Fight Hunger Bowl: The Eats of San Francisco
This was a year for defense in Annapolis. Buddy Green continued to earn his paycheck as Navy's defensive coordinator by getting his players to hold the line in numerous white-knuckle situations. Navy's defense performed under pressure on several occasions in 2012, and moreover, Gang Green had to do so in games that featured less than substantial production from Ivin Jasper's offense. The Indiana game was the exception that proved the rule, but against Air Force, Florida Atlantic, Texas State, and then against Army, it was the defense that answered the call on a regular basis.
The injury to quarterback Trey Miller caused this offense to be a step behind its preferred pace for much of the season. The Midshipmen were not able to attain the levels of continuity and point production that head coach Ken Niumatalolo was hoping for. Yes, the entire Navy coaching staff did a tremendous job to coax eight regular-season wins out of this team, but the point remains that this offense was not in position to max out for most of the season.
As the nation got to see against Army on Dec. 8, Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds has been a blessing for the program and a stabilizing player who has managed a difficult situation with uncommon poise for a freshman. Yet, it's still true that Reynolds has had to endure all sorts of very necessary growing pains at quarterback. Navy's offense was behind schedule this season because… it is supposed to be behind schedule. A football team's offense is supposed to suffer when the No. 1 quarterback goes down and a freshman backup is the next man up on the depth chart. This offense hasn't deserved much of any criticism for its shortcomings for a very obvious reason: injuries create shortcomings. That point seems pretty clear.
It sets the stage for the 2012 Fight Hunger Bowl against Arizona State.
By the time the ball is kicked off in San Francisco, Reynolds, Jasper and Niumatalolo will have had three weeks in which to plan, practice and prepare for this game. The Midshipmen can install gadgets and exotics and wrinkles. They can fine-tune their triple-option package and their passing package. After getting three weeks off before the "regular season bowl" against Army, they can collaborate on yet another plan for Arizona State, on the opposite side of the United States and removed from the pressure of the Army-Navy Game. This is a situation in which Navy is set to thrive, a situation in which an offense that remained under wraps for the non-East Carolina portion of this season can really let loose.
Let's place an extra degree of emphasis on the notion that Navy won't feel much of any pressure in this game. Simultaneously playing for an 11-game winning streak over Army and the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy involves a lot of pressure. Every Navy senior class is taking the field against Army in this present age with the burden of knowing that if it doesn't answer the bell on the second Saturday of December, it will become the first senior class in Annapolis to lose a game to Army since the Class of 2001. That's a heavy weight to carry. This Navy team endured that crucible on Dec. 8, and it also won back the CIC Trophy, bringing it to the Naval Academy for the first time since 2009. It is not pro-Navy spin or wishfully optimistic sunshine-pumping to say that the pressure is off Navy in this game. No, it is a plain point of reality that the Midshipmen have locked up their most important and coveted achievements for the season. A win in the City By The Bay against a middle-tier Pac-12 foe would not bring the Midshipmen the stature, glory, and gridiron immortality they fully earned in Philadelphia against West Point. That's levelheaded and clear-eyed realism, the exact antithesis of wishful thinking.
It only makes sense for Navy to go after this game with a no-holds-barred approach. Teams that have little to lose should be freewheeling in the first place, but the fact that Navy's defense has done so much of the work for this team in 2012 means that, as a point of player development and program-building, the coaching staff's focus should be on the offense in this game for a very practical set of reasons, enabling the Fight Hunger Bowl to be a game that will set the banquet table for 2013. This is a game in which the offense needs to feast, a moment in which a vulnerable Arizona State defense needs to be attacked as thoroughly as possible.
ASU's defense has been all over the map this past season. The Sun Devils contained inferior offenses in the Pac-12 South, such as the ones fielded by Utah and Colorado. However, division champion UCLA scored 45 points against Arizona State, and Oregon frolicked in the first half of a blowout before pulling in the reins in the second half. The Sun Devils played a strong first half against Oregon State and an exceptionally resilient fourth quarter in a rivalry-game win over Arizona, but the Sons of Sparky (the team's pitchfork-wielding mascot) would hardly rate as either consistent or distinguished… not by any reasonable measurement. This is a defense that is susceptible to read-based plays such as the ones Navy uses, and it can be surprised by an unexpected downfield pass. Navy has the playbook and the athletes to make things happen on offense.
It's all a matter of having an aggressive plan and polished players who can translate multiple weeks of bowl practice into an on-field masterpiece in San Francisco. Tony Bennett left his heart in that city. Navy doesn't have to leave a single point in it on December 29.
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