Armed Forces Bowl Review: The "D" Gets An "A"
MATCHUPS MATTER… AS DOES COMPOSURE.
The 2013 Armed Forces Bowl was, to quote NFL Films icon John Facenda in his narration of Super Bowl XII (Dallas-Denver in 1978), "Fiercely fought but frightfully flawed." It was a mess of a game with all sorts of penalties and far too many turnovers for Ken Niumatalolo's liking. As was the case in Super Bowl XII, one team's defense proved itself to be superior in a postseason event. One team pulled away in the fourth quarter to win by a margin of three scores and just under 20 points.
The fact that Navy was the winning team on Monday afternoon should give this program and coaching staff an immense amount of satisfaction – not just for the outcome itself, but because of the way in which it was forged.
What was special about the Midshipmen's mastery of Middle Tennessee in Fort Worth, Tex., was that the Men of Ken maintained their poise against an opponent that tried to get inside their heads.
Middle Tennessee, snubbed for a bowl bid in 2012 despite an 8-4 record, played with a chip on its shoulder in this contest. The Blue Raiders were certainly motivated to make a statement – for themselves and for their school, and also for Conference USA, which did not enjoy a particularly good season. They did figure to bring a lot of enthusiasm to the ballyard in this game, and there's nothing wrong with that.
What was wrong with Middle Tennessee was not necessarily a team-wide dynamic (though one could make a case for such a claim), but the fact that the Mid-American Conference officiating crew did not police the Blue Raiders when they took a number of cheap shots, particularly at Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. It is reasonable to call out Middle Tennessee's defensive unit for playing dirty, but the better and more narrowly accurate criticism should be leveled toward the MAC officials who did not penalize MTSU with 15-yard flags in the first 20 minutes of play. The lack of personal foul or unsportsmanlike conduct penalties told the Blue Raiders that there was nothing wrong with their actions… when, of course, everything was wrong with their actions.
Playing hard and with a feisty edge is fine, and Middle Tennessee did limit Navy to only 10 points through three quarters, but the Blue Raiders did take too many liberties on defense. Not all 11 defenders were guilty of this, but Roderic Blunt (jersey No. 33) and Xavier Walker (No. 42) certainly behaved in an appalling manner throughout this game. It was not surprising – or, for that matter, inappropriate – that one of the Navy cheering section's loudest outburst of the game occurred after Blunt was finally and mercifully ejected following a second unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the second half.
The larger point is this: Blunt and Walker didn't care much about proper decorum in this game. They welcomed a trash-talking alley fight and wanted their energy to not only flow through their MTSU teammates, but rattle Navy's offense. It has to be said that the Midshipmen's offense (Reynolds in particular) didn't handle the heat very well through three quarters, coughing up two fumbles inside the 15. Middle Tennessee remained within striking distance and even had its own possession inside the Navy 10 with a chance to take a 13-10 lead in the third quarter. Until the fourth quarter, there was a very real chance for Middle Tennessee to steal this game. Navy left stacks of points on the field, as was the case against Duke.
Moreover, consider the fact that the Midshipmen lost a truckload of starters in this game – some who didn't return (Wave Ryder for a ridiculously unfair ejection following a clean hit that was ruled targeting; Casey Bolena due to an injury), and others who did. Navy's depth in the secondary and on the offensive line was compromised to a significant extent. This marvelous opportunity to give Niumatalolo his second bowl win in Annapolis very easily could have slipped through the Midshipmen's fingers.
Yet, the Men of Ken kept their composure, especially on defense.
Coordinator Buddy Green's unit did not respond to Middle Tennessee's dirty plays with similarly uncontrolled actions of its own. Navy didn't commit undisciplined penalties. The Mids, on defense, were briefly thrown off balance by a left-bunch formation the Blue Raiders used – thankfully, though, that formation was not used on the fourth-and-two play from the Navy 7 in the third quarter. As soon as Navy stuffed Middle Tennessee on that one play, the Blue Raiders had lost their last best chance to win. The Midshipmen remained patient against the flanker screens employed by Middle Tennessee, and as soon as a fumble-prone offense finally cured its case of "fumble-itis" in the fourth quarter, Navy's tenuous four-point lead grew to 11 and then 18.
Leading 10-6 and watching Middle Tennessee drive inside the 10 in the third quarter, Navy's defense could have ceded ground – not just in terms of actual real estate, but on a psychological level. After all, the laws of averages suggest that one defense won't have a 100-percent success rate at denying touchdowns inside its own red zone. Moreover, Middle Tennessee's energy had seemed to take on a life of its own at that point in time. Yet, Buddy Green's group didn't relent in that tipping-point situation, a testament to how much Navy's defense grew after the San Jose State game… and (instructively) the weeks of restorative rest that followed it.
Good teams don't lose their cool. Navy kept its head while Middle Tennessee players became unhinged on Monday.
Good coaches make use of extra time to prepare. Niumatalolo and Green had this team ready to play after multi-week breaks on Dec. 14 (Army) and in this game as well.
Good teams take advantage of favorable matchups. Navy had to face a loaded Arizona State team in last year's bowl game. Given a Conference USA foe this time around, the Midshipmen applied a legitimate spanking that, while not as severe as it could have been, was strong enough to leave a mark.
Indeed, the 2013 Navy Midshipmen left a mark on this season. They retained four very important prizes – a win over Air Force, a win over Army, the CIC Trophy, and a bowl bid. They gained something they hadn't been able to claim since 2009: a bowl victory. They also won with class, not stooping to the level of Roderic Blunt and Xavier Walker of Middle Tennessee.
What more can be said about a team that has displayed model conduct on and off the field, winning at football while taking the high road? If you're looking for regrets at the end of 2013, you won't find them in or around the Navy football program, that's for sure.
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