Academy Review: Week Six

Air Force's offense appeared ready to set the tone for Saturday's game against Navy, but the Midshipmen proved to be supremely resilient on defense. "The Buddy System," also known as the defense coached by coordinator Buddy Green, carried the Midshipmen past Air Force, leading Navy one step closer to yet another Commander-in-Chief's Trophy.


ROBERTS RULED BY ORDER:

NAVY CONTAINS AIR FORCE'S QUARTERBACK WHEN IT COUNTS


One of the enduring mysteries about sports – a reason why these ultimately trivial athletic contests capture so much of our attention and interest – is that some sequences and moments matter more than others.

In basketball, one free throw doesn't matter all that much in the first quarter, but in the final 35 seconds of the NBA Finals (ask the San Antonio Spurs), one foul shot carries so much weight. In baseball, it's a lot easier to throw a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded when you're leading by six runs in the seventh, not two runs in the bottom of the ninth. In tennis, you can win all the 15-30 points you like, but if you don't win break points, you're not going to move up the rankings. Breaking for 3-2 in the first set is very different from breaking for 6-5 in the fourth set, when a match hangs in the balance. Some parts of a competition simply affect athletes more profoundly, and are therefore rightly seen as greater tests of composure, focus and endurance.

This past Saturday in Annapolis, the Air Force Falcons played what was easily (it's not even a debate) their best football of 2013 in the first half. Troy Calhoun's defense finally looked as though it knew what it was doing on the field. The Falcons' instincts were sound, and they won the battle in the trenches on most snaps. Navy was fighting uphill throughout the first 30 minutes. It was a dream start for Air Force in terms of the extent to which it carried the play before halftime.

The score at the intermission: Air Force 10, Navy 7.

For all that the Falcons did well in the first half, they couldn't separate themselves from the Midshipmen, and that inability to turn dominance into a substantial lead is what enabled Navy to win this game. The Men of Ken Niumatalolo would have faced an Everest-sized climb if Air Force had been able to amass a 24-7 lead at the break, but since Navy trailed by only three, it was able to stay well within its game plan and methodically change the terms on which this Commander-in-Chief's Trophy tilt was played.

Air Force unraveled in the fourth quarter, but when mistakes really began to pour from the Falcons, Navy had already claimed the upper hand. It was in the first half that the home team performed the heavy lifting that made sweet victory possible. Time and again, Air Force – led by quarterback Karson Roberts (a second-time starter this season after the suspension of previous starter Jaleel Awini) – converted multiple third downs and moved the ball inside Navy's third of the field, only to come away with fewer than seven points on all but one occasion. In the first half, Air Force moved inside the Navy 35 three times but collected just one touchdown. The Falcons attempted two field goals on their other drives, missing one of them.

Navy's defense faced the challenge that a triple-option team knows all too well. Buddy Green's gang had to call forth reserves of energy and find enough stamina to stop the drip-drip-drip progression of Air Force's offense, which set up third-and-short situations – the ideal for any triple-option team – with great regularity. Navy found ways to create third downs with more than three yards to go, and then pounced on the opportunity to shut down a drive. Roberts actually played fairly well, but when crunch time came calling, he lacked answers in the face of Navy's pursuit. All told, Air Force drove inside the Navy 35 four times on Saturday, while a fifth drive moved just inside the Navy 40. The Falcons generated just 10 total points, a testament to the amazing job "The Buddy System" turned in against Air Force and Karson Roberts on national television.

For Army, the defense Navy displayed was unable to be replicated in Chestnut Hill, Mass. Last year, Boston College outplayed Army for most of the day in West Point, but the Black Knights persevered and stole a game from the Eagles in the final minutes of regulation. This year, Boston College didn't allow Army to commit "Grand Theft Black Knight." The Eagles kept the foot on the pedal and finished drives with a level of consistency that did not emerge a year ago in Michie Stadium. Army was plainly beaten by a better team. This was not the Wake Forest loss, in which Army allowed a feeble opponent to suddenly find confidence in the fourth quarter, precisely when a winnable game was there for the taking. This was a case of "Team A was better than Team B." Army can accept this outcome, even though it wasn't pleasant by any stretch of the imagination.

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