Spice Up the Fruitcake: EagleBank Preview

A bowl game rematch is the equivalent of receiving a fruitcake for Christmas. Given the circumstances facing the Navy football team in this Saturday's inaugural EagleBank Bowl against Wake Forest, the Men of Ken might as well flavor their gift as much as they possibly can.

Off the field, bowl games offer players a number of gifts, service opportunities, charitable functions, and inspiring moments that make the larger experience worthwhile. On the field, bowls are supposed to bring together teams that wouldn't face each other in the regular season. Part of the football-focused fun of a bowl game is the opportunity to play an exotic opponent from a different part of America. Granted, 34 bowl games can provide only so much variety, but one would like to think that with the exception of the Rose Bowl (where conference tie-ins almost created rematches involving USC and Ohio State, and then Oregon State and Penn State), every other bowl could avoid a repeat of a regular-season matchup. Maryland, N.C. State, Clemson and Miami all could have made the trek to Robert Francis Kennedy Stadium to play the Midshipmen, providing a different kind of "Inauguration Day" in Washington, D.C. One month before swearing in a new president, the nation's capital could have introduced its brand-new bowl game to the world with an interesting matchup.

Instead, someone picked Wake Forest.

That's why this game is a Christmas fruitcake. The presence of the Demon Deacons as Navy's opponent has forced the words "Grinch" and "Scrooge" to the front of this writer's mind.

Yes, one could say that if Wake had held a funeral for the Midshipmen back in late September, this game would have given Ken Niumatalolo's team a chance for revenge (and that's probably what would have been written about in setting the stage for this contest). Nevertheless, bowl-game rematches—while not nearly as much of an outrage as the lack of a playoff, or at least a plus-one, in college football—represent a big fat lump of coal in the stocking.

Bah, humbug.

Instead of a really interesting matchup freshened with some real intrigue, the first-ever EagleBank Bowl will possess precious little on-field attractiveness. Not only is this game a rematch, it's a rematch of a game that had eight turnovers, six of them by the Deacons. Wake's senior quarterback, Riley Skinner, threw four picks that day in Winston-Salem, enabling the Midshipmen to notch the victory that, in all candor, was most responsible for giving Niumatalolo a winning record in his first season in Annapolis. The Sept. 20 win over a good Rutgers team likely helped Navy to at least a .500 mark, but the dusting off of the Deacs probably propelled the Men of Ken more than any other victory in 2008.



So, we have a very stale "been there, done that" feel to this game. Moreover, with another Commander-In-Chief Trophy snugly resting on the shelves where Navy's football hardware is stored, the EagleBank Bowl—even if lost—won't do much of anything to wipe the smiles off the faces of a team and coaching staff that have performed extremely well in the first crucial year of the post-Paul Johnson era. While the nation has come to see just how good Johnson really is—something Navy fans knew for quite some time—one can't begin to adequately express just how substantial an achievement it is for Ken Niumatalolo to register eight wins, sweep Air Force and Army yet again, and bag another CIC trophy. Overachievement continues to be the main storyline surrounding Navy football, and a loss to Wake Forest—a team it has already defeated, and on the road at that—won't do a single thing to dent the reputation of the Men of Ken.

Therefore, since bowl games are supposed to be all about fun (except for the BCS bowls and a few other contests where reputations are truly on the line), Navy should spice up this fruitcake of a game and create its own share of holiday cheer.

Forget the football percentages for a day. Oh, sure, the Midshipmen need to block and tackle and throw and run and catch, just as any winning football team needs to do, but in terms of situational decision making and play calling, Navy ought to wing it against Wake Forest. If ever there was a football game in which a team had absolutely nothing to lose, it's the Midshipmen in the first EagleBank Bowl.

Fourth down and 4 at midfield on the game's opening series? Go for it.

Try a 55-yard field goal, just for kicks? Sure. See what Matt Harmon can do in a non-pressure situation.

Trick plays? Load ‘em up.

Special teams boldness, maybe an onside kick? Absolutely.

Ken Niumatalolo has already done the hard part this year, guiding his team to a series of accomplishments that have sustained the excellence of previous seasons. Now, he can relax and treat this game as a chance to do a lot of fun things, experiment, and test the limits of his players. Instead of playing it safe, Niumatalolo has an occasion in which he can play mad scientist, tweaking and tinkering with his offense in many ways and on many levels. Making this game fun—while also helping TV viewers and Navy fans—would give Navy's players a look at new possibilities that can emerge during a game, and expose the Men of Ken to new methods of fooling an opposing defense. If the Midshipmen open up the grab bag and win as a result, imagine the effect such a scenario would have on the program as it moves forward into 2009.

Navy doesn't have to win this game in order to prove anything, but the Midshipmen—given the nature of their offense—are the ones who will likely determine how fun the first EagleBank Bowl turns out to be.

This game needs some Christmas cheer and the flavor a sweet-tooth could really love. It's time for Navy to remove the stale and sour scent of a regular-season rematch and turn its 2008 postseason experience into a real pigskin party.

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