Fresh Air Versus Delaware
By all means, let's not think or suggest that the 2011 Midshipmen have it made. FCS opponents, even national runners-up such as the Delaware Blue Hens, should never create that kind of (over)confidence. However, it's also counterproductive to downplay a good performance when you see one, to dismiss a display of excellence when it unfolds on one of 12 precious Saturdays. The dedication to truth, to the naming of reality for what it is, should be paramount in life. Sometimes, the truth is a wicked mistress or a cruel taskmaster.
After one week, the truth for Navy football is a Seals and Crofts music collection. A late-summer breeze has a lot of people feeling fine in Annapolis. The minds of Navy's football players, so burdened by pressure and the weight of accumulated expectations last season, felt mighty fresh on Saturday against Delaware. Clarity and conviction defined this master class, giving rise to the hope that Navy will play with more freedom and liberation in the next three months.
Just what is it about this 40-17 thumping of Delaware that should make Navy fans cautiously but legitimately hopeful, much more so than they had a right to be in the days before kickoff? A number of details come to mind. Let's start with not-too-ancient history.
For one thing, Delaware came into Annapolis four years ago (not 14 or 44 years ago; only four) and stunned the Mids. Of all the teams from the FCS that one can face, Delaware is one of the most formidable in the United States. The Blue Hens are an FCS juggernaut, and they came within a whisker of winning the whole ball of wax last year before falling to Eastern Washington. Delaware is a legit team, and Navy authoritatively spanked it on Saturday… to the tune of 391 rushing yards.
A few more words are in order about the FCS and Delaware's place within it. Do consider the fact that Eastern Washington, the team that did beat the Blue Hens for last year's FCS title, went into Seattle and very nearly upset the University of Washington this past Saturday. A late interception in the red zone was the only thing that kept EWU from notching the massive upset at Husky Stadium. The very best teams in the competitive realm formerly known as Division I-AA are the kinds of teams that have to be taken seriously. Navy hasn't taken these schools seriously in the past, so this plucking of the Hens rates as one of the Mids' sharpest and most mentally engaged performances against an inferior (albeit skilled) opponent. When Navy respects Delaware – a team the Mids have had trouble with over the years – it's clear that the right attitude is filtering through Ken Niumatalolo's practice sessions, locker room talks, and film room study sessions.
Finally, let's recall that Navy barely scraped by against Georgia Southern – also of the FCS – in week two of last year's campaign. Yes, Navy was coming off the short week against Maryland, and yes, the loss to the Terps dragged down the Mids' level of focus, but the point still remains that Navy should have been able to score much more than 13 points against Georgia Southern. This 40-point work of triple-option art against Delaware is yet another indicator that this game gained the Mids' full attention. No looking ahead, no distractedness or boredom, entered the minds of this Navy roster, even though the opponent was not wearing Notre Dame (or Pittsburgh, or Ohio State) colors. That's a great thing to behold and contemplate.
What else made this day so distinctly positive for the Men of Ken? Try the fact that Kriss Proctor, in his first game as the full-fledged starting quarterback for Navy, played brilliantly. A 75-yard touchdown run gave him a taste of big-play potency; his 176 yards rushing will enable him to trust his abilities in the heat of competition over the next 11 weeks of game action. The fact that Proctor ran the ball so many times on his own is something that could potentially lead to problems if done too often during the entirety of the season, but in week one, it's good that Proctor affirmed his ability as a runner. The future can belong to the likes of Alexander Teich, Aaron Santiago, and Gee Gee Greene; the season opener belonged to Proctor, who put his stamp on this offense to the extent that he could. Niumatalolo and Company must love that development.
On defense, Navy did surrender 220 rushing yards to Delaware – that's clearly the biggest point of concern to emerge from this tilt – but the Mids still kept the Blue Hens contained throughout the evening. Allowing a garbage touchdown in the final three minutes of a 30-point game did nothing to detract from Navy's defensive showing; that tack-on score merely inflated Delaware's hollow stats. For all intents and purposes, the Mids conceded just 10 points in their 2011 opener.
Tougher teams await, and grueling fourth quarters lie in store for the Midshipmen. Nevertheless, the way they attacked their first Saturday of the new season – mentally, physically and tactically – suggests that the pressure of 2010 is no longer in existence. Navy has been refreshed, at least for one weekend. May that breeze continue to blow through Annapolis as this football season begins to take shape.
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