Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Navy displayed tremendous resilience against Memphis, achieving athletic perfection in one specific way

Resilience. It's been a defining virtue of Navy football under Ken Niumatalolo -- the program couldn't have gone this far without that signature quality. Resilience acquires many forms and dimensions, and to an undeniable extent, it is manifested physically: better blocking, faster reactions, more forceful and technically sound tackling. Yet, so much of resilience is not about the body, but the mind. At the very heart of resilience is the task so many athletes and teams (losing ones or undera

The tennis player who botches an easy overhead smash when having break point at 4-4 in the fifth set.

The basketball player who misses two free throws with 35 seconds left with a one-point lead.

The golfer who misses a four-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole, one stroke down.

These and other athletes in similar situations are not immune to pressure -- no one is in full. Steph Curry wobbled (albeit because he was injured) in the NBA Finals. Clayton Kershaw doesn't always pitch great in the baseball playoffs. Lionel Messi of Argentina has somehow failed to win a major international soccer tournament. 

Human beings are wonderfully made creatures, but none are perfect. We all make mistakes. We all fail. We all encounter days when, despite skills or capabilities which generally enable us to succeed, we just don't have it.

Navy football -- in any context, but especially in a post-Keenan Reynolds era -- cannot be expected to be flawless on a relentless basis. More to the point, one of the fundamental possibilities every Navy fan had to confront in this specific season was that a lot more mistakes would flow from Navy's offense with No. 19 no longer around. 

Has that happened? Has Navy made "a lot more" mistakes than at this point in 2015? Probably not. Tulane bothered Navy last year, much as it did this year. The Notre Dame loss a year ago was a mistake-making factory. The Air Force game in 2015 was thousands of miles better than this year's contest against the Falcons, but on the other hand, the Houston masterpiece of 2016 balances out the scales.

All in all, heading into the last week of October, the 2016 Navy offense has not been as consistent as the 2015 offense, but its best game (Houston) has been greater than the best Navy game from 2015 (either Memphis or Pittsburgh), and its worst game (Air Force) was worse than the 2015 offense's worst performance (Notre Dame or Army). The 2016 Navy offense might not be making a lot more mistakes than last year's offense, but its mistakes are sometimes extremely large ones.

Recall the Connecticut game, in which a long fumble return -- the very thing Navy used to beat Army several years ago -- was turned against the Midshipmen. Navy blew UConn out of the water in the first quarter but was outplayed for the remaining three stanzas. Navy players didn't have short memories that day, and while the defense made a magnificent stop at the 1-yard line in the final 15 seconds, the Midshipmen still needed UConn coach Bob Diaco to mangle that endgame sequence. Navy didn't so much repel a UConn threat as survive with help from the Huskies.

Several weeks later, Navy was once again visited by lightning-bolt gut-punch mishaps, the kinds of things the team really never shook off in early September. 

Against Memphis -- a demonstrably better team than UConn, the team whose season Navy ruined at the Liberty Bowl last November -- Navy once again took massive shots, the kinds of blows which can hijack a gorgeous afternoon and evening in Annapolis.

The Midshipmen were ready this time.


The tennis player who botches that break-point overhead can still hit a strong return at deuce and then win a long and taxing rally on a second break-point chance.

The basketball player who misses two foul shots with 35 seconds left up one can get two more foul shots with 5 seconds left when trailing by a point.

The golfer who misses that short birdie putt on 17, trailing by a stroke, can get that same putt to tie on 18 and force a playoff.

Athletes of every kind know that while physical prowess and toughness matter a lot, they don't mean much if not accompanied by the performer's best friend: a short memory.

Sure, practitioners in sports or any other craft need to learn lessons from mistakes. Slipping up is almost always an occasion and opportunity to retain a certain kind of intelligence. Sports, though, are particularly potent and instructive in terms of forcing athletes to shed the negativity and frustration of a bad experience while latching onto the lesson found in the experience. The athlete must immediately grasp how they failed (and hence, how they can correct problems), but just as immediately move on -- psychologically -- from that awful moment of failure.

The athlete can retain the lesson he needs to learn -- in terms of how to maintain sound technique or a proper thought process under pressure -- but if the athlete buckles under pressure, his "head knowledge" is no match for his emotional volatility, an inability to find inner calm.

Navy, as a collective, lost this calm against UConn, but against Memphis, the Mids learned -- with their minds, but also their nerves. 

They held firm.


Forget offense for a moment. One common thread between UConn and Memphis was that a 32-yard field goal was missed by Navy. In this Memphis game, the kick came in the latter half of the fourth quarter, not in the first half. That miss against UConn led to a downward spiral which almost ambushed the Mids in the end, but that was something which unfolded over more than two full quarters. Against Memphis, Navy had no time in which to readjust. The Midshipmen defense HAD to stand tall after the kicking game failed to put the contest away.

Sure enough, Navy closed the door.

The other big event in this game which sorely tested Navy's ability to demonstrate a short memory was a product of the worst single in-game rule in all sports, the "fumble off a pylon is a touchback" rule. The rule stung Navy when Will Worth was victimized by the play. Navy should have had a 21-14 lead. Instead, Memphis gained a huge shot of adrenaline. Before anyone knew what was happening, the Tigers zoomed to the Navy 3. First and goal. A 180-degree swing -- the very thing which catapulted UConn from a 21-0 ditch to one yard removed from an upset of the home team in Memorial Stadium -- was about to take place.

Navy's defense wouldn't have it. The goal-line stand of the season on par with the UConn game reverberated through the rest of the proceedings. After that display of resolve, the endgame response to the doinked field goal off the upright was so much more doable, so much easier to visualize.

The Navy offense hummed again. Will Worth flourished again. Ivin Jasper dazzled all of us again. Yet, two moments of short memories, two moments when a team did not allow negative energy to consistently permeate a game (unlike the final three quarters against UConn), truly stood above the rest.

So many athletes fail to display a short memory. Navy's athletes have learned that secret of ultimate competition.

No wonder this team -- without Keenan Reynolds -- is in great position to win the AAC West.

Let's see if Navy can play well enough against South Florida that big mistakes don't even enter the equation. For now, though, it's so impressive to witness what this team is doing under this particular collection of in-season circumstances. Top Stories