In the Wake of Another Win

Journalism school professors teach their students to avoid using a quote as the first sentence in a story. "Once again, our kids leave me speechless" will apparently have to settle for a second-sentence slot, even though it's the first thought that applies to Navy's old-school felling of Wake Forest.

Coach Ken Niumatalolo is the one who uttered the sentence above. He's smart enough to know that he's seen this magical mystery tour of a move many times before, but he's also wise in the ways of the heart as well. The rough edges that continue to nag at Navy would make other coaches a bit cranky or ornery, even in moments of triumph, so it's to Niumatalolo's everlasting credit that he was able to appreciate his team's latest win for the special accomplishment it was.

"Once again, our kids leave me speechless" was not just a grace note, a tender thought voiced by a coach who was caught up in the moment of another three-point thriller. The statement also stood as an entirely accurate portrayal of a football family whose confidence and cohesion only grow stronger with each passing year, and the triumphs that continue to accumulate in the record books.

Sportswriters appreciate a little variety in the themes, trajectories and tonal qualities of the articles they write on a weekly basis, but after the Midshipmen's 13-10 triumph over the Demon Deacons on Saturday at Navy Memorial Stadium, it's getting really hard to write the same story over and over again… not that anyone around the program will complain about it.

How can a Midshipmen fan argue with the same sweetly soothing set of narratives to emerge from another down-and-dirty duel between the painted white lines of the gridiron?

Another week, another story of resilience.

Another game, another portrait in resolute defense.

Another Saturday, another telling glimpse of a team that rallies around its imperfect but inspiring quarterback by compensating for a key fumble with even better fourth-quarter focus.

Another close contest, another study in the strength and steadiness of a squad that doesn't just know what to do, but actually achieves its objectives with amazingly unerring regularity.

Another pass-free afternoon in Annapolis, another day when—akin to the 2008 SMU showcase—Navy didn't need an aerial to eclipse a credentialed head coach on the opposing sideline. (SMU's June Jones and Wake's Jim Grobe are two of the better practitioners in the coaching profession.)

Another brush with the possibility of defeat, another not-so-fast answer that has Navy knocking on the door of a winning season.

Another gut-check moment, another triumph that now has a record seventh consecutive bowl game sitting just a victory away.

It's an old story that doesn't get old. Familiar, but not stale; recognizable, yet not routine; exhilarating, yes, but not entirely unexpected. The greatness of Navy football, one win away from another postseason berth and truly every bit as good as the ACC opponent it conquered on Saturday (Navy has split four games with Wake Forest in the past two years, providing powerful proof of competitive parity with the Deacs), is not that the Men of Ken manage to win games like this. The amazing aspect of this awesome era in the program's history is that Navy wins these white-knucklers with such commendable consistency, and even when the pieces of the puzzle are different.

If this model for sustained success just seems to blur into one repetitive recounting each and every season, one of the unique aspects of Navy's winning ways is that the Midshipmen have rarely needed a quarterback to play more than one season under center. Positive attitudes and proper values have been so thoroughly instilled into the bloodstream of this program that newbies consistently fill the voids left behind by the players they're asked to replace.

Craig Candeto got the party started in Annapolis in 2003, as the first of Navy's bountiful supply of ballsy, bowl-bearing quarterbacks. Aaron Polanco—when pressed into service and tasked with the burden of meeting the standards set by his predecessor—coolly picked up the slack in 2004. Lamar Owens answered the bell in 2005, and one year later, Brian Hampton patched things together long enough for Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada to become the rule-proving exception at Navy, the quarterback who claimed the starting job for more than one season. Yet, when Kaipo went down in 2008—an event that greatly worried program watchers, especially since it occurred in Niumatalolo's first year as head coach—the Midshipmen still didn't miss a beat, a reality that leads us to the present day.

Jarod Bryant and a fellow named Ricky Dobbs had Kaipo's back in the second half of the 2008 campaign, as the nation's most overachieving FBS program continued to win the close games that, when lost, keep teams home for the holidays. Bryant competed admirably and—like Hampton a few years earlier—maintained cohesion in the huddle long enough for an even better field general to emerge. With Dobbs at the controls against SMU last season, Navy won without a pass and showed how much its commitment to running and blocking can pay off in bad-weather games.

Now, in 2009, the Men of Ken can boast about passing another test without a forward throw… a test they aced with help from a Proctor… Kriss Proctor.

Much as Dobbs was able to polish his skills as a triple option operator last year against the Mustangs, Proctor—thrown into the fray due to Dobbs's knee injury—wasn't fazed by the ACC opponent on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Yes, like Dobbs against Air Force, Proctor committed a second-half fumble that jeopardized his team's position of leverage, but on balance, the latest in a series of backup-turned-starting quarterbacks at Navy was up to the challenge.

Coordinator Buddy Green's defense stood on its head once again—this win over Wake Forest reminded us that last week's SMU game was an aberration, not the sign of a trend--but let's acknowledge this much as well: If Proctor had produced a face-plant performance—which first-time starting quarterbacks will do from time to time—Navy simply wouldn't have controlled the ball for 34 minutes and kept its defense fresh. Thanks to Proctor and the 10 teammates who so ably supported him, Russ Pospisil and Co. owned a full tank of juice in this waterlogged encounter. Because they weren't left on the field for long stretches of time—something that could be attributed to Proctor's poise—the men who play defense for Navy were able to hound Wake quarterback Riley Skinner for the third time in the past 13 months. (Skinner can be thankful that there won't be a second straight Navy-Wake bowl rematch; we're all grateful for that, actually.)

This latest story of Navy sunshine, written in the pouring rain of Annapolis, is so thoroughly identifiable in the eyes of coaches, players and fans. Yet, a different quarterback helped author this latest chapter in the Men of Ken's magnificent march toward still more success.

"Once again, our kids leave me speechless" is a statement that tells the tale of a terrific team. Coach Niumatalolo's words offer all you need to know about the latest and greatest win in the halcyon days of a high-striving, high-flying football force that's on the verge of grabbing yet another bowl bid.

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