There are two challenges faced by college football programs in their search for greatness. Navy has already passed the first one: namely, finding the ability to ratchet up the level of play in high-stakes games against formidable opposition. Navy played its best game of the year against Air Force and displayed enough grit for a decade's worth of seasons in South Bend. When the spotlight shines brightly on these young men, they rise to the occasion with a special swagger and a heightened ability to display pronounced playmaking panache. Navy knows how to find that extra gear in staement-making showdowns; the Johnson Boys successfully up the ante when the poker game intensifies. This Saturday against North Texas, the Midshipmen--fresh off their conquest of the Fighting Irish--will try to surmount the second major obstacle that good college football programs will inevitably face in each and every season: the letdown game. If step one on the road to gridiron glory is the great conquest, the second step--which affirms and entrenches a team's place on the mountaintop in this sport--is the ability to avoid letdowns against inferior opposition. While it's easy to get fired up for the sexy five-star throwdowns, the great teams in college football (think Ohio State and USC) play with the same high level of intensity on every snap, every Saturday, every Autumn. Any team can have the proverbial "any given day," when the emotions stay high and everything breaks just right. The teams with staying power in college football, however, manage to stay consistent enough to beat back challenges from all comers.
This contest against the Mean Green is just as important as the Notre Dame game--not in a larger, historical sense, of course, but surely in a very immediate context: if Navy loses to a bottom-feeding Sun Belt Conference club one week after storming the gates in South Bend, the luster of that legendary triumph will fade a little bit. The Midshipmen--for their bowl fortunes, yes, but even more so for their overall reputation--must learn to take care of business in a small town that will pose a Texas-sized challenge for this up-and-down outfit.
We've seen this dynamic before in Annapolis.
Navy lost to Delaware this season, but a few years ago, in 2003, the very same thing happened, as Paul Johnson's first bowl team felt full of itself and read too many press clippings.
Earlier this season, before the Delaware loss, Navy got ambushed at home by Ball State. The 2007 edition of the Johnson Boys has had its huge wins, but those triumphs have been offset by letdown and look-ahead losses. With four losses on the ledger, the Midshipmen need to play with supreme passion and purpose against North Texas, and bump that record to 6-4. If this team comes out flat and remains punch-drunk with the giddiness created by the Notre Dame joyride, it will be dented on the way out of Denton, to the tune of a 5-5 record that will put a bowl bid in big-time jeopardy. With all the middle-division BCS conference teams hovering around the .500 mark at this point, it's in Navy's best interest to close the season at 8-4 to ensure a good place in the bowl pecking order. An eight-win season isn't just built on the back of winning the spotlight games; it's forged by focusing and finishing against the weaklings on the schedule.
Mature military men accomplish all the tasks they're asked to perform. One mission in a sleepy Texas town is just as important as an awesome assignment in Soulth Bend. Surviving as the hunted is just as urgent a task as playing the role of the hunter and ambushing the Irish.
It's time for this team to win the games it's supposed to win. We know Navy can claim the big scalps in college football; it's time to now show an even greater level of maturity by going about one's business in a game that won't be on national television before a crowd of 81,000 people and hundreds of national journalists.
It's time for the unfocused letdown-game loser to leave the building in Annapolis. It's time for the consistent winner to emerge for a program that has unfinished business to take care of.
These Navy football players will be able to remember and cherish the Notre Dame conquest for the rest of their lives on this planet. This week, however, the focus must return to North Texas. Paul Johnson didn't have to motivate his team when it headed into South Bend. This week, Navy's decorated coach has a Texas-sized motivational challenge on his hands.
Finish the job. Complete the next assignment. Don't let down. The 2007 Navy football team needs to take the next big step toward real gridiron greatness.