Broken, But Not Fractured
Some things in life get broken but can be put together again. Other things in life fracture and never really recover from a moment of poignant and poisoned partition. For the Navy football team, a moment of brokenness undeniably occurred this past weekend in Bowling Green, Kentucky, but the Midshipmen emerge from their 40-14 win over Western Kentucky with a sense of unity that's very much intact. Everything that happened between the painted white lines at L.T. Smith Stadium reinforced the very reality that will keep coach Ken Niumatalolo's club in good stead as it prepares for a visit to South Carolina this upcoming Saturday.
Through two games, one can't say enough good things about the way in which the Mids are competing. That freshness, verve and swagger which were often missing from 2010's pressure-laden season have returned to the Men of Ken. Yes, Western Kentucky is a lower-tier Sun Belt Conference program that did not figure to topple Navy, but a few details quickly show that this performance was still an above-average outing for this team, better than what one might have been led to expect.
First of all, Navy lost Aaron Santiago, its dependable running back, to a broken arm suffered late in the first half. The injury – which will sideline Santiago for the rest of his senior season – led Niumatalolo to get choked up in his postgame press conference. The loss will undeniably limit the depth in Navy's backfield, but of course, the most significant thing is that a fine young man's football career is likely over… including his career as a participant in the Army-Navy game. It couldn't have been easy for the Mids to maintain their concentration in the second half, but that's exactly what they did, limiting WKU to one solitary score after the intermission. The arm of Aaron Santiago is broken, but the Mids had his back, and that's exactly what a coaching staff wants to see from its roster.
It's also worth saying that Western Kentucky, for all its manifest weaknesses, is a program that is learning how to compete. Winless in 2009 and the owner of only two wins in 2010, the Hilltoppers started their 2011 season in a manner that earned them a great deal of respect. Playing Kentucky – not a great opponent, but a program that has reached a bowl game more often than not over the past six years – Western Kentucky limited the Wildcats to under 200 yards while plucking three takeaways from UK. The Hilltoppers showed a lot of backbone under head coach Willie Taggart, so much so that one of their defensive stalwarts, a man named Andrew Jackson, created a lasting memory that will linger throughout the rest of the 2011 season. On national television – with the cameras rolling and the microphone live – Jackson said of Kentucky, "They supposed to be SEC." Kentucky was supposed to live in a much higher rent district and inhabit a far more successful dwelling than WKU. However, Western Kentucky fought tooth and nail for four quarters, allowing precious little to Kentucky's offense in a game that was closer than the final 14-3 margin.
For a Navy team that has let down its guard in the past – against Duke, against Central Michigan, against Georgia Southern and others – this trip to Hilltopper Country was a test of this team's focus, of its willingness to enjoy competition against lower-tier opponents. This was as much a fight with boredom and staleness as it was a fight with Western Kentucky. The fact that South Carolina loomed in week three only made this more of a trap game for the Midshipmen.
My, how they passed this test.
A 410-yard rushing performance indicates that the Mids' offense was – and is – right on schedule. Kriss Proctor might have completed only three passes on Saturday night, but they all gained at least 27 yards while two of them went for touchdowns. The mixture of relentless consistency and big-play fireworks is the ultimate goal of the triple-option offense. Navy's back-to-back 40-point performances show that this machine is humming. John Howell's 50- and 57-yard touchdown bolts show that he can be a worthy successor to Santiago. The whole is intact despite the loss of a precious and valuable part.
Navy's defense is also getting the job done. In light of the fact that Western Kentucky's second of touchdown didn't occur until this game was well out of reach, it can be said that coordinator Buddy Green's group allowed only one score of any appreciable (and as it turned out, quite temporary) consequence. Allowing just 277 yards – an average of 69 per quarter – will get the job done on any gameday when turnovers don't flow from the Mids' offense. On Saturday, Navy did lose three fumbles, but that only made the performance of the Buddy System even more admirable. Naturally, Navy can't hope to keep pace with South Carolina if it loses three fumbles, but the ingredients of an upset – or at the very least, a robust challenge to the SEC East favorite – are there in the mixing bowl, ready to be combined.
Aaron Santiago will sadly not be part of that mixture, but this hounding of the Hilltoppers – like the previous week's dispatching of Delaware – indicates that Navy is quite capable of making a run at the Gamecocks. This football family needs to spend a few more days lamenting the injury of a trusted and valued teammate, but as kickoff grows nearer this upcoming weekend in the Palmetto State, Navy can know that while it is broken, it is anything but fractured. That's a great thing to know before venturing into an intimidating SEC lair.
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