A Nice Problem Can Still Be Problematic

There's this delightful problem plaguing the 2004 Navy football team: it always wins close games. Right after getting smacked around by Notre Dame on Oct. 16, Navy got right back on the beam and won a tight game against Rice last Saturday. It's as though the Midshipmen, after their typical one-game mental holiday during each Autumn, immediately recaptured their mental toughness against a team not wearing a plain gold-painted helmet

(just a side note: Army's gold-painted helmet has a black stripe, so the "Notre Dame Rule" holds up).

In every close game, in every football foxhole, these members of the U.S. Naval Academy have defended the ship and added to the "W" column. It's been, by far, the most impressive dimension of this team this season.

Paul Johnson--like any other football coach--would be the first to agree that winning close games with regularity is a nice problem to have.

But as the Midshipmen enter the home stretch of their 2004 campaign, starting with a nice fat revenge game against a Delaware team that ambushed them last season, it's time to eliminate that problem, nice though it may be.

If collegiate team sports is supposed to promote growth and development in the human individual, it's about time, then, for Navy to find new proving grounds for itself, new dimensions of excellence and quality. If this team wants to continue to grow, it will find a way to begin to bring the hammer to the opposition.

When Navy pasted Tulsa 29-0 back in September on the same field where Boise State almost got beat a few weeks ago, it seemed that the Johnson Boys were becoming a juggernaut. The fact that that reality hasn't materialized, however, should not be an indictment of a team that still, amazingly, continues to win every white-knuckler it plays. Up to this point, Navy has still achieved richly in 2004, and quite frankly, the Midshipmen could win four more pulse-pounding nail-biters and win the accolades of Annapolis with a gleaming 10-1 record.

But you want to know something? Teams that live on the edge, close to the precipice, eventually fall off, especially in the increased intensity of the final four weeks of the season. If you tempt fate enough times, chances are the odds even out, and that is the real challenge facing Paul Johnson's team, which has proven beyond any doubt that it has the guts of... well... a United States Navy: can this team now win with a little more precision, execution and raw production?

Can Aaron Polanco find a way to make better reads, get free on the edges, and increase the big pass plays that have dotted the landscape at times, but which have not been consistent enough to make the Midshipmen offense a point-scoring powerhouse?

Can an undeniably sturdy, stout and determined defense find ways to do even more ball-hawking than it's done up to this point in the season?

Let's turn north and look at what's happening in West Point for just one second: with the way Army is just beginning to flex its muscles, at least in the past few weeks, it would behoove this Navy team to get off the (air craft carrier) deck and start decking some teams with fierce combinations, instead of merely outpointing them in 15-round bouts that are nearly even on the scorecard. If Navy doesn't get its knockout punch fixed in the next few weeks, Army--though currently four wins poorer than the Midshipmen--just might have the advantage when Dec. 4 comes around.

Maybe that possibility will fire up a team that has some really nice problems, but problems nevertheless. Time to fix things up, grow to another level, and taste--once again--the sweet feeling of not just beating a team, but beating it up badly.

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