Time To Pony Up

A few years ago, the Troy Trojans would have been a load for the Navy football team, but the former Sun Belt champions are but a shadow of what they used to be. The focus for coach Ken Niumatalolo's team must immediately turn to Southern Methodist University, for it is against the Mustangs that Navy's season will take its most decisive turn.

Yes, the Navy Midshipmen finally put an end to their six-game losing streak on Saturday. Yes, the Men of Ken threw down a 28-point second quarter en route to a comfortable victory which breathed an aura of good feeling into a locker room for the first time since September. Yes, quarterback Kriss Proctor played and played well, generating enough juice on his throws to hit the big-play passes Navy will need over the remainder of its season. Yes, coordinator Buddy Green's defense played a letter-perfect first half and cleansed a bad taste from its mouth after the rough go of it in South Bend, Indiana, against Notre Dame.

Now, though, the brief bit of euphoria flowing from a return to the win column can – and must – quickly subside. Army is the game of the year for Navy, as is the case each December, but the game which will in many ways define the 2011 campaign is upon us right now: Saturday's trek to suburban Dallas to take on Southern Methodist. It is this pigskin passion play against the Ponies which will take the measure of the Mids and offer the pivot point to promise or, on the dark side of the moon, disaster.

Army is obviously not a piece of cake – the Mids never should and never will treat that game as such – but the reality of Navy's situation is plain as the boys get ready to travel to Texas. If Navy can topple SMU, it will be a clear favorite to beat San Jose State and then encounter Army with a 5-6 record. Navy could then reach the six-win mark, punch its ticket to a bowl game, and maintain the postseason streak that has made the past eight years of Annapolis football one of the golden ages in this program's existence. The stakes aren't Army-level high, but they're quite substantial for every member of this team.

First, just contemplate what Navy's been through this season. The Mids were jobbed on a non-contact penalty against Air Force, wiping out an incredible comeback that should have been the lead story of that afternoon at Memorial Stadium. The late blocked field goal suffered against Rutgers offered a painful reminder that chronic kick-protection problems can carry such far-reaching consequences, especially when they're not resolved. A faulty and deficient provision of the college football rulebook and its attendant points of emphasis sank the Mids against East Carolina, robbing this typically plucky team at the tail-end of yet another ballsy comeback, this one waged with backup quarterback Trey Miller under center. By all rights, Navy – in a just and fair world – should be 5-4 heading to Texas, but instead, the Mids are 3-6 and hanging on for dear bowl life. They're not eliminated from the bowl chase, but they have run out of any margin for error.

That last fact – the absence of any cushion – is what makes this SMU game such an opportunity for everyone on this roster. If the poor officiating, the blocked kicks, and the six-week series of disappointing losses can somehow be overcome in the form of yet another bowl bid, Navy will have found a way to turn this season of trial into the latest, greatest demonstration of this program's vitality and resilience. Ambushing SMU would smooth and straighten the path to an unexpected November revival… a revival that could lead to another late-December game on ESPN or ESPN2 in a Southern locale. So much can be gained in one game. A win against SMU would compensate for so many sins and wash away so many heartaches from the first half of this season. This game gives Navy a chance to recapture so much of what has been lost, often for reasons not pertaining to Navy's football acumen and skill.

How will Navy be able to beat SMU? The Mids will, for one thing, need to hit the big-play passes that Proctor tossed against Troy. SMU handled Central Florida's run-first attack in Conference USA but got whacked by pass-first teams from Southern Mississippi and Tulsa. Navy needs to put SMU's defense on a pendulum and find the combination of versatility and aggression which can pry open downfield gains and big-play opportunities. On defense, Navy needs to vary its looks in the secondary; SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott has been an up-and-down signal caller this year in relief of opening day starter Kyle Padron. McDermott is interception-prone; Navy needs to rush up the middle and rattle him early on. SMU's offensive line can be punched in the mouth, so the Mids must be able to throw all their fury at the Mustangs in the first half, hopefully setting the stage for a multi-possession lead at halftime.

The game plan will come into focus as this week unfolds, but right now, the general outlines of this game can be seen on a general level. With that having been said, none of those X-and-O considerations will mean much if Navy starts slowly, as it has been known to do this year. Niumatalolo must insist on the best possible effort from his team, treating this contest as something of a mini-bowl game (without the extended time off, of course). If the Mids answer their coach's call, they will have done something which could turn a season of poverty into a season of redemption.

Wouldn't that be rich, a payment worth accepting? It's time to Pony up so that Navy can hit the jackpot in return.

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