Navy's Will Anthony put the matter rather plainly.
What was it like at halftime of a 10-7 home game against a Tulane team the Midshipmen (according to Las Vegas) were supposed to beat by more than three touchdowns?
"We definitely had a slow start. During halftime, we really had a good talking to...I'll say that. Our mindset, including mine, was that it was a reality check that we needed to step up in the second half."
That, in short, is the gift Tulane has given the Midshipmen for the remainder of the season, especially the November showdowns against Memphis and Houston. If Keenan Reynolds and the rest of the offense can respond the right way in terms of both technical improvement and competitive mindset, this season could become special... and the Green Wave will have shown the way to a bunch of sailors. It's poetically appropriate that a team named after water could enable some Midshipmen to sail more smoothly in the future.
Coaches dread it, especially for the four NFL teams which get a top-two seed in their respective conferences: Coming out flat after a bye week is a miserable thing to see through a coach's eyes, and it's really hard to deal with for fans as well. Home game, opponent we should beat, and the performance just isn't there. This is where Navy stood at halftime against Tulane, which played harder than the Mids in the first 30 minutes, but also used specific tactics to play its heavily-favored opponent on even terms.
Tulane loaded the tackle box and dared Navy to beat it with the pass. The Green Wave were committed to their game plan, and they executed it well. A rushing offense so thoroughly accustomed to racking up over 300 yards was held to 133. Reynolds gained just 38 yards on 23 carries. Tulane's safeties were exceptional in run support and carrying out their assignments, and Navy just couldn't get to those blocks often enough to spring runners for big gains.
The combination of Tulane's better effort and bold tactics threw Navy off balance, and what's worth emphasizing is that it's not as though the dynamic changed all that much in the second half. Reynolds managed to hit big pass plays against a defense which was inviting them -- that was different. However, even though Navy did have more success with the aerial attack after halftime, the running game did not open up. Navy scored two touchdowns with short fields (under 37 yards on two separate occasions). One can say that the Midshipmen succeeded in the second half, unlike the first. Yet, let's be clear: Navy's second-half successes on offense were based on a willingness to play on Tulane's terms. A game played on the terms established by Navy's offense would involve substantial (and primary) success as a running team. That never really happened in the second 30 minutes of this game. In that respect, they were little different from the first 30 minutes.
Navy did ultimately manage to win by more than three touchdowns, but that was because of Dale Pehrson's defense, which continues to shine this season.
From the final drive of the second quarter through the middle stages of the fourth quarter, Tulane's offense gained five possessions. In the first three possessions of that sequence, the Green Wave sustained their drives with play lengths of 10, 9 and 13. They didn't score a point on any of them. Navy stopped a fourth-and-one play early in the third quarter (one of the two key plays of the game) and gave the offense a boost, leading to a 17-7 advantage and a small scoreboard cushion. When Tulane fumbled near the goal line at the end of the 13-play drive early in the fourth quarter, the offense was able to control the ball, flip the field, and rest the defense, which subsequently procured takeaways on the remaining two possessions in that five-possession sequence for Tulane's offense.
The defense was always on point in this game, and so in many ways, everything that's been said to this point applies to only one half of the team. Yet, we can all acknowledge that Memphis and Houston pose tests for this defense which are far more substantial than anything Pehrson's pupils have faced this year, with the exception of Notre Dame. The defense, as much as it might compete in those November showdowns, could be overmatched. In that case, the offense will have to be at its very best, and if Memphis or Houston put nine in the tackle box, Keenan Reynolds and friends will have to be able to run the ball better. Paxton Lynch and Greg Ward need to be kept off the field as long as possible.
Navy doesn't have to worry anymore about being rusty after a bye, because there won't be another bye through the rest of the AAC season. Moreover, there won't be any byes before Army Week if Navy makes the first AAC Championship Game. However, the idea that Navy can just show up against a supposedly inferior opponent has been blown out of the water. The Midshipmen weren't entirely ready for Tulane -- on defense, yes, but not on offense -- so this means that the upcoming game against South Florida can't be overlooked before Memphis comes along on Nov. 7.
There is, of course, one thing the Midshipmen would like to do against South Florida: Not use too much of the playbook. It would be a lot better to keep things basic, so that special plays can be unwrapped for Justin Fuente and the Tigers. How can a team win without going deep into the grab bag? By kicking the snot out of the opposing team's defensive line... in other words, what Navy did not do against Tulane.
The Green Wave have given Navy a roadmap for USF, and also for the rest of the season. This could be the gift which keeps on giving... but now the Midshipmen have to use the gift well.