When Little Margins Mean A Lot

In each of the past two seasons, Navy has had a legitimate chance to knock off Notre Dame and stop that pesky losing streak in the series against the Irish. This year was different, and so in the wake of a 42-21 loss to Charlie Weis' team--which is likely to head to the Fiesta Bowl--one can't complain too much with the Midshipmen's performance in South Bend. All one has to do is emphasize one very telling point: small margins can mean a world of difference.

If you watched the NBC telecast, you saw how Notre Dame's Maurice Stovall used a few inches--in reach and in vertical leaping ability--to steal a touchdown on a play that could easily have been a Navy interception in the end zone. You saw how a missed 4th down--by a matter of inches--served as an emotional catalyst for the Irish in the middle of a 7-all game that Navy was controlling--YES, controlling!--midway through the second quarter. You saw how a botched option pitch--on which the timing was off by a slight margin--led to a fumble that essentially buried the Midshipmen.

Small margins of space and distance, plus tiny lapses in concentration and slight differentials in physicality and athleticism, made the difference for Notre Dame. The Irish's natural advantages in talent and quality enabled them to stay even with Navy (7-7 for a quarter and a half) despite playing poorly; on the other hand, Navy lacked any margin for error whatsoever. When Navy made a key mistake, its impact on the game was magnified, as the Midshipmen suffered on the scoreboard whenever their level of play suffered.

That Notre Dame could withstand a few mistakes and Navy couldn't is hardly an earth-shattering revelation. Even more instructively, it's not a negative commentary on the Johnson Boys, who played incredibly well over the game's first 20-25 minutes. With Lamar Owens running the triple option to perfection, draining time and moving the chains, Navy kept Brady Quinn and the Irish offense off the field. And with Notre Dame coming off an emotional win over Tennessee the week before, the Midshipmen were also able to exploit a flat and mentally drained Notre Dame team. Without any early momentum, the Irish were bystanders as the Johnson Boys took the fight to them on both sides of the ball.

But of course, once the Irish got a few breaks--by small margins--and Navy went from being airtight to just slightly off kilter, the whole game changed, and Navy's fortunes deteriorated. But that's okay: Navy competed hard and gave every indication that with many of these same players returning next year, the Midshipmen--if they play as they did in the first 20 minutes on Saturday--could give Notre Dame an even better run for the money. And if Navy can give next year's Notre Dame team a competitive 60-minute battle, that will indicate that the Midshipmen--against the rest of their 2006 schedule--could do major damage along the lines of what last year's 10-2 team did.

Saturday laid a foundation for next season, in many ways, for Navy football. That foundation already looks very solid, but it will be almost immovable if the Midshipmen can consistently turn small margins of space, timing and athleticism in their favor. If this Notre Dame game gets the Johnson Boys to play with even more urgency--given their tiny margin for error--it will be more than worth the sober plane flight back to Annapolis.

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