Defending Their Honor

A team that suffered six straight losses and had its heart ripped out of its body could have shrugged its shoulders a few weeks ago and said, "To heck with the 2011 season." Instead, the Navy Midshipmen – especially their defense – refused to give up the ship. As a result, this autumn still possesses a precious portion of possibility in Annapolis.


The hardships and bad breaks, the poor calls and gut punches, the injuries and defensive collapses – they all weighed down a football team and coaching staff for six long weeks. After so many years of success – so many years of seeing the ball bounce the right way, so many years of seeing the right play being made at the right time – Navy's relationship with timeliness (and fortune) grew frosty and distant. The Mids put themselves on the razor's edge in 2011, just as they had done in previous seasons, but when they needed to produce, they didn't. They slipped by that slight yet all-too-noticeable degree which turns a 5-4 season into a 3-6 campaign. The Mids were unquestionably given a raw deal by the arbiters in stripes on a few occasions, but the essential insight to make on that score is that in the past, Navy either led by enough points to shrug off officiating blunders or found a way to blot out an injustice with an even bigger play. This season, that uncanny knack for clutch playmaking vanished under a new quarterback, Kriss Proctor, who had large shoes to fill in the person of Ricky Dobbs and – quite understandably – was not able to rise to the same lofty standard. This season, the fine line between sunshine and shadow – a line which Navy has regularly walked under Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo – was not walked successfully. The change in fortunes and outcomes represented a substantial psychic blow to a locker room that had developed a culture of winning. Many mortal souls would have caved in the face of this realization. Many fragile competitors would have buckled and flinched. The streak of consecutive bowl games in Annapolis was about to end at eight. It was a good run; the past-tense feeling of the season was setting in. It would have been so simple to relax in a resigned way and look ahead to a fresh start in 2012.

Instead, a team and a proud defense made a ringing statement that could be lovingly remembered when the full measure of Ken Niumatalolo's tenure is taken by college football historians.

A week ago, Navy's season was still alive in technical terms, but a tough challenge against the defending champions in Conference USA's West Division figured to put the dream to bed. One week later, however, the dream is still alive. From the ashes of a 2-6 record, a bowl bid is not just possible, but realistic, after a soaring success against Southern Methodist in suburban Dallas
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Just how amazing was this takedown of the Mustangs? It didn't originate on the offensive side of the ball, even though Proctor guided Navy's offense with more crispness and efficiency than in past outings. Navy chewed up the clock, moved the chains, and earned a five-minute time of possession advantage to limit the rhythm of SMU's offense. However, the defining aspect of this season-changing event was clearly the display turned in by coordinator Buddy Green's defense.

You saw the way in which Air Force rolled to a big lead against Navy defenders who looked overmatched and unfocused. You saw how Southern Mississippi simply embarrassed the Mids at Memorial Stadium in an intimidating show of firepower and potency. You saw how Navy got shredded by Dominique Davis of East Carolina and then gave way at Notre Dame. You saw how Navy's defense, particularly its secondary, did not look ready to face a legitimate quarterback guru and offensive playcaller – SMU boss June Jones – who had to have been quietly confident that his Ponies would exploit the Men of Ken in their back line of defense. Instead, the Buddy System – faced with its last immensely imposing test of the 2011 season, yet also the test that Navy had to pass – came through. SMU didn't reach 400 yards of total offense, but what's more is that the Mustangs surrendered two interceptions, converted only 4 of 12 third downs, and didn't produce a single scrimmage play of more than 23 yards. In much the same way that Navy's defense maxed out in the 2009 road win at Notre Dame, this 2011 defense played an A-grade game precisely when the moment demanded it. No sequence was more indicative of the Buddy System's greatness than a late-third-quarter series which tested the fiber of this defense, a defense which did not allow October's misery to linger into November's defining duels.

Late in the third quarter, with Navy leading 17-10, Matt Aiken – the same man who should have been awarded a game-winning touchdown (not by the rulebook, but by the principles of common sense and logic) against East Carolina – muffed a punt to give SMU a drive start deep in Navy territory. In a season of miserable luck and untimely blunders, a Murphy's Law descent into frustration and foul moods, Aiken's turnover figured to be just the tonic SMU needed to tie the game and then take command in the fourth quarter. Navy fans had to be thinking the worst when Aiken lost focus, but that's when Buddy Green's boys defended the honor of a program that can still make a bowl in 2011.

Navy's pass rush was hardly overwhelming, but the Mids didn't take unnecessary chances against SMU quarterback J.J. McDermott. They contained McDermott and at times caved the pocket. They emphasized coverage and did not allow the Ponies' receivers to run freely in open space. The commitment to shutting down the big play forced SMU to be patient, and that's a quality the Mustangs weren't able to bring to this gridiron dance. Navy forced a 4th and 5 at the SMU 20 immediately following Aiken's mistake, and when linebacker Matt Warrick stepped into a passing lane to knock down McDermott's pass, the storm clouds that looked so dark just moments earlier had been dispelled. SMU never again mounted another credible threat, and sure enough, the Mids' drive for a bowl game now breathes with even more life and hope.

SMU, then, has been put to bed. Before concluding this week's visit of Navy football, however, a word about San Jose State is warranted. It's so easy for Navy to feel elated – moreover, the Mids SHOULD allow themselves to feel the joy of passing through this crucible with such poise and prowess. However, when late Wednesday and early Thursday arrive, the Mids need to get their game faces on, mentally prepare for a cross-country flight, and do everything in their power to ensure that they don't play a sloppy or ragged game against the Spartans from the Western Athletic Conference. The Hawaii Warriors – especially since Niumatalolo used to coach for them – could tell you all about San Jose State. The preseason co-favorites in the WAC, alongside Nevada, went to San Jose, California, last month. They expected to win. They had a lot more talent than SJSU did. However, Hawaii committed six turnovers and several other mistakes, and that boatload of errors was just large enough to give San Jose State a 28-27 victory. If Navy plays a disjointed game and doesn't deal with the adjusted body clock created by the Pacific time zone, the meaning of this Southern Methodist game will fade. It was said at the beginning of this column that the triumph over SMU "could" be remembered for a long time. The word "could" is connected to the ability of the Mids to win their next two games. Army can wait. The focus of this locker room, the focus in film study and at practice, needs to be San Jose State. Is that an obvious truth? Of course. However, the fact that it is obvious doesn't mean it shouldn't be emphasized with a great deal of intentionality in the days ahead.

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