More Than The Laws Of Averages
After a run as impressive as the one turned in by Navy football from 2003 through 2009, it's perfectly reasonable to contemplate both the 2010 season and the current 2011 campaign and say in response, "Well, the laws of averages swing back at some point. You can't live on the right side of the divide forever. Living on the edge carries its own set of risks. The regression to the mean is a fact of existence. It's a part of life." USC's run under Pete Carroll couldn't last forever. Neither could Miami's runs in the 1980s and early 2000s (and those were fueled by a lot of NCAA violations, as we now know). Texas has been knocked off its perch. Ohio State's program lies in ruins after a decade of excellence under Jim Tressel. Michigan got knocked off the rails during the Rich Rodriguez years. Success and prosperity are not interrupted birthrights; they rise and fall, they wax and wane. One year, the music will stop playing. The party winds down. The giddiness subsides.
In 2010 but especially now, one could say that this is what's happening to Navy football.
Just look at the ways in which the Midshipmen have lost games over the past 14 months. The Maryland season-opener in 2010 was a game in which Navy continuously marched inside the opponent's 5-yard line… and failed to score. The Mids' recent losses to Southern Mississippi and Rutgers have involved spectacular flameouts inside an opponent's 5-yard line. Last year's loss to Air Force was in many ways the product of a penalty committed at the worst possible time, a holding penalty on a play when quarterback Ricky Dobbs scrambled for a first down to the Air Force 6-yard line. This year's loss to Air Force was in many ways the product of that haunting "unsportsmanlike conduct" (cough, cough, COUGH!) penalty on Kriss Proctor… a horrible call by the officials, but a penalty nonetheless. Navy used to win most of these close games, the steady stream of happy Houdini acts against Temple (Russ Pospisil) and Southern Methodist (Dobbs) and Air Force (blocked punts in Colorado Springs, late field goals in Annapolis). Now, however, late-game magic and a consistent ability to pull close contests out of the fire are sitting in other corners.
LSU and Auburn seem to win every close game they play. Kansas State is tap dancing through minefields. Clemson, after living through misery almost every autumn, has led a charmed existence to this point in the 2011 season. Some years are blessed, others are cursed, and it's the long run which manifests true excellence. Navy has already authored and owned that excellence, but in the past two years – this one especially – the fun has ended.
It's really not an unreasonable thing to believe. Moreover, it's true in many ways. Navy has never been – in these Paul Johnson-Ken Niumatalolo years – a dominant force. The Mids have uncorked some dominant performances, the Texas Bowl win over Missouri being a case in point, but they haven't stepped onto a field against BCS conference opponents (such as Rutgers) knowing that they were three or four touchdowns better. The fact that Navy knows it will play close games on almost every Saturday (in other words, in every non-cupcake game) means that the Mids have sat on a precarious perch for quite some time. Since the Maryland opener in 2010, the Men of Ken haven't enjoyed the same comfort level which existed in prior years, when the team achieved at a higher level relative to its capabilities.
There's just one problem with this larger line of thought. There's one chink in the armor of the "well, the fun simply ended this year" argument. It is this: Navy is losing because of one very preventable and fixable deficiency: protecting field goals (or medium-length extra points). The inability of this team to correct one not-very-complex problem represents a reason why, no, this season is not just "the laws of averages evening out."
It is sobering and infuriating at the same time: For three straight weeks, Navy has allowed a blocked placekick to severely impact a game it ultimately lost. Air Force gained overtime leverage with a block of a Navy kick; Southern Mississippi shattered Navy's belief with a block of a Navy field goal on Oct. 8; this past Saturday, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights put the Midshipmen to bed by blocking a 34-yard field goal with just under five minutes left in regulation. Proper kick protection would have given Navy a better-than-even-money shot at beating Air Force, and if the Mids had won that game, their psyches wouldn't have been so shattered when the early stage of the Southern Miss contest, when Murphy's Law emerged in full color and ghastly detail. Now, Niumatalolo and his coaching staff are left to contemplate the fact that Navy would have taken a late lead against Rutgers if it could have executed one more field goal from snap to hold to kick. The 34-yard boot wouldn't have guaranteed victory, but it would have put the Midshipmen in position to win. Two failures in two weeks from the placekick protection unit? That's hard enough to contemplate. A three-pack of inadequacy? That's Twilight zone territory.
What makes this episode against Rutgers even more gut-wrenching is that this was a 34-yard kick, not a 44-yard or 54-yard kick. Jon Teague didn't need to drive the ball at a lower trajectory – he didn't need to worry about distance, only lift. Shorter kicks shouldn't be nearly as vulnerable to blocks, but Navy's eleven-man gang has been finding ways to let kick rushers burst through the line. As a result, what could realistically be a 4-2 season is instead a 2-4 season, with bowl eligibility in serious jeopardy.
Yes, Navy's other mistakes also played a role in this loss. Brandon Turner breathed life into Rutgers with his double-bobble-turned-interception. The Navy secondary allowed crushing third-and-long conversions in the second half against the Scarlet Knights' passing attack. So many plays could have swung this game in Navy's favor, but the reality of a blown field goal protection scheme – yet again – is what will linger in the public memory. Navy didn't have to make every play; it merely needed to solve one aspect of this complex puzzle called football.
The Midshipmen couldn't. As a result, it seems like a cop-out to shrug the shoulders and say, "It's just the law of averages evening out." That's hollow. The laws of averages say that field goals (or long extra points) should not be blocked three weeks in a row. We'll see if Navy can tend to that and other game-deciding details in the weeks ahead.
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