Out-Navied and Bowled Over

On the last day of October, a bowl bid one win away from being sewn up, the Navy Midshipmen took the field with a familiar set of goals in mind. When they walked off the Memorial Stadium turf, a bowl bid had indeed been clinched… but with one problematic complication: The team with the postseason prize in its arms hailed from Philadelphia.

Yes, for once, the Men of Ken did not pull a close game out of the fire. The late-stage successfulness and crunch-time composure that have so thoroughly defined this program since 2003 did not rise to the forefront on Halloween. On this occasion, an opponent out-Navied Navy, securing bowl eligibility even before the Midshipmen could.

How fitting it was, then, that the unsinkable Temple Owls turned the trick—and the tables—on an Autumn afternoon in Annapolis.

While Navy wasn't playing for a BCS bowl on Saturday (thereby making this loss easier to accept on a certain level), the sting of letting a seventh win slip away will linger in the week to come. This ballclub isn't used to getting outfoxed in the fourth quarter, so Ken Niumatalolo will need to make sure that his roster is psychologically ready to perform as this season progresses.

When Navy loses a close game to a team not named Ohio State or Notre Dame, it's news, and not in a good sense. Yet, that very same bad-news element of this 27-24 loss only makes one appreciate how often—and how consistently—the Men of Ken have come through over the years, dating back to the Paul Johnson era. On a day when Oregon ended USC's Pac-10 run, and in a week when Virginia Tech's stranglehold on the ACC was broken (the Hokies will definitely not win their division or conference this season following their Thursday night flop against North Carolina), a moment of temporary inadequacy for the Midshipmen should allow their fan base to sweetly savor the past several years of winning seasons and bowl bids that have often been tucked away around this time of year. The rare stumble should only magnify the typical triumphs forged by this football program in an era of unmistakable excellence.

In addition to the "we've come out on the sunshine side of these games so often" perspective, the other reason why it's hard not to be understanding and empathic in the wake of this game is that the team that beat the Midshipmen once stood in Navy's shoes.

Navy fans know all too well where this program existed at the very beginning of the decade. From 2000-2002, Navy went 3-30, with Paul Johnson having to absorb a 2-10 season in 2002 before authoring a renaissance in Annapolis. This decade, as wonderful as it has become, started in competitive darkness and desolation, as the Midshipmen wondered when they'd ever see a brighter day.

Just as Navy's bad times were ending, however, Temple's agonies were only becoming more acute. From 2003-2006—while the Midshipmen made four straight bowl games (part of their still active but yet-to-be-extended streak of six straight bowl games)—Temple went 4-42, getting spanked left and right by anyone and everyone in college football. If Navy couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2000 and 2001, the Owls couldn't maintain much visibility from their low-rent perch in Philly in 2006.

But look at where Temple stands now. The Owls have flown from a dumpy, cheap shack-style motel on the ground floor to a penthouse loft. This three-point win over Navy—forged on the strength of 267 rushing yards from running back Bernard Pierce—gives coach Al Golden's group six wins, and a virtually assured bowl bid for the first time since 1979. Along with the significance of their triumph, however, the Owls distinguished themselves on Saturday because of the way in which they won.

For one thing, Temple prevailed with Navy-like passing numbers and Navy-like rushing stats. Owl quarterback Vaughn Charlton completed only five passes for 37 yards, while throwing two picks. The Midshipmen—with Ricky Dobbs still injured and Kriss Proctor once again filling in—completed just two throws for 27 yards and one interception. This was a game entirely devoted to the ground war, and thanks to the exploits of Pierce, a remarkable specimen for a freshman, Temple outrushed Navy, 274 yards to 227. Temple outdid Navy at Navy's own game.

And if that isn't enough irony, just recall what went down last season at Memorial Stadium:

Remember?

With just 37 ticks left on the fourth-quarter scoreboard and Temple leading Navy, 27-20, defeat was written on the faces of the brigade. At that very point in time, Owl running back Kee-ayre Griffin, intent on gaining yards instead of protecting the pigskin, strained forward instead of getting his knees to the ground. Navy's Russ Pospisil stripped the pill loose, and Clint Sovie performed the scoop-and-score part of the equation. The 42-yard fumble return tied the tilt and set up overtime.

Moments later, when Temple tight end Steve Maneri dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone on the first possession of the extra stanza, all Navy had to do was avoid stumbling on its own overtime possession. When Ricky Dobbs—filling in for a re-injured Kaipo Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, much as Proctor replaced Dobbs today—struck paydirt on Navy's overtime possession, the Midshipmen had cemented their place in the inaugural EagleBank Bowl. Temple, left to comprehend how a sure win could evaporate into thin air, fell one win short of bowl eligibility thanks to that agonizing afternoon against Navy on November 1, 2008.

Fast forward 12 months, and my, how special this moment must be for a team from the mean streets of Philly, which fought for victory just as passionately as Navy did, but with a little more precision and panache. If Navy used to reside in the ditch inhabited by Temple, today brings a day when the Owls can only begin to smell what Midshipmen fans have been enjoying since 2003: a bowl bid.

Tip the cap of respect to a Temple team that matched and then exceeded Navy at the end of a thrilling football game, on Pierce's decisive 41-yard scoring run with 2:41 left in regulation. Having accorded the Owls their share of due honor, it's now time for coach Niumatalolo and defensive coordinator Buddy Green to get back to work, and to ensure that no running back ever again romps for 267 yards against the Midshipmen.

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