Academy Review: Week Thirteen
BEAUTIFUL BOOKENDS AND SECOND-HALF STRENGTH:
NAVY'S OFFENSE SHOWS OFF ITS STAYING POWER
Navy's 58-52 triple-overtime victory over San Jose State on Friday achieved many things. It swatted away the two wins the Spartans attained against the Midshipmen in 2011 and 2012. The offensive explosion served as a perfect response to last year's 12-0 loss in Annapolis. It also silenced the Spartans, whose players made throat-slash gestures and became noticeably feisty at the beginning of the fourth quarter. This triumph guaranteed the Midshipmen a winning season, and it also kept alive the team's hopes of a nine-win campaign when including the Armed Forces Bowl in the equation.
Yet, more than anything else, this performance on Friday night in Silicon Valley enabled the Midshipmen to say that, over the course of their "normal" 11-game season in 2013 (with the Army game existing on a set-aside island of sorts), they proved that they were a consistently good team. It took them 11 games to arrive at that point, but they got there.
Navy began the season with a magnificent offensive display against Indiana, offering its fans a glimpse of the Midshipmen's capabilities. However, the team's bad injury luck against Western Kentucky and the true head-scratcher of the season – the off day against Duke – left Ken Niumatalolo's crew searching for something it had lost, especially on the offensive side of the ball. The late comeback against Pittsburgh might have saved the season, but after the painful loss to Notre Dame, the larger reality of Navy's situation was clear: The offense – brilliant in early September and even better in South Bend when adjusted for the opponent and the circumstances – was capable of sustained greatness.
Against Hawaii and South Alabama, Navy was able to polish off two inferior teams at home. The Midshipmen's ability to convincingly win those two games was certainly encouraging, but the attainment of genuine high-level consistency needed to be confirmed in California. This game against San Jose State – on a short week, at night, three time zones from Annapolis, against a difficult opponent that had a lot to play for (specifically, bowl eligibility) – was going to serve as a final litmus test of Navy football before the team's three-week break and its annual football festival with Army.
The Army-Navy Game is really not a typical football game in any real sense. It's not a regular-season game so much as it is its own event, its own set-apart stage. This Friday foray into San Jose represented Navy's last true road game of the 2013 season. The trek to the West Coast gave the Midshipmen their last challenge within the context of a punishing weekly schedule that had not afforded them a bye week since September. Being able to execute on the road under a number of unfavorable conditions would show that yes, Navy had fully learned over the course of its regular season how to become a superior team.
Whenever San Jose State appeared to be on the verge of taking control in Friday night's contest, Navy's offense answered the call. This was never more apparent than on the third-and-10 completion from Keenan Reynolds to Casey Bolena midway through the fourth quarter that kept a Navy drive alive on the Midshipmen's own half of the field. Had Reynolds not completed that pass, San Jose State would probably be celebrating a bowl bid right now. Yet, Reynolds – who had (appropriately) not been asked to throw many passes on a night when the running game was working just fine – delivered a strike precisely when his team needed one. That's the clutch playmaking Niumatalolo and offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper have come to expect of Reynolds.
It's instructive to note that after the Reynolds-to-Bolena completion, that one moment of pure steel forged in the cauldron of fourth-quarter pressure, Navy did not fail to score a touchdown on any of its remaining possessions. Yes, the Mids never should have taken the bait from San Jose State on the touchdown they scored with 2:38 remaining; kneeling the ball was the proper play with a 31-30 lead. Yet, the excellence of Navy's offense after that third-down conversion has to be given a prominent place in the account of this game. An offense that could have faltered was instead able to find instant sources of renewal, enough to hang 58 points on a team that silenced Navy a year ago in Annapolis.
If the first half of the 2013 college football season frustrated the Midshipmen to no end, this portrait of pigskin perseverance in San Jose makes the second half of Navy's season a shining, soaring success, enough to render the first half as not just a distant memory, but as a stretch of time the Midshipmen truly learned from. Navy could have responded with frailty and bitterness to the losses that littered the schedule through the first two months of the season, but this team instead refused to flinch… or sulk… or unravel.
The ability of this team – especially on offense – to deliver one more masterful performance makes the 2013 Midshipmen a coach's delight and a study in resilience that past Navy football teams must be admiring with glowing hearts.
The legacy of Navy football in the 21st century is a rich and lasting one. The 2013 Midshipmen added to that legacy on Friday in San Jose. That statement speaks for itself, and quite loudly at that.
Air Force refused to quit in its 2013 home finale, but the realities of youth and time caught up with the Falcons. Yes, Air Force made UNLV sweat for at least a few fourth-quarter minutes after falling behind 27-0 midway through the second quarter. Yet, the fact that Air Force had to score quickly in order to have a reasonable chance of pulling off the miracle comeback put the Falcons in predictable passing situations. UNLV's defensive line was able to generate a consistent pass rush throughout that fourth quarter, and Air Force's young quarterbacks - pressed into action this season by a combination of both injuries and suspensions higher up the depth chart - weren't able to handle the heat. That's why the Rebels' 33-21 lead at the beginning of the period was able to hold up the rest of the way. Air Force must now try to win at Colorado State on Nov. 30 in order to avoid its first winless season within Mountain West Conference play.
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