowl game, the win-loss record is the only thing that matters. Schools that have been in the college football wilderness for 15, 20, 25 years – the Baylors, the Louisiana-Monroes, the Syracuses – need to be 7-5 instead of 5-7. For other programs that expect to make BCS bowls and bring postseason cash to their conferences – the Alabamas, the USCs, the Oklahomas of the world – the record is also the bottom line. Being an ugly 11-1 is far more important than being a pretty 9-3.

For Navy, it's different.

For the Mids and other teams who have established a track record of success but can't play in BCS bowl games because of their place in the sport's food chain, it's better to play well and lose games nobly against tough opponents than to play poorly against mediocre teams and leave behind a sense of what might have been. The best feature of Navy football in its rise to prominence over the past several years is that it regularly delivers high-level performances. The machine-like quality of the triple option, the ability to execute basic plays again and again under pressure, is what built the foundation of the Mids' ascendancy. Mixing the fullback with the rocket toss, the quarterback keeper with the late pitch, the well-timed pass with the use of misdirection, created this magical period in the life of Annapolis football.

To put a finer point on all this, Navy didn't reinvent the wheel under Paul Johnson and now Ken Niumatalolo. A coaching staff taught its players how to work within a system, and it found the leaders – Candeto, Kaheaku-Enhada, Owens, and Dobbs – who could keep the trains (and fullbacks) running on time. Buddy Green hasn't revolutionized the sport in his years with the Midshipmen, but he's worked his tail off and inspired his players to produce quality every time they take the field. Navy is not a white-collar success story in 21st-century college football. The Men of Ken are a blue-collar success story, a testament to the connection between hard work and a high-level product. In 2010, the work ethic might not have dipped, but the attention to detail suffered. The level of concentration certainly declined. Week-to-week steadiness was not in evidence last season, not the way it existed in previous years.

Sure, Navy has struggled against the Delawares of the world (hello, 2011 season opener!) while maxing out against Notre Dame, but on a 12-week basis, other assemblages of Midshipmen were more dependable, more reliable, more in command of themselves and their surroundings. The jarring missteps against Maryland and Duke were unexpected because they were so markedly uncharacteristic of this program. Air Force was more of a true team loss (the Falcons played great defense that day in Colorado Springs, as they wrested the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy from the Mids), but even then, the holding penalty that wiped out what would have been a likely touchdown (on what could have been a first-and-goal inside the Air Force 5-yard line) represented a marked departure from the norm under Ken Niumatalolo and Company. In 2011, Navy doesn't have to win 11 or 12 games (nine regular-season wins plus a bowl win sounds about right), but it does have to prevent the leakage of 2010's not-so-airtight moments. It's time to steady the ship and return to the cornerstone of consistency.

Last year was a whiplash-inducing experience on fall Saturdays. The same team that was somnambulant for 40 minutes against Duke then uncorked a 41-point beatdown of an East Carolina squad that probably would have beaten Duke in a head-to-head matchup. The same Navy team that displayed a typically flinty defense in the month of September was shockingly eviscerated in the back end of the season. A mediocre Central Michigan offense without legendary college quarterback Dan LeFevour (the man who led CMU to three Mid-American Conference titles from 2006-2009) somehow lit up the Mids for 37 points and came within a made conversion of victory in Annapolis. It's true that Navy doesn't normally dominate opponents, but what made last year different is that Navy beat itself more than we've come to expect.

In the larger context of college football, Navy is a comparatively under-resourced program that maximizes what it has to offer, and wins precisely because it leaves nothing on the field. Last year, though, Navy left points on the gridiron – defensively as well as on offense. This isn't going to be a more dynamic football squad compared to 2010, but maybe that's precisely what will allow the Midshipmen – surrounded by less fanfare – to execute more crisply this autumn.

Navy wasn't Navy in 2010. Maybe this year, the Midshipmen will return to their more normal selves. Their steadier selves.

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