A Ship That Can Be Steadied

The United States Naval Academy football team lost another battle on Saturday. However, it's in good position to win the one holy war that really counts—the next game on the schedule: Army on Dec. 7.

Yes, the Midshipmen lost at Wake Forest this past Saturday, 30-27. Yes, the Middies gave up another backbreaking late score, just as in the Notre Dame game a few weeks before. Yes, this team still doesn't know how to finish strong in the midst of a tight, tense ballgame. If one goes back to the very beginning of the season and a late afternoon in Dallas, one will recall that Navy won its only contest of the year by jumping out to a big lead and frontrunning throughout the second half against Southern Methodist.

But you know what? Despite the aches and pains of another heartbreaking loss, this weekend, in many ways, will not be remembered as the worst of times for the boys from Annapolis.

First of all, it should be noted that Wake Forest is not the ACC doormat it used to be. The Demon Deacons scared the bejeezus out of Florida State a few weeks ago, racing out to a halftime lead before its offense melted down in the second half. With wins over Purdue, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, the 6-5 Deacons will go bowling, a rare accomplishment for a formerly downtrodden program.

Hmmm… given Navy's competitiveness against a resurgent ACC foe, maybe the Midshipmen can similarly climb from the depths and work their way toward a .500 record.

With Craig Candeto under center, the Middies' offense once again thrived. Through 59 minutes and seven seconds of play, the 27 points posted by Navy held up. The Brigade was cheered by the play of Candeto, the quarterback who runs Paul Johnson's option with the crispness that makes it go, while also providing the passing dimension that gallant backup Aaron Polanco lacked in the Notre Dame game. On yet another occasion, Navy's offense—and Johnson, the mind behind it all—gave the Midshipmen hope for the Johnson Era in Annapolis. The short-term lack of a "W" shouldn't cloud or obscure this long-term reality.

Also on the positive front for Navy, it should be noted that, far removed from Winston-Salem, N.C., the site of the Academy's loss to the Deacons, Connecticut was in the process of quietly but surely dismantling Iowa State in Ames, Iowa, by a score of 37-20.

For all the people who thought Navy was sleepwalking in the 38-0 home loss to UConn back on Nov. 16, the Huskies' win over former Heisman Trophy candidate (remember that far back?) Seneca Wallace—in Iowa State's ballpark, no less—proves that Navy actually lost to a quality team playing its best ball of the year.

Sure, there was a bit of a hangover or letdown on the Academy's part against UConn after the Notre Dame loss, but now that UConn has obviously proved its worth to an even more substantial and significant degree—much more than anyone had previously thought or anticipated—people in and around the Navy program can step back and, with the benefit of hindsight and not knee-jerk analysis, realize that wasn't as bad a loss as first thought.

In this, the first season of Paul Johnson's exciting and hope-inspiring tenure in Annapolis, there's legitimate reason for Navy to expect good things out of its offense in the future. Moreover, these experiences of coming up just short in the fourth quarter will enable Johnson to sell his players on the importance of closing the deal next season.

And finally, Navy's offensive proficiency—combined with the sting of defeat—should, after a two-week break, make the Brigade of Midshipmen poised and primed to win the only game that really counts: the one against the Long Gray Line of Cadets. Win that game, and a season of legitimate, discernible growth for Navy will become complete.

Relax, sailors, and enjoy your Thanksgiving. Things aren't nearly as bad as they seem, and in the future—both short-terms and long-term—there's a lot of upside for the US Naval Academy's gridiron warriors.

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