Of all the games on Navy's 2015 schedule, none set up as a loss more readily or evidently than this one.
The Midshipmen played four very crisp and effective games to start their season. It was one of the better Septembers ever fashioned by Ken Niumatalolo and his coaching staff, made even more impressive by the fact that Buddy Green, one of the bright minds at the heart of this fruitful era in Navy football history, hasn't been able to coach inside the stadium on gamedays. If there was an adjustment period to interim defensive coordinator Dale Pehrson, national observers wouldn't have known as much. The Midshipmen entered and then attacked this season with noticeable clarity and self-assurance (the good kind, on the right side of the fine line between belief and overconfidence).
Given how well Navy played, would a Notre Dame team saddled with all sorts of injuries (and coming off a draining loss at Clemson in a night game) be fresh enough beat the Midshipmen?
Say this much: Notre Dame was installed as a two-touchdown favorite. Navy's great start didn't really affect its status relative to the Fighting Irish, who showed -- in their win over Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech -- that they were better and deeper than their injury list might have first indicated. This year's Irish team has seen backups become both prominent and productive. The "next man up" rallying cry is easy to preach and talk about in the locker room, but Brian Kelly has seen his players actualize the mantra. Given Notre Dame's resilience in the face of injury-based adversity, the Irish were supposed to handle Navy. The hope existed in the Midshipmen's inner circle that a letter-perfect game could be forged in the crucible of competition, but that was the only way the men of Ken Niumatalolo were going to eclipse the Irish.
Obviously, it didn't happen.
One doesn't need to elaborate on the turnovers and (albeit very unevenly applied) penalties which cut against Navy on Saturday. Everyone knew that large-scale mistakes would lead to a negative result, and that's what Navy received. The question or issue which might be of greater interest on the day after the loss is this: "How does this outcome reshape Navy's season, if at all? What does it tell us about the Midshipmen going forward?"
The answer might be better than you think.
Go ahead -- peruse what's left of Navy's schedule after this upcoming bye week. Tell me or any of your other friends which opponent has a defensive line anywhere close to what the Midshipmen just experienced in the shadows of the golden dome. One would have to think that such a team does not exist. It's quite true that Memphis and Houston have frighteningly formidable offenses, with SMU having that potential but rarely putting together the pieces for all 60 minutes on a Saturday. Navy, though, has the perfect antidote for those offenses: a triple-option attack which can grind down the play clock and possess the ball for nearly 40 minutes. A river of third and ones plus a sprinkling of fourth and inches can create the ultimate ball-control recipe. Given that Navy won't have to operate against a menacing defensive line, the Midshipmen have a realistic chance of shaping those defining games the way they want to. Memphis and Houston have to play each other, so while it would obviously be great if Navy could sweep those two games, merely beating the winner of the Tiger-Cougar cat fight would give the Mids some leverage in pursuit of the AAC West Division championship, which is this team's next priority.
Air Force is done. The one-game showcase of Notre Dame is also in the past. Army will have to wait until the second weekend of December. For now, only the AAC is visible, and those journeys to Memphis and Houston in November are what will determine the heights Navy can reach this year.
Notre Dame might have given Navy the kind of lesson which will bear fruit when the AAC becomes acutely (or AAC-utely?) competitive in a backloaded schedule.
Many of you might have watched Oklahoma-Texas before sitting down to view the Midshipmen against the Fighting Irish on Saturday. In that OU-Texas game, the upperclassmen on the Sooners had suffered a humiliating loss to the Longhorns in 2013. They and the coaching staff surely told the transfers or underclassmen about that experience. Yet, from everything you saw in Oklahoma's body language and overall demeanor, it seemed that the newer players on the roster just didn't internalize the words which were surely passed along to them. It's not that those underclassmen lacked character or work ethic, but they weren't fully prepared for the passions of a rivalry game, and more specifically, for the blind fury that was coming at them from the Texas side.
It is a simple but undeniable part of human life: The best teacher is not a spoken word or a textbook, but a direct taste of your own blood as you get punched in the mouth. That conveys a meaning with force and a personal dimension which leave an indelible imprint on the mind. Oklahoma might now realize what it takes to be better.
So can Navy.
It's a different beast when you're going up against the strongest defense you'll see all season. When an opposing front seven is thicker and stronger, and when an opposing secondary hits harder, the possibility of flinching increases. Losing focus on an option pitch and making the other mistakes Navy made on Saturday were primarily internal errors. They weren't directly caused by anyone else; the Midshipmen have to own those slip-ups. Yet, can it be said that Notre Dame's presence planted some seeds of uncertainty in the minds of Navy's skill players? Without a doubt.
Navy hoped for and prepared to play a perfect game, but when reality came calling in the form of Notre Dame jerseys, the Midshipmen lost their nerve.
In the short run, this is undeniably disappointing. However, with a bye week set aside for healing and recuperation (especially in the case of Keenan Reynolds), the Midshipmen can realize that if they play airtight offensive games in November, against the teams they have to beat the most, they can win a division. They can play for their conference title in December. They can play for a Group of Five New Year's Six bowl bid.
They can claim the stars.
Did Notre Dame help Navy? We'll have to wait several weeks, but let's hope so.