Put Up Your Dukes and Fight...

Since Navy's loss to Stanford way back on Sept. 10, life has changed in profound ways for all Americans. The devastation of Hurricane Rita, on top of everything Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast, has saddened a nation and so thoroughly uprooted the lives of millions in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. It's put football in a smaller, healthier and more proper light.

Paul Johnson's Midshipmen have tasted a small but real part of the abnormality that has entered life this hurricane season, as their game in Houston against Rice University was postponed one month to Oct. 22. Surely, these future leaders of our country have spent much of their past off-week thinking, praying and acting to lend help, support and solidarity—in ways big and small—to those affected by Katrina and now Rita. It's foolish and, moreover, flat-out wrong to suggest that football should be the first thing on the minds of Navy's players or any college football players at the present moment. If college is all about education and growing up, young student-athletes should be learning how to be better citizens by studying and observing these natural disasters, not a playbook. This is all the more so for men who serve at the United States Naval Academy, who—in future years—might be stationed along the Gulf Coast in some capacity.

So with perspective established and life held in its proper balance, Navy's football team—and all of us—can give our attention back to the games played on Autumnal Saturdays.

The extra week off gives the Midshipmen a three-week break between games. It's great timing for Paul Johnson, who has still one more week to use the first two contests of the season—lesson-filled, weakness-exposing, insight-producing losses to Maryland and Stanford—as supreme teaching tools. The Johnson Boys now have more time to absorb the magnitude of their successes and failures in the effort to win big in 2005. It's still very much possible.

The road back to the win column and a successful 2005 campaign begins, then, this Saturday at Duke. The easy temptation for the Midshipmen is to take Duke lightly. After all, the Blue Devils—the exact opposite of their basketball counterparts—are a doormat, not a dominator, and—as a matter of raw analysis—show no signs of changing their colors. The easy instinct is to look at this game and chalk up a "W" for the team from Annapolis.

But among the many things that have changed in the world since Sept. 10, the quality of Navy's two conquerors is the issue in the college football world that raises questions—albeit very indirectly--about Navy's quality. Did you notice how inept Maryland looked on offense against West Virginia, stumbling to two defeats after beating Navy? Even more alarming, however, is that Stanford—fresh off a conquest in Annapolis—promptly came home, built a 17-0 lead over its Division I-AA opponent, UC-Davis.... AND LOST!

That's right. Stanford, who pushed USC to the limit last season in Palo Alto, lost to a I-AA patsy on the very same field, getting shut out in the second half in a game where its defense scored the team's two touchdowns. Yes, Stanford could not score one touchdown against UC-Davis. True, quarterback Trent Edwards was knocked out of the game early on with an injury, but a backup Pac-10 quarterback should be able to muster at least one touchdown in three quarters against UC-Davis.

The question has to be asked: how bad are the teams Navy has lost to? The answer is unclear, but the mere fact that this question needs to be asked should provide Coach Johnson and the Navy team with enough insecurity that they'll avoid taking Duke lightly.

It's time to focus, patch up mistakes, smooth out rough edges, and apply the boatload of lessons learned against Maryland and Stanford to this Saturday's game against Duke. If Navy shows it's learned a lot, the wins... and the old feeling of 2004's joyful romp of a season... will come flowing back into a rejuvenated program. That should be all the motivation this football team needs when it travels to Tobacco Road.

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