Service Academy Football Update: Week 6

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Navy scrambles, Army avoids being in shambles — the academies survive

We are in the midst of a festival of sports, and more precisely, precarious competitions where one play can completely change a season or a year.

The parade of big sporting events marching in front of us, due to the adjusted schedules created by the pandemic, is giving us a widespread lesson in what works and what doesn’t under pressure.

The NBA Finals just ended. Imagine how this series might have unfolded if Jimmy Butler hit an open go-ahead 3-pointer late in Game 4, with the Lakers leading the Heat 2-1.

The French Open just ended. Imagine what might have been different if Novak Djokovic converted one of his early break points against Rafael Nadal in the first set.

The baseball playoffs are going on. Imagine how the Dodgers-Padres series could have changed if Cody Bellinger hadn’t robbed Fernando Tatis of a home run in Game 2.

The Stanley Cup Playoffs just ended. The Tampa Bay Lightning won at least one overtime game in each round. What if the bounce of the puck or a shot on goal goes in a different direction?

The margins are so small in elite competition. Even some of the blowouts start out as close or (at least) unpredictable clashes, but then one small thing happens and the balance of power is permanently altered. Individual, isolated events can generate tidal waves of momentum and belief, or they can take the air out of the balloon. It requires skill, patience and care to be on the right side of these small but significant events.

Navy and Army both struggled this past weekend. They led most of the day but did not thoroughly outplay their opponents. They did some things well and put themselves up by 11 points midway through the second half (28-17 for Navy, 14-3 for Army), but held on for dear life. Their coaching staffs will find plenty of problems in game film, but they dug deep in moments of adversity and refused to be conquered.

Weekends can be so much better. They also could have been far worse.

goatNavy is particularly inclined to accept its victory over Temple, rather than nitpicking it too much. The Midshipmen are 2-0 in the AAC after beating Temple. Navy might be in big trouble in the Commander-In-Chief’s Trophy series, and it might have face-planted against BYU, but the Mids are off to a great start in conference play. Neither win — over Tulane or Temple — has been easy, but Navy found great clarity late in each game. Sometimes, that small added quality is enough. It wasn’t against BYU or Air Force, but it sure was against Tulane and now Temple.

When Navy needed to respond to Temple’s touchdown — which made the score 28-23 for Navy — it didn’t deliver an artful drive in the fourth quarter. It didn’t deliver a seven-point drive. It didn’t max out… but it did help the defense. It also increased the Midshipmen’s chances of winning.

15 plays, 26 yards, over NINE minutes. Navy barely moved the ball but took more than half a quarter off the clock at the precise moment when Temple had seemingly found a potential path to victory. The act of eating up over nine minutes was significant in itself, but what made the drive even more satisfying was seeing Bijan Nichols kicking another clutch field goal in 2020, this one from 50 yards.

Without that field goal, Temple wouldn’t have needed to go for two to tie near the one-minute mark of regulation. When the Owls did need to go for two, Navy’s Terrell Adams broke up the 2-point pass.

Offense: keeping the ball.

Special teams: clutch field goals.

Defense: Stopping a tying 2-point play and generally weathering the storm.

Everyone pitched in for Navy. The Mids might have wobbled at times versus Temple, but they used their coping skills well. They have to be a lot better for their next game, but they should be satisfied with what they achieved this past Saturday.

Army-Tulane highlightsFor Army, it’s not as good a time to celebrate. Whereas Navy is 2-0 in a Power Five conference, Army just beat an FCS team by a narrow margin. The 14-9 win over The Citadel didn’t impress anyone… but it beats losing.

Army could not have done any better on defense. Forcing two turnovers and limiting the Bulldogs to just one touchdown — in the final four minutes, with Army owning a 14-3 lead — represents a lot of heavy lifting. The offense was poor, mustering under 300 total yards and giving away the ball twice.

This meant the defense had to go back onto the field a lot. With the sole exception of that late Citadel touchdown in the fourth quarter, Army met every defensive challenge. It dominated the first half and continued to rise up in the second half, stopping separate Citadel drives which lasted at least 10 plays if not more.

There is so much to improve on, so much to clean up and fix. That will be a central point of emphasis this week. Yet, somehow, Army and Navy will — if they choose to — celebrate their ability to win and make the day right when everything else goes wrong. That means something.

Such a coping skill will be needed next weekend, when Army plays UTSA and Navy faces East Carolina.