Poinsettia Bowl Outlook: House Money

The Navy football team occupies a strange position – though not necessarily a bad one – entering the 2014 Poinsettia Bowl. It’s a time for the Midshipmen to play freely… and to hope their defense can play as well in this bowl game as it did in last year’s bowl game.


THE BUDDY SYSTEM AND AN ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF LIMITS

The Navy football team did not – will not, cannot – win 10 or more games this year, as first hoped before the season began. The Midshipmen lost the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy to Air Force. On the other hand, coach Ken Niumatalolo’s team forged a winning season and tucked away yet another victory over Army. Given the way Navy faltered in the middle third of its season, a 7-5 record and a 13-game winning streak over the Black Knights were no sure things. Therefore, Navy finds itself lodged between two competing tensions: On one hand, this season was a failure, because it had the opportunity to be so much more. (Rutgers and Western Kentucky did not figure to be losses before the season started.) On the other hand, a team that was 2-4 did really well to salvage the season, making sure there was no repeat of 2011.

Navy has therefore fallen short of its highest aspirations and yet sustained the program’s identity as a winner, a bowl regular, and a conqueror of Army. You won’t find the extreme highs and lows in Annapolis that were witnessed at the Air Force Academy in 2013 (low) and 2014 (very high), but Navy’s calling card since Paul Johnson got the ball rolling in 2003 has been its consistency. That’s been maintained, and it’s cause for celebration throughout the program.

For this reason alone, Navy’s trip to San Diego for a Poinsettia Bowl reunion with San Diego State (in a repeat of the 2010 game between the two schools) is a pleasure trip more than a business trip. Many teams go to bowls with a desperate mindset, fervently intent on leaving behind a good memory after a regular season that was less than it could have been. It is tempting to put Navy in this category or classification, but two basic contextual points suggest that instead of feeling great pressure to win this game, Navy really is playing with house money.

First of all, Keenan Reynolds was not 100 percent fit near the end of the Army game. Reynolds’s physical well-being is really what limited the Midshipmen in the middle third of the season, so if he’s not able to run at full speed, Navy immediately loses a core dimension of its offense. This would be a huge downer if Reynolds is less than fully effective, but Niumatalolo has to realize that if he lacks his big gun under center, he shouldn’t put too much into this result… and neither should Navy’s fans.

The second point to mention is this: Very simply, the short turnaround from the Army game – easily the shortest turnaround of all the bowl teams this year – has given Navy minimal time to celebrate its win over Army and mentally reset the dial for its bowl game. Navy’s true bowl was the one on Dec. 13 in Baltimore. A win here would be gravy.

This brings us to a brief word about Navy’s outlook heading into Tuesday night’s clash: If the Midshipmen are going to win this game, their defense will need to produce a bowl sequel.

Last year against Middle Tennessee in the Armed Forces Bowl, Navy found its inner Seattle Seahawk and allowed only six points to the Blue Raiders. Navy took the ball away from MTSU on two occasions and surrendered only 91 rushing yards. Middle Tennessee was just 2-of-8 on third downs. Navy won a game handily despite the fact that Reynolds fumbled twice in the Middle Tennessee red zone. The defense had the back of the offense. Given everything you saw against Army, and given Reynolds’ less-than-ideal health status, it’s up to Buddy Green’s defense to thwart San Diego State’s offense in a big way. If Navy can get turnovers that lead to short fields, Reynolds’s burden would be – though not eliminated – severely reduced. The Midshipmen would have a solid chance of avenging the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl loss.

They’d also show that even in a rough season, opportunities and accomplishments can be found and – at least in some cases – taken advantage of.

It’s not pretty. It’s not typical. It’s 2014 Navy football. Everyone would like to see a beautiful game from this offense, but in the Poinsettia Bowl, Navy will likely have to win by means of its defense and its ability to create turnovers on the part of San Diego State.

Then Keenan Reynolds can come back next year, and we can expect to see more out of this team’s offense. For the Poinsettia Bowl, however, the Buddy System needs to be given a chance. The extent to which Navy’s defense answers the call will likely tell us more than anything else about Tuesday’s game.

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