Cardinal Cruelty

A young Navy football team, aware of what its predecessors did the previous two seasons in Annapolis, is learning about the thin line between victory and defeat, and the cruelty of that reality.

What Maryland taught the Midshipmen a week earlier in Baltimore, the Cardinal reinforced to the Brigade on Saturday in Annapolis, as Navy suffered its second-straight three-point loss in a September that is becoming the opposite of last year's tiptoe through landmines. This year, the same fight and effort exist from a Navy gridiron squad, but the results aren't coming—the landmines aren't being avoided.

You look at the stat sheet, and it's all so deceiving for the Johnson Boys.

Nearly 50 percent on third downs—sensational. Two of three on fourth downs—courageous. More passing yards than rushing yards—amazing, especially when you consider that Navy gained a not-insignificant 210 rushing yards. Navy got not just balance, but meaningful and substantial balance in terms of the distribution and totality of its overall yardage on offense.

And the Midshipmen still lost.

Karlos Whittaker and Marco Nelson were outstanding, and it's clear that after two games, Navy's offense can definitely move the ball under the competent leadership of Lamar Owens, who needs to weed out interceptions but who has still provided considerable guidance for an offense that isn't exactly lagging.

If this season is to get turned around, and if one part of this team needs to find a way to step up, it's the defense. Last year's Navy defense made the clutch plays that relieved much of the burden on Aaron Polanco and the rest of the Midshipmen offense. It was the defense that made the timely stops and game-changing turnovers that turned a number of close games in Navy's direction. It was the defense that held things together last September when the offense was still finding its footing.

That hasn't happened this year. Not this September.

It needs to be said that Navy's defense shouldn't have been expected to outplay the offenses it faced so far, given that Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and Stanford boss Walt Harris are two of the finer offensive minds in college football. It's not that Navy's defense gave up points to the Cardinal this past Saturday—that's not the problem or the issue.

The area of concern for Navy's defense—and this is why the Midshipmen have lost two three-point games instead of winning them—is simply that it's timing is lousy. Not all touchdowns scored—or allowed—are equal. (Have we said this before?)

Think about it: Navy took a 21-14 lead in the second quarter. Stanford immediately answered with a tying touchdown.

Navy got within seven points at 38-31 early in the fourth quarter. Stanford immediately answered with not just a scoring drive, but a time-consuming scoring drive that really put the Johnson Boys in a box.

Conversely, Stanford's defense—after struggling mightily for two and a half quarters—made the key stops that allowed the Cardinal to breathe. After getting its lead shaved to 28-24 midway through the third quarter, Stanford's defense held the line, enabling Trent Edwards and the rest of a smooth, efficient offense to build a 38-24 lead before Navy's late charge, which came up short. The Cardinal defense was hardly great, but it made the important situational stops before allowing a late cosmetic touchdown just before the two-minute mark. Navy's defensive lapses, on the other hand, came precisely when the Midshipmen had to take—and make—a stand.

Give Paul Johnson and his staff a lot of credit—this Navy offense is performing admirably for a wise football Admiral and his fellow coaches. All that's left is for a team to reach deep inside itself and make the key plays when they need to be made. That's all that separates this team from last year's team.... that, and the youthfulness that is part of growing up, and learning how to win these kinds of white-knucklers instead of losing them.


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