A Mental Block
Narratives can and do change with breakneck speed in college football, especially as the wait-and-see month of September turns into the midseason month of October. As the weeks go by, more and more snapshots of a team's personality emerge. The further one proceeds along the path of 12 games, the more one can't ignore the weaknesses which accompany a team's assemblage of strengths. After a 2-1 start and a valiant loss to South Carolina, the outlook was bright for coach Ken Niumatalolo's team, but after two wrenching experiences at Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, the Mids have tumbled to a 2-3 record. Home-not-so-sweet-home has been the scene of more than two season-altering defeats; Memorial Stadium has witnessed the loss of a team's resilience.
One of Navy's trademark virtues since 2002, when Paul Johnson began to build the Mids into a winning outfit, has been resilience. We've seen it so many times. Winning shootouts at Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, slugfests against the Air Force Academy, and a stream of Army games that didn't always flow smoothly have shown how mentally tough the Midshipmen have become. The Men of Ken had knives at their throats against Wake Forest, Temple and SMU, only to wiggle free and walk off the field in exultation. Even in defeats at Ohio State and South Carolina and other schools with power-conference credentials, Navy hasn't given up the ship. The Mids might have been beaten; sometimes, they've suffered ambush losses to inferior teams such as Delaware and Duke at home. However, one thing that's been relatively consistent with Navy football in the Johnson and Niumatalolo years is that the Mids don't wilt. They might overlook inferior squads and play down to the competition; they might lack the passing game or the blocking heft needed to take down top-20 teams residing in the upper echelon of college football. They don't usually crack.
Saturday against the Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles, they cracked. It's hard to come to grips with it, but it's not hard to intellectually understand how it happened. It's there, as plain as day, and now Navy has to do the hard mental work of not merely rebounding from the loss, but strengthening its psychological armor. This is a mentally whipped team which has to regain that trademark resilience, which existed in a classic comeback against Air Force but then got taken away in short order.
Here's what one has to understand in this moment of urgency for Navy football: The terrible Kriss Proctor episode at the end of the Air Force game, a clear injustice which took all the starch out of an amazing comeback effort, didn't officially spell Navy's doom. This made it hard for Navy to feel the frustration of a beaten team after week five.
The Midshipmen still had a 35-yard extra point to kick after that outrageous penalty against Proctor. The kick wasn't a cheap shot, and the special teams unit of 11 men wasn't expecting to deal with a longer try, but nevertheless, a 35-yard kick should be made more often than it's missed. Sure, Air Force gained momentum, and yes, the ball had to be hit at a lower trajectory as a result of the 15-yard flag, but those are relatively minor details. A 35-yard boot should be converted, and Navy couldn't do the deed. The attention to detail which must exist in the kicking game abruptly flew out the window, opening the door for the 35-34 loss that didn't feel like a loss. When the Falcons left Maryland with bragging rights still in their possession, Navy really hadn't given anything away. The Midshipmen stunned their counterparts from Colorado Springs and had Air Force squarely on the run in overtime, only for the officials to (absurdly) intervene. An overtime game is enough of a crapshoot as it is; the fact that outside circumstances worked against Navy made the Air Force game an occasion when the Mids were shortchanged, not comprehensively conquered. This created a very tenuous mindset in the Navy locker room, setting the stage for what unfolded this past weekend.
In light of the fact that the Air Force game went south on a blocked kick, one would have figured that the very next attempted placekick should have been a foremost priority for the Mids in week six. When Jon Teague lined up for a 29-yard kick (shorter than the 35-yard extra point against Air Force) on Navy's first drive of the game, the Mids had a chance to set the right tone, to wash away the subconscious but real sense that they were deprived of a celebration against Air Force. For Navy's kick-protection unit to fall down on the job, and allow not just a block, but a block followed by a return for a touchdown, inserted a dark emotional dynamic into the stadium. The memory of one blocked kick in week five allowed the same event in week six to plant that bad seed, a seed which was never extracted from the Mids' collective mindset. Navy wound up gaining the first 144 yards of this game, flying across the field in the opening minutes, but as soon as Southern Mississippi's defense produced a goal-line stand on Navy's second possession, the Mids' minds were gone. The resolve, the will, the resolute attitude that has characterized this program at its very best – all these intangible virtues fled the premises in a heartbeat.
One should give full credit to Southern Miss, up and down its roster, and compliment the game planning of head coach Larry Fedora. The Golden Eagles flourished on Saturday – they scored at least 14 points in all four quarters and gave Navy's defense its worst outing since the 74-62 game against North Texas in 2007. Yet, the act of complimenting Southern Miss shouldn't somehow mean that Navy was simply beaten by an obviously superior team. The Golden Eagles were far better than the Mids on this afternoon – that's not being debated here – but Southern Miss was not 28 points better than Navy as a matter of natural law. Southern Miss, it's worth pointing out, lost on the road at Marshall and barely scraped by a mediocre (at best) Virginia team on the road, 30-24. This was not a juggernaut heading into Saturday's game, but Southern Miss performed like a juggernaut during the course of competition in Annapolis.
The conclusion is simple and clear, even if it can't be proven in the same way that two plus two equals four: Navy cracked. The wall of mental strength this program has maintained over many years gave way on Saturday. The proof? The Mids have lost three in a row for the first time since 2002, when this puzzle was just beginning to be figured out by Paul Johnson.
You can pore over the game film and study keys, but at the end of the day, this is a mentally broken team… no, not permanently; no, not chronically, but right now, in the present tense. Navy has to work hard on blocking, tackling, and on protecting placekicks, but the Mids have to work on their wounded minds more than anything else. Without a fully restored sense of resilience, an unshakable belief in their ability to surmount any obstacle, the Mids will remain shaken in 2011. That means they could fail to reach a bowl game under such a scenario.
Writers have writer's block. Athletes can acquire a mental block. The Navy football team has arrived at such a point of peril. This is fixable, and it need not linger, but it exists at the present moment, and it has to be eradicated in short order if this season is to amount to much of anything.
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