Service Academy Football Update: Week 13

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There’s no time for Navy to worry about Tulsa; Army West Point is next.

The Navy Midshipmen lost a game this past weekend to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane which felt and looked an awful lot like their previous loss to the Memphis Tigers. The AAC is usually a conference with high-scoring games and lots of action from one goal line to the other, and across the 53-yard width of a field. Most Navy seasons in the Ken Niumatalolo era have featured terrifically entertaining 30-27 or 34-31 games – sometimes slightly lower-scoring contests, sometimes a total free-for-all in the 40s.

Yet, the 2018 season and this 2020 journey have both been marked by the inability of Navy’s offensive line to establish leverage and consistency against opposing defensive fronts. If the snowplow doesn’t work, the car can’t function on the road. After lamenting a Memphis loss in which a small pinch of offensive production would have been enough to win – but never came – the Tulsa game offered cause for the same aching refrain of almost and what-if.

There’s not much of a point in covering the same territory all over again.

The focus immediately shifts to a historic Army-Navy Game, a very special experience, and a chance to create a lasting memory.

West Point. Michie Stadium. A Navy football team will go to the West Point campus to play Army for the first time since 1943. This American sports classic will move from a neutral site to an academy site, from a stadium stuffed with fans to a very tiny group of onlookers in one of college football’s most intimate and picturesque settings.

Beating Army wouldn’t be new. Singing second wouldn’t be new… but winning in West Point? That would be the memory of a lifetime, even if a large crowd can’t attend in the middle of a pandemic.

All the blocks not made; all the runs which were stopped at the line of scrimmage and couldn’t bust through a gap or turn the corner; all the pass plays which didn’t snooker the defense; all the possessions which could have done something important against Memphis and Tulsa but fizzled out – all of these moments from the past two weeks can be flushed away so that Navy can concentrate on a special opportunity – not just to beat Army, but to do it on the grounds of the United States Military Academy.

In Army, Navy faces a similar team this year. Both Army and Navy have gotten more from their defenses than their offenses. While the offenses have had occasional moments of brilliants for the Black Knights and the Midshipmen, the defenses have been the constants. Navy’s defense has done everything it could the past few weeks. Army’s defense held the fort in the second half against Georgia Southern and made Army’s 14-point comeback possible. Navy doesn’t have a complete team in 2020, but it can look at Army and identify a similar mixture of strengths and weaknesses. Given that the Mids’ margin of defeat was small in each of Navy’s last two losses, Ken Niumatalolo’s team can prepare for Army knowing that victory is attainable. That point of awareness must be accompanied by a realization of how hard it will be to win this game. Yet, Navy can’t build this task into an insurmountable feat; that puts too much negative pressure on everyone in the Annapolis locker room. The task will be hard, but if the Memphis and Tulsa games have a positive lesson to convey, it is that while defeat is a miserable thing to endure, the journey traveled to the other side of the tracks – to the fulfillment of triumph – is not as far as it might seem.

Enough about the past two weeks – it’s the coming week, and Army on the West Point campus, which matters most to Navy now.

History and opportunity beckon. If a handful of plays can go the right way this time, Navy will be able to look at all the bumpy parts of its 2020 campaign and say at the end, “You know, it wasn’t all that bad in the final analysis.”

The Air Force Falcons — who will get their own crack at Army on Dec. 19 in a rescheduled game — managed to play their fourth Mountain West Conference game of 2020 this past Thursday against the Utah State Aggies. After losing to two of the best teams in the Mountain West — San Jose State and Boise State — in the opening weeks of the conference season, Air Force has managed to take care of business against the middle and lower tiers of the conference. A 35-7 thrashing of Utah State marked the second straight game in which Air Force has won by 28 points. It marked the fourth game this season in which Air Force has held an opponent to 17 points or fewer. Boise State is the only opponent to eclipse that number.

The teams Air Force is playing have different offensive styles, so this Utah State win — featuring a lockdown effort from Troy Calhoun’s defense — shows that the Falcons are capable of winning a slugfest if that’s what they need to do. Air Force has the benefit of being able to scout Army against Navy, before facing the Black Knights. Calhoun and his staff gain an advantage they would not have had in a normal season with a normal schedule.

Now the only question left is whether Air Force can pounce on the opportunity, once Navy and Army play their historic game at Michie Stadium.

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