Navy's most recent visit to Air Force felt a whole lot like 2010.
The failed trips inside the 40 were devastating. The presence not necessarily of errors in themselves, but errors made at the worst possible times, cast a large shadow over the proceedings. Navy's offense couldn't make a game-changing play in the first half, losing more and more leverage as the game went on.
The 2010 game and the 2016 game were very similar in those ways.
However, a few profound differences drew a line between six years ago and October 1, 2016.
First, Navy played with a backup quarterback on Saturday. In 2010, the Midshipmen took the field in Colorado Springs with main man Ricky Dobbs at the helm of the offense. Will Worth was operating against much tougher odds -- and a steeper learning curve -- this past weekend. It was much more realistic to have expected Navy to pull through in 2010. In 2016, a Tago Smith Navy team might have enjoyed good odds, but Worth -- for all the very good things he has in fact achieved -- stood against a stacked deck.
What also made this game so tough for Navy is that Worth could not afford to settle in, to ease his way into the game and absorb some first-quarter mistakes. Why? Air Force's best defensive player, Weston Steelhammer, was suspended for the first half alone due to a targeting penalty the previous week. Coaches preach about 60-minute games and being tougher for 60 minutes, but for Navy and its limited offense, this was in many ways a 30-minute game, a race to get an early lead and outmaneuver the Air Force defense before Steelhammer took the field.
As much as Steelhammer's absence might have been a value-positive development for Navy on a purely conceptual level, that reality could have applied extra pressure to the Midshipmen... and in considering how the first half flowed, it's hard to think that pressure didn't at some point -- in some way -- enter the minds of the Mids, who flinched just when on the verge of scoring on separate occasions.
Then came yet another plot twist which made this game different from 2010.
While Steelhammer came into the picture at the start of the second half, Navy absorbed yet another wretched piece of news on the injury front at the end of the first half. Linebacker Daniel Gonzales -- tied with Micah Thomas for the team lead in tackles through the first three games -- had been plugging gaps and playing excellent assignment football against Air Force's unconventional and diverse offense. Even without the offense's ability to strike while the iron was hot, Navy played the first half on level terms precisely because of Gonzales. When he left, it represented a huge blow in and of itself.
When Steelhammer then took the field, Navy absorbed a double-blow from two revolving doors -- one in, one out.
Navy was soon shown the door in the second half, as Air Force's offense operated with a lot more fluidity and comfort.
Small margins for error, injury misery, a backup quarterback on the road against an opponent more formidable than Tulane -- these and other accumulated factors were too much for Navy to overcome. The limitations of this roster, and a lot of circumstances beyond this team's and coaching staff's control, had the final say in the Rocky Mountains.
It's a bitter pill to swallow, losing a Commander-In-Chief's Trophy game, but in a life -- and a football season -- where one can only focus on what's next, it is helpful that Navy had to lose in this precise fashion before Houston comes to Annapolis.
No team on Navy's 2016 schedule will punish mistakes more than Houston. The Midshipmen learned this last November in Texas. If Navy and Worth can be solid gold on third and three at the Houston 30, and display flawless execution on fourth and two at the Houston 14, and avoid a false start here or a big dropped pass there, Navy's defense could come up with a surprise against the Cougars.
Losing CIC Trophy games stinks. it leaves a hollow feeling in the belly. It unfurls waves of frustration. Sure.
Yet, if all the bad turns and awful breaks of the Air Force game can be turned into a clean, efficient and clutch performance against Houston, the season can take a 180-degree turn in Annapolis.
Let's see what happens.null