How many times has a Navy football team ever played for a tenth win in the same season? This will be just the sixth time the Midshipmen have been in a position to ring up 10 wins in a year, with the 1905 club being the only team in school history to actually do the deed.
For an institution as prominent and noble as the United States Naval Academy, those totals are small, even though Academy Football--in West Point as much as Annapolis--is not what it once was in the 1940s and before. Given that Navy has played football since an 1879 game against the Baltimore Athletic Club, eleven bowl games and six chances at a 10-win season are surprisingly small numbers.
Sure, this football game against the New Mexico Lobos can obviously improve the credentials of an already-ascendant program, but you know that's not why this game really matters to the Navy football family.
Yeah, go ahead and admit it: what matters is that this Emerald Bowl--like any great bowl game ought to be--is about history. It's about a moment made special precisely because it doesn't come along very often. According to the raw numerical averages, a bowl game comes along once every 11 seasons for Navy, and a chance at a 10-win season comes down the pike once every 20 seasons.
Let's forget 2005 for the moment, shall we? This isn't a New Year's Day bowl, and the Midshipmen players will get to celebrate the turning of the calendar about 30 hours after the Emerald Bowl ends. What will happen next season will take care of itself, thank you very much. Right now, a Navy team is playing for a special spot in Annapolis football lore.
The question of the moment, then, is this: where can Navy find an edge in this game, besides the fact that the Johnson Boys will have home-port advantage in San Francisco? (Who needs home-court advantage when you have home port advantage?)
To look for a Navy edge, one must look no further than the edge itself. New Mexico, a poor man's version of Notre Dame, is all about running. The Lobos play a power running game and can defend the same on defense; conversely, New Mexico can't throw a lick and can't defend the pass, either. If Navy is to win this game, it will need to win it on the edges, the portion of the field wide of the hashmarks and outside the tackle box. This means a number of things, but the highest priority of all will be for Aaron Polanco and the receiving corps to work more of the magic they created against Army.
The athleticism and creativity of Polanco will need to come to the forefront in this game, since--as the Notre Dame game proved--Navy lacks the raw muscle needed to hang with a power running offense and a run-stuffing defense. In order for Navy to win, the Midshipmen must keep New Mexico's offense and running back DonTrell Moore off the field, all while keeping an undersized defense fresh. Secondly, Navy must get an early lead to force the Lobos to panic, abandon their run-first game plan, and pass often in predictable passing situations. Third, the Midshipmen must exploit the Lobos' extremely weak secondary, realizing that New Mexico's coaching staff will naturally have their defensive backs--not to mention their entire defense--set to stuff Kyle Eckel's fullback plunges and between-the-tackles thrusts.
All three of these larger, more overarching keys to victory are all connected to the ability of Polanco to make plays on the edges, either on option keepers, pitch plays, or downfield throws to his receivers. One way or another--be it scoring, relieving pressure on Eckel, keeping New Mexico's defense off balance, or resting the Midshipmen defense--Polanco's performance on the perimeter of the field will dictate to everything else in this game.
Yes, games are won in the trenches, and it's obvious that old-time football maxims will apply to this game. The team with better line play and fewer turnovers stands a great chance of winning, given that both teams are similar in their stingy defenses and run-first, pass-second offensive approaches. But if Navy can merely play New Mexico to a stalemate inside the tackles without committing any huge turnovers, the game played outside the hashmarks and down the field certainly favors the Midshipmen. Moreover, if Navy can get a quick lead on the strength of a big play, the Lobos will have a much harder time playing the style of ball they like. Showing an ability to make plays on the edges will open up everything else in this game for Navy on both sides of the ball.
On top of all these factors, there's one other reason to emphasize perimeter play instead of the war in the tackle box: this writer fully expects Navy to bring a rough, tough mean streak to San Francisco.
While last year's team lost its bowl game, a 38-14 decision against Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl, one must not forget that for the first 25 minutes, Navy flatly outplayed an opponent that had vastly superior firepower. Navy played a more physically impressive brand of football than it had all year long, doing something few people thought anyone could do: shut out Tech's superstar quarterback, B.J. Symons, for nearly a whole half. Had Navy not committed some crushing turnovers around the Texas Tech goal line, the Midshipmen would have held a halftime lead and stood an even-money chance at winning. Partly because of rest, and partly because of the adrenaline-fueled excitement of being in a bowl game, Navy held up extraordinarily well from a physical standpoint in last year's bowl game. There's no reason to think anything will be different this year. On paper, Navy might be undersized up front, but in terms of motivation, energy and other intangible dimensions of this game, Navy should acquit itself well in the trenches. It's yet one more reason why the perimeter game will make the difference, and why Navy's winning edge exists on the edge.
Sixty minutes: that's all that separates the 2004 Navy football team from the first 10-win season at Annapolis in 99 years, and just the fifth bowl win in school history. All that's left for Paul Johnson's team is to, in military terms, man the perimeter and seal off the enemy. By attacking New Mexico with speed and shrewdness in addition to blunt force, this special club will immediately enshrine itself as one of the five greatest Navy football teams of all time, slightly below the Staubach and Bellino teams in terms of quality, but greater than those same teams in terms of raw accomplishments.
The gleaming Emerald is out there, waiting to be claimed. But instead of looking at the prize that's within their grasp, the Midshipmen need to keep their eyes on the ball... and on each small task that will be needed to achieve a particularly momentous victory. The hunger to win will be there in San Francisco when game time approaches; but if history is to be made in the life of Annapolis football, the Johnson Boys need to show the famous military combination of no-frills discipline and creative strategy. A nasty emotional edge combined with football excellence on the edges can lift Navy to victory in the 2004 Emerald Bowl, a game played by the water's edge on the edge of a new calendar year.
If Navy can find its winning edge in a game that's all about edges, a bunch of kids who have already done so much in their careers will turn from overachievers into legends. So if these boys from Annapolis really are legends, they'll go out and play like them on Dec. 30. And if not? Well, they'll still be considered great. That's no small thing, but the line between mere greatness and immortality is considerable. If these Midshipmen want to aspire to a higher place in Navy football history, they'll need to bring their best to the ballpark.