Don't Let This Loss Beat You Twice
The number one takeaway from this 24-21 loss in the Palmetto State is a counterintuitive one, but it needs to penetrate the minds of the players in a locker room defined by heartbreak: This was a very positive night for the Mids as a team and a program.
Yes, each and every Navy player should feel an intense, searing sort of pain after spilling the tank yet falling just short at Williams-Brice Stadium against the South Carolina Gamecocks. The upset that Navy pulled against a top-10-dwelling South Carolina team in 1984 was not meant to be this time around. Summoning a mighty effort yet not having the scoreboard result to show for it is one of the cruelties most common to sports, one of the absurdities that is a regular part of any athlete's or coach's career. The sting of this experience is considerable, and it should be. Sports are supposed to hurt in moments of loss, which is precisely why wins should offer consistent cause for elation. This is the grand economy of the games we play (and watch, and analyze): If you sign up for the joy, you sign up for the agony as well. Navy should feel this and absorb it; that's not up for debate.
Here, though, is the point which needs to be affirmed over and over again as the bye week arrives and the preparations begin for the United States Air Force Academy on Oct. 1: While this loss hurts, as it must, it showcased a performance that is worthy of this program and the standards it has set since Paul Johnson began this turnaround at the tail-end of the 2002 season.
In the wake of any loss, the typical – and usually appropriate – response is to talk about the things that could have been done better, the moments that could have been seized more fully, the decisions that could have been different. After most games that don't generate the desired scoreboard result, it's an automatic instinct to ask, "What's deficient?" This is a normal and proper part of human conditioning, so it's not as though it's fundamentally wayward or wrongheaded; anything but. Successful people, in all facets of this absurd life – a life which often fails to reward great effort – grow precisely because they're always wondering how they can get better, how they can grow and develop under any circumstance.
That being the case, the essential epiphany to emerge from Saturday's South Carolina loss is paradoxical. Here's the explanation:
Wise and experienced spiritual teachers, the elders of a tribe with a profound understanding of the rhythms of life, will tell you that on some occasions, silence and stillness are the most valuable allies of the soul. The exasperated utterance, "Don't just stand there, DO SOMETHING!", is turned on its head and changed to, "Don't just do something, sit there." There are occasions in life when an insistence on forward development, accompanied by the need to view a losing performance as somehow deficient, can represent the folly of feeling that something has to be DONE about this situation, this defeat just suffered against the SEC East Division favorite. In this case, the better response from Ken Niumatalolo and his coaching staff is to convey a different sort of message to their players: Don't feel that something has to be done about this loss to Steve Spurrier, Marcus Lattimore, and one very imposing defensive line. Regret the fact that the ballgame wasn't won, but don't regret one ounce of sweat spilled in a magnificent performance. Don't feel that this effort was inadequate in any way, shape or form. It didn't get a notch in the win column, but it was everything the coaches could have hoped for from their roster of determined and untiring athletes.
There was really only one thing – one – that the Mids could have done better on Saturday: Execute the quick-hitting pass to a slot receiver in the middle third of the field. Twice, that pass in the seam was available for a big gainer, and twice, the Navy receiver on the play was unaware of the flight of the ball. Other than that one very specific, micro-level shortcoming, there was (and is, and will be) nothing to regret from Saturday's showing.
You can debate some of these points at a more molecular or granular level, but on balance, they're very hard to refute: Navy executed its triple-option offense with noticeable crispness for much of the night, flustering a South Carolina defense that doesn't get to look at such formations and personnel groupings in the run of SEC competition. The Mids looked sharp for most of the evening, and on separate occasions, quarterback Kriss Proctor converted a third- or fourth-and-long situation (at least 10 yards if not more) with a ballsy pass. On defense, coordinator Buddy Green's boys – playing with the same kind of resolve that got the Mids a huge road win at Notre Dame in 2009 (more on that in a second) – thoroughly contained a talented (albeit inconsistent) Gamecock passing attack. Stephen Garcia never felt comfortable in the pocket, and Carolina's all-world receiver, future NFL paycheck casher Alshon Jeffery, caught just two balls for 35 yards. Navy's secondary was extraordinary in this game.
Why did Navy lose? Well, it's not hard to understand: South Carolina can flex its muscles more than the Gamecocks have ever been able to do since they joined the SEC in 1992. This guy named Lattimore – you might have heard of him – bulldozed his way to 246 yards while the Gamecocks' offensive line leaned on Navy's smaller defensive front. You can talk all you want about loading the tackle box, but if you do that and take risks, Garcia can then find Jeffery in one-on-one isolation routes. Navy had to pick its poison on defense; ultimately, holding this Carolina offense to just 24 points represents a towering feat.
As for the offensive side of the ball, the anatomy of this loss isn't one bit more complicated: Navy's lack of heft in the trenches, while allowing the Mids to be nimble and clever, will be exploited by teams with standout defensive fronts. South Carolina has a top-class defensive line. Jadeveon Clowney and his teammates are beasts, and after getting outmaneuvered by Navy in the first half, the Gamecocks' natural physical advantage took hold. It was impressive enough that Navy mounted a gutsy touchdown drive to take the lead in the final minutes of the third quarter. Experts knew that South Carolina's depth and bulk would literally and figuratively weigh heavily upon the Mids. Navy stayed in this thing until the very end, thanks to a spirit-cheering defensive stand laden with grit and perseverance. The cliché of noble losers really didn't feel like a cliché this time: Navy really did run out of time on its final drive more than anything else.
Here's a final word about this game, relative to the play of the secondary and the win over Notre Dame in 2009, as hinted at earlier: The one team left on the 2011 schedule that might be able to withstand the quality of Navy's performance against South Carolina is Notre Dame. The Irish possess an appreciable degree of playmaking talent and can hold their own at the line of scrimmage. They don't own Marcus Lattimore, but they can throw the ball better than the Gamecocks if they put their minds to it. Therefore, if Navy's secondary plays as well against Notre Dame as it did against Carolina, the Mids will have an excellent chance to pull off a third straight win in South Bend. Ultimately, Navy's display against South Carolina is good enough to beat every team left on the schedule. That's an 11-1 record waiting to be had.
In conclusion, then, this is a performance that should be viewed with great contentment and personal satisfaction by the Mids: The result should be detested and loathed, but the actual effort should be relished. If Navy can simply accept how well it played between the painted lines, and not overextend itself in future games, the Midshipmen will carry the composure needed to replicate this performance.
Navy lost one game to South Carolina. The Midshipmen will allow this game to beat them again only if they think that this performance wasn't something to be proud of. Hate the absurd life result, love the persistent effort in the face of life's absurdities – that has to be the mantra for the Men of Ken over the next two weeks and beyond.
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