Armed Forces Bowl Preview: Early Rising
WANTING TO PLAY, WANTING TO BE FREE:
A SEASON FINALE IN FORT WORTH
Two desires, one goal… and one very early pregame meal.
The Navy football team faces a bowl test that isn't overwhelming, but tricky; not impossible, but thorny. The Midshipmen don't need to move mountains or play beyond their brigade pay grade on the next-to-last day of 2013. They just need to perform with clarity, concentration and energy, as any good football team should be able to do.
Some games are challenges primarily because of the opponent. Others are daunting because of the environment in which the competition takes place. Still others are difficult for both of the above reasons. The 2013 Armed Forces Bowl against the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders is a legitimate test for Navy because it's an odd duck of a game on multiple levels. Athletes are creatures of routine and habit; service academy students also depend on set schedules and an ordered life structure. Yet, there's little about this game that is normal for the Midshipmen, even by bowl-game standards.
It's true that with a 35-game bowl schedule, more bowls will occur in unusual situations. The bowls played on the Saturday before Christmas will in some instances give teams no more than one or two weeks of rest after the end of the regular season. That's not a normal bowl routine. The bowls played in early January involve layoffs of at least a full month, if not five weeks. That's a bit long to wait for a bowl. It's true that a bowl game can test a team in the realms of mind and body, not in the arenas of skill or tactics. Handling the unique nature of the occasion is part of any bowl experience.
What's different for Navy in this specific bowl game? Plenty… and that's not necessarily good or bad, either. This game is just different compared to recent bowls for the men of Ken Niumatalolo. There's a similarity here and a similarity there, but the whole package is distinct in a few obvious ways.
First of all, Navy faces a very short turnaround after a bowl. The Midshipmen will play this game just over two weeks after defeating Army on Dec. 14. In 2010, Navy endured a turnaround of under two weeks for the Poinsettia Bowl against San Diego State, and the Midshipmen just didn't look very perky when they took the field. They got walloped in the Aztecs' home stadium. The opponent and environment were both wrong for the Mids that year.
Last season, the turnaround wasn't a problem – Navy got three weeks between the Army game and the 2012 Fight Hunger Bowl. However, the opponent was a beast. Arizona State represented a terrible matchup for Navy in San Francisco. The Sun Devils – who came within one win of making the Rose Bowl this season – were on the upswing when they hammered Navy in the City By The Bay.
You can see that in 2010, Navy received a short turnaround and an unfavorable game location, given the opponent. In 2012, Navy received a longer turnaround and a reasonably neutral location, only to be saddled with a superior opponent. In 2013, the short turnaround is still there, but the game location (Fort Worth, Tex.) and the opponent (Middle Tennessee) are both manageable.
Let's present the pessimist's view first: One could make the argument that the short turnaround time will hurt Navy. It's important to realize that the Midshipmen have not benefited in bowl games as a result of the extension of the break between game 11 of the regular season and the Army contest (game 12). In 2009, Navy's schedule created a two-week break between game 11 and the Army game. The Midshipmen played Army on Dec. 12 and then faced Missouri in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 31, nearly three weeks later. That year (2009) was the last year in which Navy won a bowl game, and it's the only time the Midshipmen have won a bowl under Niumatalolo (1-3). In 2010, the schedule added a third week between game 11 and Army. Since that schedule change occurred, Navy has posted an 0-2 record in bowls.
On the other hand, one could also develop an optimistic outlook for Navy in the Armed Forces Bowl: While the turnaround time is uncomfortably short for this game, Navy – intent on winning a bowl game for only the second time since 2005 – should think that it drew a favorable opponent. In a year when Conference USA has slipped due to the departures of UCF, Houston and SMU – not to mention the collapse of Tulsa – Navy should regard a C-USA foe in a bowl game as a highly winnable matchup. This is not Arizona State, to be sure. It's hard to know whether the calendar or the opponent will acquire more centrality on Dec. 30.
What will matter in this game, beyond the opponent and the ability of Navy to be mentally fresh at kickoff time? It's worth identifying a few other particular aspects of this game that mature athletes will be able to handle:
This game will start at 10:45 a.m. local time. Navy has played a late-morning bowl game before. The 2008 EagleBank Bowl against Wake Forest in Washington, D.C., was an 11 a.m. local time kickoff. Navy actually started well but couldn't sustain much of any consistency as the game wore on, losing by a 29-19 count. The past few years, however, Navy has either played mid-afternoon bowls (2009 Texas Bowl, 2012 Fight Hunger Bowl) or nighttime bowls (2010 Poinsettia Bowl). This game represents an adjustment for the team. Answering the call will require considerable concentration and the ability to generate a healthy level of energy so early in the morning.
Unlike previous Navy bowl opponents, this one will be coming off a 2012 season in which it got snubbed. Navy usually plays upper-tier Mountain West opponents or AQ conference opponents in bowl games, the kinds of programs that are not generally subjected to bowl snubs. This year's opponent is different. Sun Belt exile Middle Tennessee, now in Conference USA, was robbed last season. Coach Rick Stockstill's team went 8-4, posting the kind of record that merits a bowl bid far more than a 6-6 mark from an underachieving AQ conference team. Yet, the Blue Raiders were left outside the candy store. Back in the bowl realm this season after another 8-4 campaign, Middle Tennessee will be fired up. Navy will have to relish playing in this game just as much as MTSU does. If the Midshipmen can reach that bar, they should be in good shape. "Wanting to be here" is one of the foremost reasons teams win bowl games; not wanting to be in a given location is one of the main reasons teams lose these postseason pageants.
Navy is entering its bowl game after enduring a snowstorm against Army. A normal offensive gameplan flew out the window against Army. The snow was a slight impediment, but the wind which accompanied the snowstorm in Philadelphia served as the main constraint on Navy's passing game. One of Middle Tennessee's few national television appearances in 2013 was a Fox Sports 1 weeknight game against Marshall's pass-first offense. Navy won't throw the ball as regularly as Marshall did, but Keenan Reynolds will likely need to unsheathe the deep ball at some point, when MTSU is keying on the run and bringing more defenders near the line of scrimmage. If the weather in Fort Worth is reasonably calm and dry, Navy will get a chance to use its full playbook. Being able to execute a whole offense – something denied the Midshipmen against Army – should give Reynolds and his teammates a strong and specific incentive in this game. Performing at a high level is exactly what this program needs in order to create a springboard for 2014… and the second bowl win in Ken Niumatalolo's tenure in Annapolis.
Wanting to play. Wanting to be free on offense. Wanting to be in Fort Worth, wanting to max out after being constrained by snow and wind. Navy must attain a zen-like state on the morning of the 2013 Armed Forces Bowl. If the Midshipmen can get their minds right, an effective performance should follow. If the quick turnaround and early kickoff time throw this team out of sync, Middle Tennessee will do the same thing Arizona State did to Navy, albeit by a smaller margin: beat the athletes from Annapolis in a bowl game.
It's time for Navy to bolster its postseason credentials. Accordingly, this is no time for Navy to relax against a Conference USA opponent in the aftermath of another win over Army. The Armed Forces Bowl represents a piece of unfinished business. The Men of Ken want to enjoy a New Year's Eve party while basking in the glow of victory, not lingering in the shadows of defeat. Their mindset and approach will likely tell the tale.
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