Army-Navy Preview: Completing The Mission

The Navy Midshipmen will obviously play the Army Black Knights on Dec. 10 in Landover, Maryland, but as anyone who has followed the Mids this season can tell you, Navy's most formidable opponent is the one it sees whenever it stares into a mirror. Navy will beat Army if it doesn't beat Navy first.


The Army-Navy Game, an American sports classic unlike anything else under the sun, is naturally imbued with a maximum of drama, meaning and importance for both teams, but let's be candid (not that we aim to be less than candid in other moments, of course…) as the week of buildup begins and these teams' two bye weeks fade from view: Army needs this game more.

No, that statement is not a reflection of diminished desire on the part of coach Ken Niumatalolo's roster. Navy wants this game and cherishes it just as much as Army does. Navy will fight and compete with just as much vigor and passion. No one's disputing that, and no one's suggesting otherwise. In terms of the stakes, though, Army undeniably bears more of a competitive burden. A nine-game losing streak in a series with such national and global visibility can (and should) create such pressure. Both teams share the same need to win this contest, but the ways in which they feel that need are so dramatically different. Navy can't enter this game as an underdog, and it can't approach Edition No. 112 of this rivalry with an underdog's mentality. That's Army's role. Navy has to be the big dog at FedEx Field, not the underdog. This is what leads us to our theme in this Annapolis-flavored view of Army-Navy 2011.

The opponent for the Mids is technically the gridiron group from West Point, but if Navy is to flourish once more against the Black Knights, it must find a way to avoid playing two opponents. Navy, you see, has been a tough opponent for Navy in 2011. Navy's kicking game has killed Navy. Navy's inability to complete big-play passes has punched Navy in the gut. Navy's chronic failures inside opponents' 5-yard lines have devastated Navy. This sounds like an old Dan Aykroyd Saturday Night Live skit in which the skilled comedian would make fun of 1996 Republican Party presidential nominee Bob Dole's affinity for the use of the third person when speaking about himself. You can easily imagine Aykroyd saying, "Bob Dole killed Bob Dole on the campaign trail with Bob Dole's mistakes and wooden stump speeches. Bob Dole didn't do Bob Dole any favors. You know it, I know it, and the American people know it. Bob Dole got Bob Dole'd!"

You get the point. Navy has hurt itself quite frequently in this immensely disappointing season. The Mids' sensational eight-year bowl streak came to an end because they simply couldn't get out of their own way for a long-enough period of time. They noticeably slipped in 2010 but still found enough playmaking capability to make a bowl. However, the trends which began in 2010 – committing a key fumble near the goal line or a big penalty in the red zone to blunt an important drive – only worsened this season, and now the Midshipmen will be home for the holidays as a result. This contest against Army is truly the Mids' bowl game, and if Navy doesn't win, it will be an incredibly cold and bitter offseason in Annapolis. Losing this game is simply not an option for the Men of Ken, even though the opponent from West Point is trying to prevent a decade-long losing skid from emerging.

How, then, should Navy approach this game? "Beat Army, not yourself" should be the concise theme, but it's slightly more nuanced than that. The only thing Niumatalolo needs to add when he talks to his players in this week of practice and preparation is that Navy needs to insist on excellence.

We just haven't seen much excellence from Navy this season, certainly not from the offense. Coordinator Buddy Green's defense played magnificently against SMU on the day when the Mids' season appeared to have been saved, but that gem was wasted the following week when quarterback Kriss Proctor – struggling with mesh charge reads and failing to deliver the big pass to an open receiver in moments of truth – came up short in a stunning upset loss at San Jose State. The small bits of brilliance unfurled by Navy in 2011 have quickly been swallowed up by longer stretches of struggle, sloppiness, and generally errant play. As a result, a program that had cultivated a steady stream of excellent results – eight straight years with bowl games and three bowl wins within that streak – faile to qualify for any bowl game at all.

Precisely because this is the last go-round for Navy and its senior class, with no fun bowl trip in the future, the challenge is not just to beat Army; such a goal is too hollow, too lacking in definition and purpose. Navy must strive to be better, to be great, to be excellent, on this piece of real estate just outside the nation's capital city. Navy needs to access the level of quality, the height of competitive precision, that lifted the program to such heights from 2003 through 2010. A program that fell off the cliff these past three months must use its two bye weeks to good effect, turning rest into renewed brilliance so that the table will be set for a return to a bowl game in 2012.

If there's a military-style theme for Navy to adopt as its own during Army Week, it is simply this: Complete the mission. Sustain the block and stay on your man. Carry through the fake. Make the complete read of the defense and be patient enough to allow the play to develop. Throw the accurate pass once the receiver breaks open. Look the ball into your hands as a receiver before turning upfield to run with the rock. Finish plays. Exhibit proper technique all the way through and THEN focus on the next task or the next component of a larger play.

Be excellent. Be great. Put together the complete game that's been missing all season long. If Navy can do this, a lot of the sting of a sub-.500 season goes away. If Navy can't finish plays and lift its level of performance, Army sure won't go away… and a possible upset loss could leave this program in tatters as 2012 comes calling. Bob Dole thinks Bob Dole would agree with that statement.

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