The Team That Ponies Up

Pay any price. Bear any burden. The words of John Fitzgerald Kennedy—slain in the very city where Navy played a football game this past weekend—are meant to reflect the ultimate sacrifice a person can make. No, football isn't war, but within the less consequential confines of college football competition, it's quite true that Ken Niumatalolo has a team that will always endure, no matter what.

We're now seven games into another college football season, and once again, it's plainly apparent that another assemblage of Annapolis athletes has the right stuff on the gridiron. The Midshipmen were often down and disjointed on Saturday night in Dallas, but while playing in Gerald R. Ford Stadium before another former president, the Men of Ken—true to their academy and creed—never gave up the ship against Southern Methodist.

When met by the manifestly-improved young men being guided by difference-making coach June Jones, Navy struggled and stumbled. On their second straight trip to the state of Texas, the Midshipmen were knocked off balance by SMU's newfound toughness. Yet, any periods of adversity proved to be short-lived for a squad that pushed past the Ponies with nothing but pure effort. By redoubling its intensity and attentiveness in a special second half, a team that had to find its own unique formula for fulfillment in 2009 simply strove a lot harder than before. If paying the price of victory required 247 post-halftime rushing yards against SMU, the Men of Ken were all too willing—and quite evidently able—to Pony up against the Mustangs.

That, in short, is the theme for this team, much as it's been the story of Navy football over the past seven years: When a bill comes due, the Men of Ken don't avoid their responsibility or default on a loan. They pay the price. They put in the hard yards. They find the additional mental, physical and strategic resources they need to win. They prevail.

And then they exult in a rightly satisfied locker room, all while leaving their fan base in that impossible-to-explain but unable-to-ignore posture involving a permanently affixed goofy smile that just can't be removed from a beaming face.

This is who Navy is. This is what Navy does. The Men of Ken man up. They pay up. They pony up… even against the school that Eric Dickerson, Craig James, and the NCAA Death Penalty made (in)famous in the 1980s.

Let's focus for a little bit on the SMU team Navy outlasted in a fabulous and thrilling overtime game on Saturday. This is not the program that, in the decades following the Death Penalty and its far-ranging set of sanctions, languished under a series of coaches, the most recent one being former Kansas State defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. Heck, SMU isn't even the team inherited last year by Jones, the Hawaii refugee who sought a fresh start and a new rebuilding opportunity in Conference USA, shortly after working wonders in the Western Athletic Conference.

In just one year, Jones took a cellar-dwelling club and molded it into something much more substantial. Entering Saturday's showdown, SMU actually owned a 3-2 record that could have been 4-1 if Mustang quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell hadn't thrown a pair of second-half pick-sixes in an overtime loss at Washington State. While it's true that Navy waxed the Ponies last year in Annapolis, the evident improvements wrought by the June Jones project made it clear that the Midshipmen wouldn't enjoy smooth sailing on the back end of this home-and-home series.

It didn't take long for coach Niumatalolo to see the extent to which the Mustangs had developed in only 12 months' time.

Last year's clash at Navy Memorial Stadium wasn't much of a fight. Navy didn't need to throw a single forward pass in dismantling SMU by a 34-7 score. The Midshipmen held the ball 25 minutes longer than the Mustangs did, while rushing for 404 yards and outgaining SMU by 270 yards. The gap between two programs was akin to a canyon on that soggy afternoon near the Eastern seaboard. Even if Navy expected a tougher battle in Dallas, it was going to be hard to replicate the Mustangs' measurable improvements in practice, and sure enough, the first half bore out such a reality. When a mistake-plagued and wounded bunch of Midshipmen carried a 21-7 deficit to the halftime locker room, the visitors from Maryland had to wipe the taste of blood from their mouths, which had been punched by an opponent that was Jones-ing for a bowl bid of its own.

It would have been so easy to acknowledge the possibility that, finally, Navy was going to drop one of the non- Ohio State, non-Pittsburgh, non-Notre Dame games on its schedule. It would have been so easy to concede that the Midshipmen ran into a hot team with surging, overflowing confidence—hey, it happens in big-time athletics, no matter what the sport. It would have been so entirely understandable to realize that Navy's less potent attack, and the struggles of quarterback Ricky Dobbs, were finally going to catch up with the Men of Ken. No regrets, just do better next time.

Not for this team. Not for this program. Not under Paul Johnson. Not under Ken Niumatalolo.

Navy football might not exist in the realm it once inhabited under Joe Bellino and Roger Staubach, but in this smaller-scale Golden Age of the program's existence, the ability to win games like this dandy in Dallas continues to leave behind an unending trail of absolute amazement.

Look around at the rest of college football this season (casting aside the past, with its own ample repository of illustrative examples): Dozens of teams—Notre Dame and Washington are particularly prominent in this regard—are playing within a touchdown of their opponents on a weekly basis, win or lose. Power conference teams will regularly inhabit the upper reaches of the rankings, but parity is very much a part of the sport in this day and age. The difference between a win and a loss on Saturday is generally very small.

Navy's white-knuckle wins just keep coming and coming and coming, but don't let the steady stream of successes ever get stale. Don't allow this team's uncommon late-game excellence to feel old in any way. Don't equate the Midshipmen's yearly feats of fortitude to be taken for granted.

Just enjoy the ride, and the entertainment you get with a team that just manages to pony up whenever the wages of victory appear to be too costly.

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