The Navy Midshipmen were crushed by Notre Dame after having a week off. Getting two weeks to prepare for a treasured college football rivalry, and then getting blasted in the first quarter of an anticipated late-season clash, can easily linger in the locker room.
One finds out if there are leaders on the field and in the locker room after a result such as that one in South Bend. One learns if a team can take a punch and reset the dial, or if one Saturday loss leads to more defeats and essentially hijacks a season.
When the Midshipmen fell behind SMU, 21-10, in the second quarter of Saturday’s game in Annapolis, it was easy to wonder if Navy was beginning to lose hold of its season and unravel. Yes, SMU is a legitimately good team. The Mustangs’ defense was imperfect but tough. The Mustangs’ offense showed on many occasions why it had powered Sonny Dykes’ team to the top of the AAC West standings. There would have been no shame in losing to SMU, but losing by a hefty margin would have been hard to take. Losing without pushing the Ponies for 60 minutes would have created an emptiness in and around the Navy program.
What would Navy do, trailing by 11 points?
We got our answer.
Remember Oklahoma’s comeback over Baylor over a week ago? This Navy comeback wasn’t exactly the same, but there was a basic similarity in connection with OU’s rally in Waco. Yes, Jalen Hurts and the rest of the Oklahoma offense played well in crunch time and responded to a massive challenge. However, Oklahoma would not and could not have won that game if the defense hadn’t flourished in the second half.
Oklahoma got several three-and-outs on defense, which not only got the offense the ball back, but kept Baylor’s defense on the field a lot in the second half. That caused Baylor’s defense to wear down, enabling Oklahoma’s running game to grind down the Bears.
That is essentially what Navy did to SMU as well.
It’s not as though Navy’s offense wasn’t special in the second half – it was – but the defense’s ability to adjust and create several three-and-outs enabled Navy’s offense to accumulate snaps and erode SMU’s stamina. This is what enabled Malcolm Perry to run for 181 yards after halftime.
Oh, yes: Malcolm Perry. If you wanted to find a leader in the locker room and the huddle, “Commodore Perry” in football pads answered the call for Ken Niumatalolo.
Perry’s injury-laden stop-and-start career is well-documented. Perry’s body has endured so many bruises and interruptions. This season has not been free of injury-related disruptions. Yet, whenever his body has been able, and Navy has needed something big from him, Perry has delivered. He rescued the Mids against Air Force and Tulane. He did the same against SMU with another vintage performance. He moved the ball steadily down the field but was also able to uncork a 70-yard run to relieve pressure from his offensive teammates. He was everything Navy could have hoped for in this game… because he has been everything Navy could have hoped for in 2019.
Navy still has a chance at the AAC West championship. It will root for Cincinnati against Memphis on Friday. Whether Cincy wins or not, however, Navy can pursue a 10-win regular season, which would be a fantastic achievement after last year’s nine-loss season. Navy will go to Houston – a place where it has never played well as an AAC member – to solve the struggling Cougars. Houston’s win-loss record is bad, but given the way UH has played Navy in Texas in recent years, there is nothing the Mids should take for granted.
Another academy team which can still go 10-2 is Air Force, which defeated New Mexico, 44-22. Air Force started slowly but clearly made adjustments at halftime. Coach Troy Calhoun clearly spotted matchups he liked in the passing game. Donald Hammond threw for 327 yards, but the amazing part of Hammond’s passing yardage was that those yards came on only nine completions. That is over 36 yards per completed pass, one of the more remarkable statistics I have seen in decades of looking at college football box scores.
Air Force, like Navy, had fallen on hard times the past two seasons. Winning 10 games would be an immense point of legitimate pride for the Falcons. They face Wyoming this coming Saturday.
Army was off. The Black Knights are preparing for a trip to Hawaii. They need to beat the Rainbow Warriors to be eligible for a bowl bid.