The Rally That Didn't Last
When Jabaree Tuani scooped up a lateral and set up a touchdown in the early stages of the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium, the young men who play football for the United States Navy Academy had legitimate reason to hope, legitimate cause to think that they could fight for 60 minutes and carry a chance to win into the final stages of regulation time. The first eight weeks of the 2011 college football season might have been one unending version of Murphy's Law, but against Notre Dame, the Midshipmen and coach Ken Niumatalolo have shown us that they can regularly deliver the goods.
Ever since Niumatalolo took charge of this program in 2008, Navy has not only stood toe to toe with the Fighting Irish; the Mids actually won two out of three games, an amazing thing to contemplate in light of the fact that the Irish won 43 straight meetings between the two schools before Navy's win in 2007 snapped the streak. Navy's one loss to Notre Dame under Niumatalolo, the 2008 game played in Baltimore, was eerily reminiscent of the furious comeback one month ago against the Air Force Academy, a dizzying fourth-quarter scramble that almost stole a victory after three quarters of subpar ball. The pattern was clear as the 2011 renewal of this treasured series arrived: Navy always gave Notre Dame a game. Win or lose, the Mids made the Irish sweat bullets for 60 minutes, announcing their presence to college football's most storied program. Therefore, when Navy punched back at the Irish early in the second quarter after getting whacked in the first stanza, the Midshipmen's sideline had to be filled with belief and vigor. There was reason to think that after breaking the ice and getting on the scoreboard, Navy could create a contest against a Notre Dame team that did not have much time to prepare for the triple option.
There was even more reason to think that Navy could remain in the thick of the fray until the dying moments of the fourth quarter: Notre Dame was one psychologically damaged and spiritually ravaged team heading into this game. Not only had the Irish lost the previous week, they got knocked out of BCS bowl contention by one of their foremost rivals in a rare South Bend night game. The Irish's backup quarterback, opening day starter Dayne Crist, coughed up a confidence-shattering fumble that turned the game around. The team's October starter, Tommy Rees, wasn't much more efficient, and as a result, the Irish lost hold of so many hopes and goals. A dark could descended over the program, and coach Brian Kelly spent the past week throwing many of his players – especially Crist and the larger category of players he did not recruit – under a very large bus. Upperclassmen from the Charlie Weis era took exception to Kelly's comments, making Notre Dame a walking version of Team Turmoil. When Navy dented the scoreboard early in the second quarter, the seeds were planted for yet another Annapolis revival against the revered football program that has had few iconic moments to point to in recent years.
Sure, Navy took to the gridiron with a backup quarterback, Trey Miller. Sure, Navy had to bear the burden of placekicking woes and the knowledge of a string of gut-wrenching defeats throughout an October straight from pigskin hell. Sure, Navy wasn't going to gain as many yards as the Fighting Irish. However, Notre Dame gained over 500 yards in each of its first two games of 2011, yet still lost to both South Florida (a bad team) and a good-but-not-great Michigan squad. Even with Navy's limitations and heartaches, the formula for a competitive game had appeared. Navy had its puncher's chance. The Men of Ken had played 19 minutes, and they hadn't been knocked to the canvas. In past years, a surge would have swept away Notre Dame while carrying the Midshipmen to new heights. All the boys in visiting white jerseys had to do was access that psychological strength once more.
Instead, every Navy partisan was reminded why this season has been different from every other campaign since 2003, the year when bowl bids began to be a part of life in Annapolis. No, Navy did not nip at Notre Dame's heels for 60 minutes. Not even 45. Not even 30. It's sad, but true: By the time the first half ended, Navy's breakthrough touchdown early in the second quarter had turned into a blip, an aberration on an otherwise clean sheet for a Notre Dame team that used accumulated anger in a healthy way, not a destructive one.
The clarity of the situation – and the events which created it – was painfully plain for the Mids: After their touchdown, Notre Dame scored in just two minutes to retake a 14-point edge at 21-7. Then, a botched kickoff return gave Notre Dame the ball and set up another touchdown which granted the Irish a 28-7 stranglehold. All the energy, zest and optimism that pervaded the Navy sideline in South Bend vanished, and when halftime mercifully arrived, sportswriters were writing the bulk of their game stories. Notre Dame led, 35-7, and Navy's afternoon held no more promise, no more possibility.
Most of Navy's losses this season, as you well know, have been excruciatingly close and painful. Now, however, there's yet another blowout to accompany the 63-35 cave-in against Southern Mississippi. It's hard enough to keep coming back to the field when hard work goes unrewarded in a razor-close defeat. It's even more difficult to carry on when games are decided by bad calls – the Kriss Proctor penalty against Air Force – or bad rules such as the one that gave the officials cause to deny Matt Aiken a touchdown against East Carolina. This sad Saturday against Notre Dame is little more than human nature in action; normal people would be – should be – worn down by the kind of season the Mids have had to this point. The mental dam was going to break again, and it did for the Mids in the state of Indiana.
In the past, Navy rallies have owned some staying power, a true finishing kick. The rally Navy briefly made this past weekend against Notre Dame is a rally that didn't last. Such is life in the upside-down world the Midshipmen inhabit on the gridiron this season. They just have to find some mental freshness so that they can finish the final third of their campaign in style.
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