Don't Follow the Bouncing Ball... Just Tackle It

"Follow the bouncing ball" is a directive often used to lead people in song at public gatherings where visual aids are needed to keep a crowd in sync. On Saturday night, the Navy defense took that cue all too literally, and as a result, the fans among a throng of 67,809 who wore blue and gold were singing a funeral dirge as they exited the home of the Baltimore Ravens.

Whether those Navy fans were in sync or not is another question for another day. All that a dejected football team can think about right now is how its defense followed the bouncing ball... a slithery, slippery, bouncy back for Maryland named Lance Ball... for 20 yards on a 4th and 8 play that broke Navy's back. The last-ditch play from the Terps led to a go-ahead touchdown with one minute remaining, shattering the Midshipmen's hopes of a glorious win. It was the kind of "Ball" that Navy didn't drop or lose hold of last season; this time, though, a fundamentally sound defense couldn't hold onto a ballcarrier when one tackle could have shelled the Turtles for good.

It was all so disappointing precisely because Navy's defense put the Johnson Boys in position to win the contest in the first place. The good-hands people known as Navy's defensive unit needed to be counted on against the Terrapins going into this game, and sure enough, they delivered in the first half, snaring two interceptions of Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach while helping the Brigade to build a 14-3 lead. This advantage was briefly lost but emphatically and quickly regained on Matt Hall's touchdown run with under 4:45 left.

The Johnson Boys were in a position to snare a huge win—huge because it would have shown, right off the bat, that 2004 was not the end of Navy Football's continued ascendancy in the college football world. All the Midshipmen had to do was get that one... more... stop. It was a stop that came thisclose to happening, but a man named Ball refused to be caught, thrusting a Lance into Navy's collective stomach, a blow that the Midshipmen couldn't and wouldn't recover from. So goes life when you live on the edge. Those who live by the Lance... errr, sword, also die by it, and Navy tasted death on Saturday.

However, all is not lost based on this one bitter defeat. Amidst the agony of a last-minute loss to Maryland in this frenzied Battle for Baltimore, the Midshipmen can re-gather themselves by realizing one thing: close games are close for a reason. The fine line between winning and losing, between 10-2 and .500 during a season, is incredibly small and unforgiving. The bad news is that games will be lost on one play; the good news is that Navy can still become a special team when 2005 is in the books.

For some people who feared the worst when Aaron Polanco and Kyle Eckel graduated, this performance had to be better than expected. Lamar Owens was quite competent in directing the offense, protecting the ball and leading a rushing attack that totaled 247 yards against a bigger opponent. Jason Tomlinson made some clutch catches, and the offense put together a huge touchdown drive precisely when they needed to. They didn't win, but this Navy team hasn't totally forgotten how to compete and fight in the fourth quarter. One play, quite frankly, was all that stood between them and the finish line.

So while Maryland is the Turtle that got away, Stanford—a rusty team that will be playing its season opener against Navy this Saturday—now seems much more winnable than at first blush. With the Cardinal having to work out their kinks against the Midshipmen, the Johnson Boys—by virtue of having a game under their belt—have a great chance to execute their triple option with even more slickness and unpredictability. That should serve them well in a home game against an opponent that has to travel across the country to Annapolis.

What hurt Navy against Maryland won't hurt nearly as much if this last-minute loss translates into an even better performance... and a win... against Stanford. And the biggest thing to realize is that, much like the game against the Terps, the Stanford contest also figures to be close. This time, however, Navy has to avoid merely following the ball; the Midshipmen need to grab it with two hands and not let go.

One mistake can knock you off a pedestal very quickly; but on the other hand, one more tackle, one more fundamentally sound play, can put you in the winner's circle. Against Stanford and for the rest of 2005, Navy has to make that one final play, the one they didn't make against their in-state foe Saturday night.


Maryland cornerback Josh Wilson, left, breaks up a desperation pass intended for Navy wide receiver Jason Tomlinson, right, during the final seconds of Maryland's 23-20 win Saturday, Sept. 3, 2005, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Chris Gardner)

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