Air Force routs Navy, as the mysteries of academy football continue in 2020
Some mysteries were solved on Saturday afternoon in Colorado Springs, but even as one mystery gained a measure of clarity, other mysteries were created.
We know this will be a difficult year for Navy football. The program maxed out last season but lost a lot of key players. The ability of Navy to reload, not rebuild, under Ken Niumatalolo has been noticeable and impressive, but every now and then, a struggle-bus season has emerged. The 2011 and 2018 seasons fell through the cracks; they aren’t representative of the Niumatalolo era, but they happened… and they will occasionally happen. When one adds the uncertainties and disruptions of a pandemic, it’s that much more understandable that the Midshipmen have struggled this year. If ever there was an offseason in which a team needed spring football, the 2020 Mids fit the bill, given the need for new players to develop a rhythm on offense. Being deprived of that preparation set this team back. It seems simple enough when viewed from that vantage point.
What is mysterious, though, is that Navy’s 40-7 loss to Air Force came on the heels of an amazing 27-24 win over Tulane in which Navy dominated the Green Wave, 27-0, in the second half. After six bad quarters of football, Navy played two brilliant ones. It had seemed the season had been restored, that Navy had found itself.
Saturday in Colorado Springs showed Navy hadn’t found itself at all. After a very competitive first 20 minutes (10-7 Air Force with 10 minutes left in the second quarter), Air Force blew the doors off the Midshipmen, 30-0, in the final 40 minutes. Navy scored its only touchdown on a 73-yard pass play. The Midshipmen collected 81 yards on two drives late in the game, after Air Force had amassed a 33-7 advantage. Adding the 73-yard pass plus 81 late-game yards gave Navy 154 yards connected to one play and garbage time. Over the remainder of the game, Navy gained just 87 yards, part of a day in which Air Force outrushed the visitors from Annapolis, 369-90.
Navy’s season trajectory — three bad halves, then the one great half against Tulane, then the decent-but-not-great first half against Air Force, followed by another BYU-like second half versus the Falcons — is hard to pin down. Niumatalolo and his staff have to find a way to create some semblance of consistency with their team.
Let’s talk about Air Force, the team which thrashed Navy to take a big step toward a Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy. The Falcons looked great against Navy, but let’s not think we know how good the Falcons are going to be. They certainly aced this test against Navy, but the Falcons are a mystery.
They thrived against Navy, but they had all offseason to prepare for the Midshipmen. It’s so much harder to prepare for Navy in the course of a normal regular season. Getting Navy in a season opener certainly helped Air Force.
Air Force will now be dormant for a few weeks before resuming its season and moving into Mountain West play. How will a team handle three weeks of down time? As great as Air Force was against Navy, that doesn’t offer too much of a basis for measurement as the Falcons shift to conference play.
Let’s take time to salute Troy Calhoun‘s team for how thoroughly it physically handled Navy. Air Force’s 369 rushing yards told a large part of the story; another powerful indicator of Air Force’s rushing prowess was the ability to generate three prolific rushers. Timothy Jackson (118 yards), Brad Roberts (103) and Haaziq Daniels (96) all rushed for at least 96 yards. They combined to rush for 317 yards. Air Force wasn’t reliant on one player or one line of attack against Navy; the Falcons blitzed the Mids from all angles and established complete domination well before the final gun in Colorado.
Navy’s defense bravely withstood the onslaught for three quarters, but gave way in the fourth. Air Force legitimately wore Navy down; to achieve that in service-academy football is no small feat. Calhoun and his team should be satisfied with their achievement.
We know Air Force maxed out against Navy; we just don’t know how much that will mean for the Falcons’ Mountain West season. Mysteries abound in academy football.
The same is true for Army after its 55-23 win over Abilene Christian of the FCS on Saturday in Michie Stadium. How much is one going to learn about a 32-point win over an FCS team? Army did what it was supposed to do, bolting to a 31-3 lead in the third quarter and 41-10 in the fourth before backups allowed a few cosmetic touchdowns to the Wildcats. Army — whose offense failed to score a touchdown against a strong Cincinnati defense the week before — needed to finish drives on a consistent basis against a weaker opponent. The Black Knights did just that, so as far as it goes, Saturday was a success.
However: How do we know if this win over Abilene Christian changed the equation in terms of Army being able to finish drives against quality defenses? We’re not going to know that answer for a while, since Army’s next games are against The Citadel, UTSA, and Mercer.
We might not really know how good Army and Air Force both are until they play each other on Nov. 7.
Maybe the world of academy football will be a lot less mysterious by then.