When Stanford lost to Northwestern in the first game of this 2015 season, coach David Shaw was very direct and to the point. He said his players didn't play well, and that it happens. This might have seemed like a convenient way for a coach to avoid blame after an awful performance by his team, but Shaw was not trying to sidestep responsibility for preparing his team. Some days, imperfect human beings simply don't do everything right. This is not just something we see "out there" in others; we see it in ourselves. (This story, for example, is being filed later than I intended to file it. Such was the weekend, even with an extra hour of sleep. It happens.)
The larger point arising from the David Shaw example at Stanford is simply this: College football -- like other sports -- is contested by humans, not robots. The ideal in sports is for a team to be able to machine-crank performances with uncanny consistency, but we don't always reach the ideal as competitors, artists, scientists, cops, lawyers, or whatever profession we practice on a daily basis. Some days are going to be different from others -- some will be better, some will be worse. This is life. It is an immutable, fixed, permanent reality. We are not able to be great just by wishing or willing greatness. Moreover, great athletes can't -- and won't -- be great every time they take to a playing surface. They still deserve to be viewed as great athletes or coaches, but on a given day, they won't have the magic. They won't have the fastball. They won't craft a high-level performance.
What's particularly difficult about college football is that unlike other sports, one bad day carries a lot of consequences. In baseball, the best teams know they'll still have at least 60 bad days at the office in a season, NBA and NHL teams 20, NFL teams three to five. In college football, though, one loss in a conference -- and Navy is finally tasting the reality of playing in a conference this season -- carries so much weight. The pressure can get to teams. In a different way, teams might not feel pressure, but might instead realize that a few games will make or break their season, leading them to pour out comparatively less energy against the not-as-formidable opponents on a schedule. This is a conservation of resources which leads to different energy levels over the course of the season.
We're led back to the beginning: It's nice to think of 12 games with 12 equal performances in terms of energy and sharpness, but that's wishful thinking in college football. No, a game against Tulane or South Florida isn't the same as a game against Memphis, as much as one might try to argue the point. Sure, the preparation must be the same, but in terms of the atmosphere and the stakes and the butterflies in the pit of the stomach, those are different. This is all a way of saying that while Navy has looked far from its best the past two weeks against Tulane and South Florida, that reality might point to a breakthrough against Memphis, in what is the Midshipmen's first five-star statement game as a member of the American Athletic Conference.
A win on Saturday in the Liberty Bowl stadium puts Navy not just IN the Group of Five's New Year's Six bowl conversation; it would put the Mids at the head of the table. The team knew this a few weeks ago, much as Memphis also knew that after its win over Ole Miss, Navy was the next "circle it in red" game on the calendar. These teams both played average football through three quarters against Tulane -- Navy on Oct. 24 and Memphis on Halloween. Navy started slowly again versus South Florida on Saturday before weeding out special-teams mistakes and finishing multiple drives in the second half. You can choose to criticize Navy for the past two weekends, or you can simply realize that like Stanford and 126 other FBS teams, Navy's not going to put forth the same exact standard every week.
Now, though -- NOW is the time for that ideal game, that perfect performance, to emerge. Intellectually, the players and Ken Niumatalolo are aware of this need. The trick is to make the adjustments and access the mindset which will make it happen.
In terms of adjustments, the single most difficult challenge facing Navy on Saturday is that after a bye week and then two weeks facing Tulane's and South Florida's passing games, the Midshipmen must face the Memphis passing game, powered by Paxton Lynch, a player who deserves to be in the top seven of the Heisman race -- maybe not top three, but certainly in the top seven. Lynch is a dynamic athlete, not just a great passer. He possesses upper-body strength which makes him hard to bring down, and he owns a football mind which enables him to process situations very effectively. The Mids can simulate Lynch in practice all they want, but until they step on the field, they'll have no real idea of how much they'll be tested.
Dale Pehrson's defense -- the more consistent side of the ball for Navy through two months -- runs up against the first of two supreme tests in November, the second one posed by Houston and Tom Herman on Thanksgiving Friday. Being able to stand tall in the red zone and force Memphis to kick field goals is the Mids' most reasonable expectation. Navy won't keep Memphis from moving the ball; the Mids can, however, keep the Tigers from ringing up a bunch of sevens. If they can do so, they have a great chance.
This is where the Mids' offense has to step forward and play its best game of 2015.
The tricky part of this game for the Navy offense lies in the reality that Memphis's pass defense is worse than its run defense. Bowling Green, Cincinnati, and (to a lesser extent) Tulsa threw the ball against the Tigers' secondary with considerable success. Navy will be caught in between two competing needs on Saturday: score, and keep the ball. Both are valuable, and Ivin Jasper will need to find the right balance of knowing when to be methodical and when to strike for the home run. Navy did gain crucial practice on offense against Tulane, as a result of being forced to throw when the Green Wave stacked the line. That wasn't as much the case against South Florida, but Keenan Reynolds knows that he will need to hit a handful (maybe two handfuls) of big pass plays in the Liberty Bowl. At least a few such passes will have to come early on, when the importance of ball control is not as acute. (Possessing the ball will grow in significance later in the game if the score is close and the Midshipmen's defense needs a breather.)
It's true that Navy hasn't started briskly against either Tulane or South Florida, perhaps to an extent because of the "look-ahead" dynamic which will always affect many college football teams over the course of a season. Yet, while emotions and motivation are part of the picture, it's more instructive to focus on what Tulane and USF have tactically forced the Navy offense to account for. The problem-solving Navy has had to engage in over the past few weeks could enable this offense to win its matchup against a vulnerable Memphis defense. Maximizing every strength -- and exploiting every Memphis weakness -- will show Navy the path to victory.
The less-than-ideal performances of previous weeks could be seen in a negative light, but I'm going to view them through another lens: Navy has been reserving energy, and its playbook, and its post-bye-week focus for Memphis. This team played so well in September and against Air Force that once the bye week hit, the Midshipmen took a very deep breath. The games against Tulane and USF have felt like restarts of the season, almost, stepping stones for this stretch run in which no additional bye week exists.
Navy doesn't need to worry about the past two weeks as it prepares for Memphis. Being ready to play the best game of 2015; being ready to throw the ball for huge plays if needed; and being determined to make red-zone stops against Paxton Lynch become the three primary ideas the Midshipmen must think about.
Stanford didn't play well against Northwestern, just one of those days. Navy has survived a few of "those days," and now -- like Stanford -- the Midshipmen can show how much they've grown.
It's safe to say that if Navy beats Memphis, no one will ever talk about the Tulane or USF performances in the same light. Now is the Midshipmen's chance, in fact, to change the way the whole nation talks about this program, Saturday in the state of Tennessee.