Off the Yard: Don't Buy the Downplay Talk

Last week after the Ball State game, I asked Navy coach Paul Johnson to name three things his team currently did well. While I waited for his answer I was able to cook a three-course meal, complete a crossword puzzle, and send a dozen emails. As I prepared to feast on my dessert, Johnson finally responded by saying, "We've covered kick-offs fairly well."

This week I asked Air Force coach Troy Calhoun what his Falcons were currently doing well, and wouldn't you know it after pausing for awhile he said, "I do think our kick-off cover has been decent."


So much for thinking Navy's high-powered offense versus Air Force's tenacious defense would be the featured match-up to watch this Saturday in Annapolis during the first leg in the battle for the Commander in Chief's Trophy.


If you believe both coaches, those kick-offs may just steal the show.


Luckily, I'm not buying what either coach is selling.


What I'm also not buying is how some members of the media may be looking to stir things up between the two teams by leading their stories with quotes from Air Force players regarding the importance of this game.  One player was quoted as saying that the Navy game, outside of a "trip to Washington" is no different than any other game on their schedule.  By this logic, if Air Force prevails this weekend, fans shouldn't expect to see the Falcons celebrate anymore than they did after, say, their opening week victory over 1-AA MEAC heavyweight South Carolina State.


Yep, I'm not buying that either.


I don't think you have to remind any Air Force player of the following numbers: 28-25, 24-21, 27-24, and 24-17.  Four years and four losses to Navy by a combined 16 points tells me that a victory over the Mids might be a little bit more meaningful than Shaun Carney and his teammates are leading folks to believe.


Still not convinced that this game is as big as ever for the Falcons?

Well, then take into consideration that since their last victory over the Mids, the Falcons have beaten every opponent in the Mountain West Conference at least once.  This season they got over the
Utah and TCU humps, and it is worth noting after the victory over the Horned Frogs, Air Force cadets, to put it mildly, celebrated a bit.  


Perhaps the idea of downplaying the Navy game comes as a result of how the Falcons have played in the past four seasons before and after the four losses to the Mids.  Entering the Navy game in the last four years, Air Force had a combined record of 11-6.  Following the emotional defeats, they finished a combined 9-16.


It is rational to think that Calhoun would try to convince (and may be able to convince) his team that a loss to Navy this year is just another loss.  However, I don't think he will have any success trying to downplay what would be a meaningful victory worth building on for the rest of the season. 


It would be nice if more attention was focused on the one thing this week I am buying and that is what seems to be an increase in the mutual respect being shown by both teams leading up to the game.  Taking nothing away from the Navy program, I think Air Force's first-year head coach may just be what the doctor ordered to help lead this rivalry into a new era.


This week when asked to talk about the Mids on the field, Calhoun let the media know how highly he regards the Navy players.


"You're [talking about] academy kids.  They play extraordinarily hard.  I think they execute really well.  I just love their kids.  I just love watching their kids play.  I love watching our kids play.  These are salt of the earth kids.  I'm glad knowing what their going to be doing here real soon."


He also said, "The kids that are involved in this [game] on both sides are just super human beings.  Anytime I watch Army play…anytime I watch Navy play…as a citizen of this country…it strikes a chord and I do get fired up."


I'd also like to buy Calhoun's comments regarding the importance of having his players interact with the media.  When I asked him about Shaun Carney predicting a victory over Army and whether or not he condoned such comments, he responded by saying:


"One of the great things is that these kids get to do is on a fairly frequent basis they get to interact with writers and just the media in general.  That's just something you can't put a price tag on.  You think of what these young men and young women are going to do one day being commanders, that's going to be pretty important for them.  I don't want robots.  I want kids that are natural...that have some maturity about them.  And if something good happens…you have class and you're willing to give some credit and realize that you still have a tremendous amount of respect for the opposing team.  I've never seen a quote win a game – either way."


Specifically about the prediction, Calhoun hinted that he did not believe in that tactic.


"I don't know if I completely agree.  I always thought the tougher you are, the more competitive you were - the more class you should have."


A drum I've been beating ever since Calhoun was hired was my hope that the Air Force-Navy rivalry would approach the same level of respect always on display, on and off-the-field, with the Army-Navy rivalry.  It sure seems Calhoun is doing his part.  Let's hope all participants, win or lose on Saturday, follow suit.


As for on-the-field, at Navy, some players are still feeling the affects of the Duke and Ball State games.  Starting inside linebacker Irv Spencer said he would consider himself to be at about "80 percent" due to a sore Achilles, but by game time he would "definitely be 100 percent."  Likewise, starting quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada declared himself to be "a little banged up" and at about "90 percent."


Regarding this week's showdown with Air Force, every Navy player I spoke with on Tuesday had nothing but positive things to say about their rival.  However, they were not about to downplay the importance of the game.  Spencer even called on the brigade to muster up as much energy as possible for their team, saying, "We need them to be really loud." 


He also added, "Like I told my teammates, if I have get an IV at the end of the game [I will]…I'm going to leave it all on the field."


Meanwhile, those of you hoping for a quarterback controversy at Navy are probably out of luck.  Kaipo is still far enough ahead of Jarod Bryant that Coach Johnson isn't even considering rotating them


"I don't believe in alternating quarterbacks.  I think one's the starter and one's the back-up…that's just the way it is.  If I thought maybe they were closer, then I might," said Johnson.


It should come as no surprise that Bryant endorsed the current plan.


"Coach Johnson knows what he's doing.  Kaipo has been playing good.  If they need me, he'll put me in there."


Bryant also cleared up something from his past that has come up frequently especially since his playing time has increased.  It has long been rumored that the junior chose Navy over Auburn coming out of high school.  It turns out, that's not entirely true.


"I didn't get offered by Auburn.  I think that's a myth [that's been floating around].  They recruited me and I went on a visit there, but this is the place I'm supposed to be. I almost went to Auburn, but they never offered me a full-ride."


Speaking of the Navy quarterbacks, I was curious to know how exactly the decision to put Bryant into the Duke game came about.  It turns out Kaipo's brutal honesty played a key part.


"Coach Jasper just saw me looking a little sluggish.  He called down on the headset and said, ‘Are you alright?'  [I said] I'm just a little bit gassed.  I could go but my legs…I'm moving slow right now," said Kaheaku-Enhada.


"[Coach Jasper said] If you can't go one-hundred percent then take yourself out.  [So] I let coach know that I'm not moving at one-hundred percent, and Coach Johnson made the call."


Kaipo added, "That's the first time [in my career] I've really hit the wall.  It was really humid.  Coaches were like ‘you need to get in shape.'"


"I've known all along [though] that Jarod could get the job done," he concluded.


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