An Education in Focus

That sucked.

Chances are you’ve said that or something along those lines over the course of the last 48 hours.

Along those lines.

Meh, too soon? Perhaps, especially considering we may never know the exact phraseology of Kriss Proctor’s apparent “taunt” following his overtime touchdown run in Saturday’s 35-34 loss to Air Force. And while something tells me Proctor didn’t exactly drop an “excuse me, future brother-in-arms, would you politely make way so I can celebrate this accomplishment with my teammates?” it goes without saying that an official making a call of commission at that point in the game seems a bit absurd.

It’s also a bit absurd to think that the call alone beat Navy on Saturday. It didn’t. But then again, it certainly didn’t help either. True, John Teague’s extra point attempt would have been blocked regardless of whether or not the attempt had been moved back 15-yards, but who’s to say the pressure of the backed-up extra point didn’t in some small way – some immeasurable, Phil Steele stat-defying way – contribute to the low trajectory of the kick? I’m suddenly reminded of a recent ESPN documentary about the Steve Bartman saga in Chicago, and how the reaction of Moises Alou to Bartman’s fan-interference seemed to throw an interrupting stream into the Cubs’ momentum. No, that kind of error or mental lapse on the part of a player shouldn’t affect what happens next, but maybe it’s the hopeless sports fan in all of us to wonder whether – and perhaps, once more, to assume – it could have.

And after the weekend I just had, I’m inclined to view just that.

Can you blame me?

Unlike the vast majority of Naval Academy graduates who suffered through Saturday’s heartbreaker, I wasn’t intimately familiar with the bitter taste of losing to your intensely and sincerely disliked rival on a regular basis.  Sure, I grew up going to Navy games in the 1990s, but seeing as though my interest in the program only really took off in 2003 (at the tender age of 13, mind you), you would have been perfectly within your rights as a grad to scoff at any claims I might have made to sticking with my team through thick and thin.

Key phrase, of course, is would have.

On Friday night I watched my college lose in the closing seconds to its rival. Scratch that. I saw the dudes I used to have lunch with everyday get beat by a series of freak, act-of-God-type plays by its rival. Its highly disliked rival, which, to add a final act of insult to the fine people of Logan, was being led by my town’s once favorite son. It stung. It sucked. It’s life as a sports fan though, and it’s part of what we gamble for when we turn on our TVs or settle into our seats. Expecting anything different would be to get complacent, and Coach Niumatalolo will always be the first to tell you that he never wants his team to get that way. He’ll also be the first to tell you he never wants his team to lose focus, or to drop the ball of intensity against any opponent, much less a rival.

But they did. At the end of the day, Navy lost not because of a blocked kick, and not because Tim Jefferson played the game of his life during the first quarter. Contributing factors? Maybe, but the simplest way to understand what happened Saturday is to understand that one team came prepared to play, and one team did not. One team was flying off the ball, while the other had linebackers misfiring gaps, and slotbacks zoning out on blocking assignments. That the latter of those teams managed to right the ship on the scoreboard by the end of 60 minutes is amazing, but it doesn’t take away the initial lack of focus, and ultimately, it couldn’t fill the hole that had been dug. A few inches short, and a tackle or two late– those are things that led to the result on the scoreboard. But they’re not the things which lost the game. That result, based on what we saw in the first quarter, was etched in stone thanks to the contrast in  attitudes as the teams ran out of the locker room.

I just wish it didn’t have to happen two days in a row.

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Three Things I’m Watching: Air Force at Navy

Work is preventing me from getting up to Annapolis for the game this weekend, but I’ll be alert and focused from my couch as Navy attempts to avenge last year’s 14-6 loss in Colorado Springs. This game is getting broken down from literally every angle you can think of, but here are three storylines I’m going to be keeping an eye on for Saturday.

Orange Zone Playcalling: Navy’s offensive struggles in the red zone during last year’s game have been well documented, as has the apparent turn-around through the early part of this year. But can you really call it a turnaround after just three games? Navy has been six for eight in the redzone this year in terms of coming away with touchdowns, but the offense has also scored seven touchdowns from outside the redzone. Given the familiarity of the Air Force defense with the option and the usually solid play of the Air Force cornerbacks in supporting the run while in the redzone, I’m curious to see if Niumatalolo and Jasper roll the dice in what I’m dubbing the “Orange Zone.” I’m talking about the area between the opponent’s 20 and 40 yard line, or as it’s better known, “field goal range.” Think about it; John Howell and Gee Gee Green have proved themselves as a big play slotbacks who can score when they get to the outside, while the Navy passing game – on somewhat questionable footing coming into the year – has already produced three receiving touchdowns. If Air Force is firing the corners and cheating a safety, I would not be surprised to see Navy’s offense become especially aggressive in trying to score while in my so-called “Orange Zone.”

Alexander Teich: I’ve been in my share of Navy press conferences after losses, but until the post-game press conference after the loss at South Carolina, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a Navy player as mad about a game as Alexander Teich was. It’s one thing to be disappointed. It’s one thing to be heartbroken. But when your team captain is – and please excuse my somewhat vulgar nature here – straight-up pissed off, you can’t help but think to the next game and wonder how he’ll play. Teich is the kind of emotional leader who has always used that kind of fire to fuel his performance, and I’d expect nothing less in arguably the biggest game of the season. At the same time, Navy-Air Force games have hardly been conducive to breakout fullback play in the recent past. Last year Teich had just 38 yards against Air Force, and the year before that he and then-starter Vince Murray averaged just under 3.0 yards per carry between them on 29 combined carries. Actually, Navy has gone five seasons without a fullback or fullback tandem running for over 100 yards against Air Force (Adam Ballard had 134 yards in 2006), a stat that something tells me Teich knows all too well. He won’t need to rush for over 100 yards to make his presence felt, but he’s going to have to make an impact if Navy wants to come out on top. Whether it’s leading the way for Proctor and blowing up the ‘backer on a midline, or catching, turning, and getting upfield on a screen, Teich has the opportunity to live up to his captain status this Saturday, and prove that he was more than just a fuming player after the tough loss to the Gamecocks.

Defensive Substitutions: Bill Wagner posted an interesting tidbit on his blog about defensive end Wes Henderson getting the nod over Jamel Dobbs at defensive end for Saturday’s game. Henderson had a pretty rip-roaring game against USC two weeks ago when he recorded five stops, so much so that I honestly mistook him for Jabaree Tuani at times. Henderson getting the nod might just be a case of a great game rewarded and coach Pehrson going with the “hot hand,” but I think it also speaks to what has silently become a surprisingly deep Navy defense. With all three injured outside linebackers returning this week – and with Brye French having played well against South Carolina – I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see Buddy Green rolling guys in and out on a regular basis Saturday to keep them fresh. On the other side of the coin, you’ve got to wonder if the Air Force defensive injuries will be felt hardest in the second half, when the attrition of a *hopefully* successful Navy run game could really take its toll.

Ok, that’s what I’m going to be checking out, in addition to the “usual” storylines of special teams, extracurricular activity, and amount of times coach gets caught on national television mouthing “SON OF BISCUIT.” Any particular storylines you’re checking out?

Early Returns (Or a Lack Thereof)

I’m probably one of the worst note takers you’ll ever encounter in a college press box. Scatter-brained and usually loaded up on Diet Coke and whatever sweets they’re offering at the buffet, I tend to overlook the finer details of the game. I don’t chart plays like the old school writers do, and as much as I try to keep track of who is in the game and who’s not, I’m constantly at the mercy of the statistics provided for by the Sports Information staff (thankfully at Navy, Scott S. and the crew do a great job.)

My note-taking inefficiencies notwithstanding, I did manage to  jot down a few stream-of-conscious thoughts during Saturday’s action in Columbia. Aside from the proverbial “Third and 12, this is HUGE” kind of notes, you’ll find an awkward, if not completely random, “SWEET WEDGE BUST” buried in the running word document I was using as my notepad.

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Navy at WKU: Three Things I’ll be Watching

Because we can’t all break down game film like Mike, here are some general storylines I’ll be on the lookout for when Navy plays Western Kentucky on Saturday night.

Jared Marks: At 6-foot-5 and coming in a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich shy of 300 pounds, Marks might be the most physically imposing Navy nose guard since Nate Frazier. I was all set to see what he could do in attempting to clog two gaps against the Blue Hens, but a last-minute suspension forced sophomore Alex Doolittle into Marks’ spot. While Doolittle “did some good things” – coach Green speak for not screwing up too badly – he didn’t exactly help Navy stonewall Andrew Pierce and the Blue Hen running game, which attacked Navy right up the middle. I anticipate Western Kentucky to try to do something similar with stud running back Bobby Rainey, whose 5-foot-8 size makes him the ideal player to exploit misdirection back into the middle of the defense. Navy linebackers Matt Warrick and Matt Brewer are excellent in space, but both showed some vulnerability last week with over-aggresivness against the inside handoff and delay. They’ll get a feel for snuffing plays out with experience, but would really benefit from having Marks step up in his first start of the year.

Andrew Jackson: The Western Kentucky linebacker went on record this week of saying it was “his job” to “take out the quarterback.” Kriss Proctor, your thoughts? Call me old fashioned, but I’m always intrigued at watching players try to live up to their pregame talk, especially when it comes to defending Navy’s offense. Maybe it comes from watching all those Notre Dame promises against the option fall flat the last few years, but I’m not going to lie and tell you I don’t savor watching the sometimes frustrating realization that  shutting down the option is easier said than done. Still, every once in a while a Scott McKillop will come around a and completely change a game to the point where the offense is stonewalled. Not saying Jackson is anywhere near that kind of player, but I’ll be watching just the same.

The Coin Toss: I actually predicted that coach Niumat would take the ball first against Delaware (but Mike, being a bum, didn’t publish my ‘Three Things’ post) in order to establish some early season offensive momentum, and I have a hunch he may buck tradition and do it again this week if he wins the toss. Western Kentucky, after all, has lost 15 consecutive games at home. No one is more aware of that than the WKU players, who after years of losing are trying to escape the proverbial loser’s mentality. Easier said than done (eh, just ask my Aggies) so an early Navy score could go a long way to deflating any pregame momentum the Hilltoppers build up.

Business As Usual

Take a look at the scoreboard from week one around college football. You’ll find plenty of close calls and near upsets (Eastern Washington’s 30-27 loss to Washington comes to mind) and you’ll also find plenty of games with misleading final scores. You’ll see blowouts and nail biters, traditional powerhouses running roughshod and FCS punching bags getting, well, punched. Somewhere in there, you’ll see Navy’s  40-17 win over Delaware.

It wasn’t the first time Navy beat an FCS team, and it was far from the most impressive from a production standpoint (anyone remember Shun White?). But with so many questions entering the year, and so many defensive players breaking into the fold for the first time, Navy’s win over the 5th-ranked Blue Hens is something to feel good about after an offseason of turbulence.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to play cheerleader, and I’m not here to start making predictions or begin starting chants to see the proverbial “gravy” everyone always talks about. But at the same time I’m not coach Niumatalolo, and I’m not going to nitpick when Navy’s win was in fact a very solid performance for week one, especially given what some other college teams were dealing with against lesser foes this past weekend. As Bruce Feldman reminded everyone during the halftime break, KC Keeler’s Blue Hens aren’t exactly the Little Sisters of the Poor, and Delaware’s  number five ranking was well deserved.  Considering Oregon State – a BCS team – fell to 24th-ranked Sacramento State, and that Duke – another BCS team – lost to 16th-ranked Richmond, Navy’s win looks like the kind the kind of business-as-usual game you’d expect a perennial bowl team to have over an FCS team.

And you know what, it was. The final stats– including Navy’s 437 yards to Delaware’s 363 – may not seem blowout-worthy, but the Mids did almost everything right.  From Kriss Proctor’s running of the option, to the defense stepping up in key moments and holding the Hens off the board, Navy kept the perennial FCS title contender at arm’s length for the entire game. Once more, Navy did it virtually mistake-free. I mean, how many week-one games do you see without a team committing a penalty or just turning the ball over a scant one time? How about having a kicker nail a 54-yard field goal, or a special teams unit – with a number of freshmen, mind you – giving up no big returns? Now that‘s something last year’s team didn’t manage to do in the opener, nor was it something Navy managed to do in its rout of Towson in the 2008 opener.

There’s a lot of season left to play, and a lot of games on the schedule that are going to challenge this team more than Delaware. For all we know, the Blue Hens might end up being the FCS’s biggest disappointment. But something tells me they won’t be, and something tells me that Navy’s business-as-usual win could be a welcome prelude to a season filled with many more.

To Care or Not to Care: KC Keeler and the Importance of Week 1

The opening week of the college football season will always hold a special place in my heart. Aside from providing a usually welcomed and much-needed break from a whole three or four days of classes, it has always managed to indulge that innate sports fan desire in me to see an upset. David vs. Goliath matchups? Week One always provides plenty of them, and that’s not likely to stop anytime soon. Sure, fans of BCS conference teams may moan ad nauseum about playing the Little Sisters of the Poor (who, it turns out, don’t actually field a team), but with the state of television contracts and ticket sale revenue being what they are, the incentive to play an FCS team isn’t the opportunity cost loss some people would like us to think it is.

Good for people like me who enjoy watching the ACC take its annual nose dive or two against Colonial Athletic Conference teams, but good for the FCS teams playing? According to Delaware head coach KC Keeler, maybe not. That, at least, if you’re going off of what Keeler said in the weekly CAA teleconference on Monday:

My preference is to not play any I-A teams. The goal of our program is not to win a I-A game, it’s to win a national championship. It’s really difficult to make the playoffs and we need to put ourselves in the best position possible to do so. We need to have enough wins to get into the playoffs.

Interesting comments, no doubt, especially when you factor in the history of the Navy-UD series. As Bill Wagner points out in his blog, the series has been going back to 1984 and is currently sees Navy with an 8-7 series advantage. Hardly the kind of one-sided stomping that certain SEC or Big 10 schools unload on their FCS “rivals” on a yearly basis, and by and large good football to watch regardless of the week the game is being played in.

While I don’t presume to actually define what’s good and what’s not good for the Delaware program, I can’t help but question what is behind Keeler’s comments, and if they’re really meant to be taken at face value. True, his team is among dozens fighting for 10 at-large spots in the playoffs if they don’t win the CAA – but I’m sure Keeler would tell you that winning the CAA is the first goal of his program each year, if only because it would include a bye in the playoffs and a possible streamline to the National Title Game. Likewise, if we’re to believe recent history, then beating an FBS team – especially a perennial bowl team like Navy – carries quite a bit of weight with the NCAA committee when considering at-large bids. So wouldn’t it help Delaware to keep playing a game against an FBS team like Navy? My inclination says it would, especially now that one of the CAA’s best teams – Massachusetts – is heading up to the FBS.

Smoke and mirrors? I’m not saying it is, but something tells me to take these comments with the suspicion of coach speak. Keeler’s program is established enough that it’s always going to be in contention for an at-large spot in the playoffs even if his team doesn’t win the CAA, and given the demanding CAA slate and the incentives of upsetting Navy, it seems a productive use of a game to travel down to Annapolis. The real reason for the comments? Economic, perhaps, but also to deflect attention from the matchup, and to downplay media attention for the upset that he and his players are banking on.

He cares. His team cares. They just don’t want you to know how badly they do.