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The Midshipmen are still on course for a great season, but Friday went wrong

When a big game is lost as decisively as Navy lost on Friday to Houston, it's easy to tut-tut about how deficient or flawed a team is. It's easy to come down hard on a team for failing to do the things it needed to do to win. It's very tempting to say that a program was exposed or that the caliber of its performance was simply unacceptable. Certainly, Navy littered the field with a lot of mistakes, particularly on defense, against Greg Ward, Jr., and the rest of the Houston Cougars. Yet, the

Yes, we saw the missed tackles on third downs. 

We saw the inability to wrap up Greg Ward or prevent running lanes from emerging.

We saw a missed interception on third and 10, one which set the tone for the afternoon in the first quarter.

We saw how much Navy's defense struggled in the biggest non-Army game of the season against the Houston Cougars. It was tough to watch. When a team gives up 52 points and wastes a very good performance by its Heisman Trophy-chasing quarterback, it stings. When a team gets run out of the stadium on a day when it had a division and conference championship to play for, leading to a possible New Year's Six bowl, the feeling of disappointment is real. Moreover, that feeling of disappointment should exist.

Losing doesn't hurt if you don't care. Failure doesn't pierce the skin if success is so richly satisfying. Defeat is difficult to confront precisely because victory is so rewarding and delicious. You don't get to enjoy the high moments if the low moments are written off as nothing. That's sports. That's life. You accept the tough moments as the price paid for being able to exult in a time of triumph.

Given the deflating nature of Friday's game, the instinct to pounce -- to emphasize how flawed this performance was -- is very hard to resist. Anyone who watched Navy give up more than half-a-hundred could not deny how many high-leverage plays went Houston's way, and how few were made (on defense) by Ken Niumatalolo's crew. Reciting every instance would be a tedious and repetitive process. Recounting even a few would merely dredge up painful images from a game which called to mind that children's story written decades ago:

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

This game was titled Navy and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

We -- fans, yes, but also writers, pundits, analysts, commentators, editorialists, anyone who provides coverage of a team or sport -- naturally gravitate to a stance in which we find fault with performances. This was wrong. This was what the coaching staff failed to do. This is what the players neglected. This is what the program has not sufficiently addressed. Either in the realm of the immediate or the realm of the structural, critics reflexively criticize. This is sometimes done for the sake of pageviews or generating publicity, but it is more often done in an attempt to search for answers.

Sometimes, answers do need to be sought, so that they can be found.

Other times, however, there are no answers. Sometimes, a bad day just happens.

This was that day for Navy.

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Houston deserves every good thing it gets. Ward was tremendous. Navy couldn't make him pay on the few occasions when he didn't throw a good ball. His receivers made a few remarkable grabs. His young offensive line excelled against Navy's front four. Houston's defense made very sound and effective adjustments to Keenan Reynolds and the triple option over the final three quarters. Tom Herman coached a high-level game. The Cougars deserve their AAC West championship and a spot in the conference title game on Dec. 5 against South Florida or Temple. 

None of what's said next should change or take away from the paragraph you've just read. However, it can be said that -- as feared once the Tulsa win went final -- this game did not set up well for the Midshipmen.

A short week.

Another road trip well out of Annapolis.

An early start.

A game in which Ward -- due to his week off against Connecticut -- was physically fresh, without having been subjected to a physical pounding the week before.

Houston, sobered by a loss, was able to address its own shortcomings (from its own terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day) and play with fire in the belly.

So many intangibles stood with Houston... and then the game started.

A blind tipped pass leading to an interception of Reynolds, who made a good read and a decent throw (which appeared to be on target).

A whiffed interception which led to a first-down catch for Houston off a deflection. 

A lack of holding calls on Houston's offensive line -- Navy couldn't buy a call on several crucial occasions.

So many things before and during the game helped the Cougars and worked against the Midshipmen.

It was just one of those days.

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It was also one of those days in a few other respects: First, Navy's defense has done so much great work this season. Dale Pehrson has been fabulous. When the offense struggled, the defense had always been there to carry the workload.

This was the one time in 2015 in which the defense had absolutely no answers from start to finish, and an opposing offense didn't experience any sort of lull for any period of time. That's not an indicator of how good this defense is and has been.

That's called an aberration.

The cruel part of all this for Navy, 7-1 in its first AAC season as a conference member, is that the "1" came against the one team it had to beat in order to win the division.

If Houston loses to Memphis (coming from 20 points down in the fourth quarter with a backup quarterback, and then watching Memphis miss a 48-yard field goal in the final half-minute), Navy would have already won the division heading into Saturday (although one could have pointed out that Houston would have beaten UConn under that adjusted circumstance). Even if Houston had beaten UConn, it wouldn't have had the "bounce back from a loss" dynamic which helped the Cougars against Navy.

Winning divisions demands at least some good fortune in most cases. If you're a 5-3 division winner, you plainly received a lot of luck. If you're a 6-2 division winner, you probably won the head-to-head matchup you needed to win, but you still got at least some help in the form of your foremost opponent's second (or third) divisional loss.

When you lose a division despite going 7-1, you simply lost to the one team you couldn't afford to lose to. Houston didn't go 8-0 in the AAC, so it wasn't perfect, but it set a high enough standard that Friday's game was winner-take-all. Had the Cougars slipped on one other occasion, they would have entered this game 5-2 in the league and would have had no chance of catching a 7-0 Navy team in the league.

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This was just bad luck... from the schedule to the time slot to the intangibles to the AAC West standings. Houston got a few bounces and played a generally great game.

Navy can still win 10 games in a regular season for the first time since 1905. 

Navy can still win back the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy from Air Force.

Navy can still win 11 games in a season for the first time ever, should it beat Army and then win its bowl game.

This can still be an historically remarkable season in Annapolis.

This is not a day to rip Navy, but to credit Houston and acknowledge that a superb defense simply picked the one bad day of the year in which to be off its game.


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