For Navy fans who lived through the two decades after George Welsh left to coach Virginia, it can be hard to admit that the Mids are, in fact, good. Slowly but surely, though, people are coming around. After all, Navy has won a lot of football games over the last seven years– 58 to be exact. “Expect to win” hasn’t just been a marketing slogan for NAAA; it’s been sound advice. While we all understand how challenging it is to win at a service academy, we know that Navy enters every game with a shot to win it. It shouldn’t be a surprise when they do.
The exception to that rule is Notre Dame. Navy could be the 5-time defending national champion, and beating Notre Dame would still be a big deal. It’s just not supposed to happen… A point we were all reminded about for 43 straight years. The losing streak might have ended in 2007, but Saturday’s win was just as satisfying. This was supposed to be the year that Notre Dame put Navy back in its place on the way to a BCS bowl. Instead, the Mids walked out of South Bend victorious, and Navy fans have been giddy ever since. Well, this Navy fan has been, anyway, and I’m sure I’m not alone. If it’s hard for us to move on, imagine how hard it must be for the team. Moving on has been sort of a theme for Navy football this season, as Ken Niumatalolo has found himself trying to keep the team grounded after impressive performances in games like Ohio State and Rice. Too many people patting the team on the back, he said; he had to make sure his guys didn’t let it go to their heads. Niumat probably had to work overtime this week. He knows that the fastest way to squash the feel-good vibe from the Notre Dame win would be to walk out onto the field on Senior Day and lose to Delaware.
It’s not like it hasn’t happened before. In 2003, the Mids jumped out to a 14-0 lead before fizzling out on offense and falling, 21-17. In 2007, the offense was phenomenal, but the defense took the day off in a 59-52 loss. The Blue Hens advanced to the I-AA title game in both of those years, winning in 2003. The wheels fell off the wagon for Delaware last year, as they finished 4-8. This year’s team has bounced back a bit, coming into the Navy game at 6-3 and ranked 23rd in I-AA.
The difference has been primarily at quarterback. Delaware has relied on I-A transfers at quarterback over the last few years to lead their offenses. In 2003, it was Andy Hall, who transferred from Georgia Tech. In 2007, it was Pitt transfer Joe Flacco. Last year, head coach K.C. Keeler was about two games short of holding an open tryout with the student body to find someone to play the position. This year, though, Keeler has Penn State transfer Pat Devlin. With Devlin, the Blue Hen spread offense has regained some of its punch. Devlin threw for 302 yards against William & Mary, 329 against Maine, and 284 against UMass, helping to make Delaware the 25th-rated passing offense in I-AA. The Delaware offense is what Paul Johnson would call the “NCAA Offense:” spread, 3 or 4 wide, QB in the shotgun. The running game is a lot of the same zone schemes that have plagued the Mids in the past, although with an average size of 6-4, 277 pounds, the offensive line doesn’t have nearly the size of the other teams that ran those schemes.
Defensively, Delaware lines up in a 4-3. It’s a fairly young unit that will be taking the field against the Navy offense, with only 3 seniors expected to start. Over the years, Delaware has tried a little bit of everything against the Mids. In the ’03 game, the safeties basically ignored the possibility of the pass, and it burned them– once. After that, the Mids weren’t able to capitalize. Aaron Polanco was a much better passer than Craig Candeto, so that approach wouldn’t fly in ’04. Instead, they actually tried more of a straight man-to-man. Kyle Eckel ended up running for 143 yards. Last time, it was the ol’ free-safety-follows-the-slotback defense:
It didn’t work. Of course, the Mids couldn’t stop Delaware either, but I doubt that K.C. Keeler is anxious to recycle a game plan that gave up 52 points the last time out.
The concern after a big win is that it will lead to a letdown the following week. I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see out of Navy, though. The team already had a letdown against Temple. They’ve learned their lesson. I think that the win over Notre Dame will serve as a wake-up call for just how much this team can accomplish. A 10-win regular season is still within reach. As tired and beat up as the Mids are heading into their 11th straight week without a bye, they can go all-out knowing that a break is on the horizon. Ricky Dobbs looked like he hadn’t missed a beat last week, and the Navy offense might get a similar spark from the return of big-play slotback Marcus Curry. Navy fane know how dangerous Delaware can be. They’ll be motivated this week, too, as they will need to win to stay alive for a playoff berth. I don’t know if this Delaware team measures up to the championship contenders of years past, but they aren’t to be taken lightly. Fortunately, nobody knows that better than the Mids.