The most impressive aspect, by far, of Navy's 45-20 win in the fabled Liberty Bowl Stadium on Saturday night was the team's resilience.
The point requires nothing in the way of fresh explanation, because we've all seen a million sporting events in which a similar pattern has unfolded: Team A, a road underdog, plays extremely well in the first half. It has a chance to not necessarily land a kill shot, but at least deliver a staggering blow, just before halftime.
Team A fails to connect on that roundhouse punch, but it still enters halftime feeling good about itself, knowing that 30 more minutes of the same level of play will get the job done. However, at the start of the second half, that level doesn't exist. On both sides of the ball, at both ends of the playing field, Team A -- in that underdog role -- begins to feel the moment rather than remaining engaged in the task at hand. Mistakes, distracted reactions, and generally imprecise movements enable Team B -- the ragged-looking home favorite which had been decidedly outplayed to that point -- to gain a tie. After roughly two and a half quarters, Team A has dictated the terms of the battle, but Team B, with the hotshot coaching prospect who is likely to get a much bigger gig in a month and a half, isn't losing.
It doesn't always happen, but it often happens that Team B -- after getting a reprieve or two -- wakes up and begins to flex its muscles. Team A, the plucky and inspired underdog which came into the stadium with a good plan and the right tactics, loses its nerve and its focus. Team B pulls away, and Team A is left to wonder what might have been...
If ONLY it had caught that touchdown pass late in the first half for a 21-10 lead. If ONLY it had made use of a 15-yard penalty on the second-half kickoff. If ONLY it could have tackled better. The score would have been 24-10 instead of 17-17.
Yet, that's where Navy -- Team A, of course -- found itself midway through the third quarter, deep into the Tennessee night. The Midshipmen had largely controlled the proceedings against Memphis, but they didn't have a single point more than the Tigers. That was a trouble spot. Something had to change. More precisely, the Midshipmen needed a value-added occurrence, something beyond the realm of the ordinary, to shake the team back into a state of total belief while also supplying a much-needed dose of game leverage.
Does a 75-yard touchdown pass by Keenan Reynolds work?
That's obviously the kind of thing Navy needed at some point on Saturday, but the timing of that event could not have been better. Yet, Navy's demonstration of resilience was only just beginning.
If you had to pick the most defining moment from Saturday's game, the tiebreaking touchdown would certainly make a top-three list, but my choice for number one was the Navy defense's ability to make a stand after Memphis returned the ensuing kickoff to the Navy 48 and then hit a 28-yard pass on the next play from scrimmage. Navy's defense did not get a chance to rest very much after the offense scored in a lightning-quick fashion. Regrouping abruptly and with a short field solidified the notion that -- much as Navy could absorb the 17-17 tie and turn that situation around -- the team could handle any other form of adversity which was thrown in its direction.
Lesser teams would have buckled in that third quarter against a talented group which pummeled (not merely outscored) Ole Miss on that same field a few weeks earlier. Lesser teams would have allowed Memphis to gain freight-train momentum and never relinquish it. Lesser defenses certainly would have given up that short-field touchdown to a legitimately potent offense, one which had been lighting up the night sky for two months in the 2015 college football season.
Navy is not a lesser team. Dale Pehrson's defense didn't merely quiet Memphis's offense after forcing that field goal in the third quarter. The Midshipmen silenced the Tigers, blanking them the rest of the way. The quality of the performance speaks for itself, but the signature characteristic of Navy's surge in the final 20 minutes is that it came after a very nasty series of events. Just one of those events would have made weaker teams crack; Navy endured all of them and had a lot more left in the tank.
Critics will say that this is not the Memphis team we were used to seeing, as if to suggest that Navy was fortunate. Narrowly, no, this wasn't the Memphis team which showed up on other occasions in 2015, especially against Ole Miss. However, the key point to make in relationship to that piece of analysis is that Navy had a role in making Memphis sweat.
"We can hit you with a 75-yard touchdown pass, or we can twist the knife with a prolonged touchdown drive filled with third-and-four or third-and-three conversions." Either way, that message certainly appeared to lodge itself firmly in the minds of Memphis players when they ran upfield without catching a third-and-seven pass one yard short of the marker, or caught a punt at the 1 in the attempt to pull off a big return.
Memphis tightened up in much the same way that an opponent of a good slow-pace basketball team does. Wisconsin uses every last ounce of the shot clock and was first in the nation in fewest turnovers committed last season. When opponents get the ball, they become aware -- in the back of the mind if not the front of it as well -- that Wisconsin won't give them much time in which to make plays, and the Badgers won't make many mistakes. This creates the very real voice in the head which tells the athlete on the other team, "Gee -- I better do something special every time I touch the rock, or else..."
That's what Navy wants its football opponents to think, but the Midshipmen have to impose their presence on opponents first. If that process doesn't take place, opponents won't get unnerved.
Navy, with its resilience after Memphis forged the 17-17 tie, imposed its presence and caused the Tigers to hear that voice in the head. The game was never the same once Navy forced that field goal and then posted a 31-20 advantage.
Navy kept its cool against Memphis. Now, the Midshipmen must keep their cool against SMU and not step into a letdown/hangover/trap/sandwich or whatever term you might use.
Prizes are waiting to be won. Winning them, however, won't be achieved with the giddiness fans are allowed to feel.
Yes, players and coaches should celebrate and savor this win over Memphis. Come Tuesday, it's time to reset the dial and prepare for the home finale on Saturday. If anything should go wrong in the first quarter, the Midshipmen can say with conviction and authenticity, "We are resilient. We'll overcome anything and everything."
That resilience has injected some exciting possibilities into Navy's future. The key for every player is to retain the resilience in the midst of increased media scrutiny and all the other distractions which are sure to follow.