The Navy Midshipmen won’t go to a bowl game this season, but they are improving.
By Matt Zemek
If next year’s team is going to go to a bowl game, the current group of Midshipmen must prove – to themselves more than to anyone else outside their inner circle – that they can physically hang with their opponents. Navy fans have seen what has happened in each of the past three seasons: Navy’s offensive line has simply been outclassed in September. The offense has struggled. The pieces have not come together on offense until later in the season. Navy’s three-year slide after the great Malcolm Perry-led season of 2019 goes straight to the offensive line and the quarterback, mostly the offensive line. The triple-option offense has been fenced in by opponents. The Navy defense has generally been good, but it has zero margin for error because the offense – over the past three seasons – has put it in difficult if not impossible situations. Navy has to break loose from this pattern. The Notre Dame game marked real progress on this front. The Midshipmen hope to take another step forward in their evolution against UCF – primarily and immediately so that they’re ready for Army, but also to make sure that this next offseason gives them an on-ramp to renewed prominence and success in 2023.
1 – Carrying the second half against Notre Dame into this game
Navy played a magnificent second half against Notre Dame, easily the best half of football the Midshipmen have produced all season long. It wasn’t enough to win, but it should give Ken Niumatalolo and everyone associated with the program a strong jolt of encouragement and affirmation. This was Navy football at its best. This was Navy football standing tall on a physical level against a good opponent and taking the fight to the other side of the line of scrimmage. Gosh, where has this been for the past three seasons? It has occasionally emerged but has not been sustained to any appreciable degree. If Navy can simply bottle up that effort and unleash it against UCF, the Midshipmen will have a real chance to win this game. Keep in mind that UCF lost big to SMU earlier this season and also fell at home to Louisville. UCF is a good and talented team, but it is volatile as well. If Navy takes the fight to the Knights, a win is certainly possible.
2 – The big plays
Navy hit big plays against Notre Dame’s defense. That’s a well-coached unit led by Marcus Freeman, and Navy was able to find openings in the Fighting Irish 11 in the second half. Navy isn’t equipped to regularly deliver 12-play, 80-yard drives. The Mids will need some big gainers at a few different points in the action if they are going to win this game outright, and not merely come close. Big plays can lead to a total victory, not just a moral one.
3 – Defensive line
The Navy defensive line was outstanding against Notre Dame in the second half. It was a rugged and resilient display after a very difficult and discouraging first half in Baltimore against the Fighting Irish. If that’s the Navy front we see against UCF, all things are possible. Navy saw against Notre Dame what it is capable of. Let’s not make this process – or this UCF preview – any more complicated than it needs to be: The Notre Dame game gave this Navy team a clear and unmistakable standard which, if matched in any subsequent game in 2022, will put Navy in a very good position to win. Reach that standard. Win the game. That’s it.