Academy Review: Week Nine

Feel-good oldies are generally found on your radio dial, but the Navy Midshipmen created them on the gridiron against the Pittsburgh Panthers. A ballsy rally under pressure changed the entire tone and trajectory of a season, improving the chances that the Midshipmen will once again go bowling in December.


A GOLDEN OLDIE: NAVY SHINES IN CRUNCH TIME

Ahhhh, that one felt so familiar.

The Navy Midshipmen have been living the good life in the world of service academy football since 2003, with the sole exception of the 2011 season. Under Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo, the athletes from Annapolis have frequently managed to scratch out razor-close wins, taking the clay of crunch time and molding it into a shining sculpture of triumph. The Russ Pospisil-fueled win over Temple in 2008 was one prominent example. The 2009 overtime escape against SMU was another. Last year's late charge past Indiana served as yet another instance of how Navy – like McGyver – has so routinely painted itself in a corner, only to wiggle out of it just in the nick of time. The Midshipmen have not lost their knack for finding the makeshift tool that can pry open an opportunity. The Johnson Boys and (now) the Men of Ken find their path out of trouble and follow it to a place of safety.

This anxiety-producing but ultimately thrilling template was followed to the letter on Saturday against the Pittsburgh Panthers.

Navy did not carry the run of play for most of this game. The Midshipmen finished with a negative differential of eight minutes and 12 seconds in terms of time of possession. Pittsburgh called the shots for most of the afternoon, and as soon as Navy took a 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter, the Panthers – shrugging off a third and 21 as though it was no big deal – marched calmly down the field for an easy touchdown and two-point conversion. Midway through the fourth and final stanza, the Midshipmen trailed 21-14 as they neared an October that had been very nasty to them. It would have been so easy to lose heart at that point, so easy to succumb to the internal voice which pops up inevitably in our minds, saying, "Well, it's just that kind of a season, isn't it?"

It seemed like "that kind of a season" for Navy… but the Midshipmen, to a man, refused to buy into that line of thinking. Keenan Reynolds authored what was and is – all things considered – the best drive of the year for Navy's offense to tie the game at 21. (Kicker Nick Sloan didn't miss the PAT.) The defense, despite spending most of the day on the field, found a second wind and promptly smothered the Panthers. Reynolds didn't relax or lose focus on Navy's subsequent possession. He remained in command of the situation and led the Midshipmen into comfortable field goal range. Sloan, whose missed kicks against Toledo carried a substantial price, found the gift that athletes crave at all levels of competition: a chance for redemption.

Like the rest of his Navy teammates, Sloan made really good use of an important late-game moment. He drilled the kick, and in the span of eight fourth-quarter minutes, a season's dominant feeling turned from grim concern to confident reassurance. The possibility of a losing season flew out the window. The chances of a .500 season shrank. The likelihood of a winning season and a bowl game skyrocketed.

That's Navy football over the past 10 years (sans 2011).

For Air Force, there are no great songs and great memories to cherish… not after a blowout loss on home soil that was anything but a feel-good oldie. The Falcons had 16 days to prepare for Notre Dame, and for one and a half quarters, that reality seemed to matter. The Falcons were fresher than they were in early October. Their triple option offense demanded adjustments from Notre Dame's defense. The excitement of a nationally televised home game pumped adrenaline into the Falcons' veins.

Then, in the final two and a half quarters, all of those advantages evaporated. Notre Dame simply put its foot down and buried Air Force with big-play passes and a physical front line that was just too much for the home team. Air Force has no time to lament this loss, though: The Army game this upcoming Saturday is the Falcons' last chance to create a delightful memory… something they couldn't do in week nine of the season.

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