Service Academy Football Update: Week 12

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Navy is learning a lot in 2020… but the lessons are not fun.

By Matt Zemek

The year 2020 has provided a big dose of perspective for many Americans. What kind of perspective? That’s unique to every individual… but this year has certainly made us realize how different life can be from the existence we once knew. Maybe the pandemic has given us more of a sense of appreciation for what we have, after this Thanksgiving weekend. Maybe the pandemic has made things seem worse than before, given that a crisis has not created national unity or a clear process of rallying together around a shared understanding of what is good, true and beautiful.

Yet, for better or worse, 2020 and the pandemic have certainly changed our field of awareness to a certain degree. Where we go from this year is up to us to decide. We can allow this year’s difficulties to overwhelm us. We can allow this year’s challenges to inspire and motivate us. We can look at this bewildering, exhausting year and its main crises and admit we don’t know what the future holds… but try to sort through the complexities and resolve to be better once there’s an indication that life can get back to some semblance of normalcy.

What is true for much of the country, then, is true for the Navy football team after its 10-7 loss to the Memphis Tigers this past Saturday.

There is certainly an awareness that this college football season has been anything but normal. For Navy, that meant not having full-contact practices in the offseason, a decision Ken Niumatalolo admitted was a mistake (albeit one which erred on the side of safety, which was a responsible and decent thing to do as the caretaker of many dozens of young athletes — it’s why Ken Niumatalolo is one of the most respected and admired coaches in the country). The well-intentioned (and safety-first!) decision to not have full-contact practices was guided by the desire to think primarily of the parents who entrusted the care of their sons to Navy football and the Naval Academy itself. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore its effects on a season in which Navy — much like 2018 — just doesn’t have the heft or consistency on the offensive line which can win a lot of games.

Navy football just isn’t powerful enough up front to achieve what it — and the triple option — wants to accomplish.

It’s hard to imagine any game in the Niumatalolo era which Navy could stand tall on defense at home, allow just 10 points… and not win. Yet, in a year which has puzzled and perplexed and paralyzed us in so many ways, what’s another wild scenario and improbable plot twist? This loss to Memphis is so 2020 it hurts.

What makes this loss even more annoying is that Navy scored 37 points in its previous game against SMU. True, a good number of those points came in garbage time after the Mustangs had put away the Midshipmen. Still, Navy’s offense was able to function at a reasonable level over the course of four quarters. If the Midshipmen’s offense was merely 35 percent as good against Memphis as it was versus SMU, this game against the Tigers in Annapolis would have moved into the win column.

Another point of annoyance connected to the fact above? Navy hadn’t played in four weeks after a series of COVID-19 postponements. One could say that this Memphis game was like a bowl game, given that Navy had four weeks to prepare… but no, this really wasn’t a “four week preparation” scenario. Navy was preparing for other opponents over this four-week period, only to have games wiped off the board due to COVID-19.

The past four weeks weren’t refreshing the way post-Army-game, pre-bowl preparations normally are for Navy. (Yes, the Midshipmen normally don’t have four weeks between Army and the bowl game, given the later date for the Army contest.) In a usual year, Navy beats Army and takes that joyful, happy feeling into a bowl, which creates a climate of confidence mixed with relaxation. It’s the perfect way to head into a bowl game.

Navy had none of that leading into the game against Memphis… and it’s reasonable to conclude that whereas a bowl has a festive feel and elicits the most creative, energized approach from an offense (for Navy or any other bowl participant), this game had the opposite effect. Navy wasn’t an emboldened team on offense. The lack of time spent on the field in recent weeks took any momentum away from this offense, making the Midshipmen more stale.

Will this motivate Navy for 2021? I suppose it will… but the reality of the pandemic is such that the Midshipmen, like Americans, just want to get through this winter, get to a vaccine, get back to normalcy.

Then the lessons of the pandemic — including how to play football under all sorts of adjusted circumstances — might fully sink in…

but not yet.

The lesson of patience is often not a pain-free lesson to learn. Navy, just like America, is learning what it really means to be patient in the face of an uncertain life with uncertain schedules and the lack of a clear-cut rhythm to each day and week.

The lessons will be applied with care and commitment — you can trust Ken Niumatalolo to learn from what this year’s Navy team has endured — but give the Midshipmen some time. They’re just trying to deal with a cruel reality. They’ll apply the lessons later.

For now, they’re stuck… just as many of us are.

Navy will face Tulsa this upcoming Saturday in a rescheduled game due to COVID-19 reshuffling. The Air Force Falcons face the Utah State Aggies this week on Thursday Night Football after another COVID-19 postponement.

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