With an eye on Thanksgiving

Navy’s streak of eight consecutive bowls is over. But with Thanksgiving on the horizon, it’s time to give thanks for the streak that was and look for positives amid its end.

1. Army-Navy has its own day

I wasn’t always a fan of the decision to move Army-Navy back one week. I worried about being one week colder in the stands; about Navy having one week less prep time/healing time for the bowl game; and about my brother, whose wedding anniversary is the once-safe Dec. 12.

The move sure looks smart this year. Even with the recent, and welcome, surge in patriotism in our country, I’m not liking the chances that Army-Navy would get the attention it deserves if it were on the same day as the SEC championship, the Big Ten championship, the ACC championship and, this year at least, a couple pretty compelling Big 12 games (Texas-Baylor and Oklahoma-Oklahoma State).

2. Navy has basketball teams

There is much new energy around the Navy men’s and women’s basketball teams this season. The Navy men’s team appears back to the defense-and-rebounding-first approach that made Patriot League games fun to watch (and somewhat winnable) under Don DeVoe. The women’s team is coming off an historic season with an NCAA tournament berth.

I lost Navy men’s and women’s basketball on my radar in recent years. It was still football season into late December with the bowl, then bowl recovery/analysis/handwringng/celebratory hangover. So by the time I turned attention to hoops, Navy usually had a sub-.500 record from nonconference games and lacrosse was dipping its toes into the frigid outdoors for preseason workouts.

It’s time to be reintroduced to Navy basketball and the excellent Pete Medhurst on the radio play-by-play.

3. The streak that was

How great was that eight-year bowl streak? The long drive against New Mexico. Slotback Frank Divis’s passes against New Mexico. Reggie Campbell’s touchdowns against Colorado State. The Navy defense going head-to-head against Matt Ryan of Boston College. The Navy offense going head-to-head against BJ Raji of Boston College. The successful onside kick in the final minute against Utah. For a D.C. native like myself, even the bowl game at RFK Stadium was enormous fun. The crushing win over Missouri.

And I still haven’t forgiven Mike Leach for the cheap touchdown celebration Texas Tech did in the fourth quarter of the 2003 bowl game. (What ever happened to Leach? Oh, wait a minute…)

So the bowl streak is over. And the CIC trophy streak. Neither was going to last forever! One streak that will resume next year is the streak of our enjoyment of Navy football continues. Maybe this dip will make all of us a little more hungry, a little more focused.

“Let us learn to appreciate there will be times when the trees will be bare,” Anton Chekov wrote, “and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit.”

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First-time starting QBs for Navy against Notre Dame

Now that it’s official that sophomore Trey Miller will start at quarterback for Navy on Saturday in place of injured Kriss Proctor — it will be Miller’s first career start — it’s time to look back on a few other first-time starting QBs who began their careers against Notre Dame.

Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, Notre Dame vs Navy in Baltimore, 2006

How he got there: Kaheaku-Enhada was named the starter after senior Brian Hampton sustained a season-ending knee injury in the previous game, against Rutgers on homecoming.

How he did: Kaheaku-Enhada had 19 carries for 42 yards and 2 touchdowns. His second touchdown closed Navy’s deficit to 17-14 just before halftime. But the Irish responded with a touchdown before the half, and another to start the second half, etc. Notre Dame won, 38-14, though Navy rushed for 271 yards.

Aaron Polanco, Notre Dame vs Navy in Baltimore, 2002

How he got there:  Starter Craig Candeto sustained a serious ankle injury on the opening drive against the fifth-ranked Irish. So not technically a start for Polanco, though he did start the following week.

How he did: Polanco played the rest of the way and guided Navy to a 23-15 lead with 5 minutes left. Notre Dame scored twice, however, to win, 30-23.

Brian Madden, Navy at Notre Dame, 1999

How he got there: Starter Brian Broadwater sustained a broken clavicle, also on homecoming, in the previous game.

How he did: Fairly well by anyone’s standards. Madden rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown; Navy led 24-21 with around 1 minute 40 seconds left when the Irish converted a 4th-and-10, then scored the winning touchdown soon after.

Ben Fay, Navy at Notre Dame, 1995

How he got there: Fay made his first career start in place of Chris McCoy.

How he did: Behind Fay, Navy led at halftime, 17-14; Notre Dame came back to win, 35-17. Fay played quite well: He threw for 231 yards and rushed for 53.

A one-running back offense

South Carolina’s 24-21 victory over Navy on Saturday reminded me of the line Sports Illustrated used after eventual national champion Nebraska went on the road to face a tough Kansas State while starting a third-string quarterback in 1994. The Huskers won, 17-6, thanks to a no-frills offense completely centered around running back Lawrence Phillips.

“It was like watching a splendid, sleek animal escape the jaws of a trap by gnawing off its own leg,” wrote John Garrity.

Gamecocks Coach Steve Spurrier has the reputation of liking to throw the football a lot. On Saturday, he played it simple and gave the ball to sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore: Lattimore finished with 37 carries for 246 yards.

Overall, South Carolina ran the ball 44 times. In the second half, USC ran the ball 28 times and threw it 10.

Give Spurrier credit for embracing the simple yet effective approach. It’s something that Navy opposing coaches have not always done, from then-Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt and offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh out-thinking themselves in overtime in 2007 to then-Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis eschewing the effective for mythical style points every Saturday.

Spurrier’s evolution as a coach was on full display on Saturday. Based on research that includes Spurrier’s final five seasons at Florida and first six-plus seasons at South Carolina, Saturday’s rushing numbers were historic.

Only once in his final five seasons at Florida did Spurrier’s teams run the ball more than 44 times: in its bowl game against Penn State in 1997, the Gators had 59 rushes, according to Phil Steele’s yearbook.

Meantime, at South Carolina pre-Lattimore, only twice did it run the ball more than 44 times — against Alabama Birmingham in ’08 and Clemson in ’09. (South Carolina ran the ball 44 times against Tennessee in ’08.)

Since Lattimore arrived, however, the Gamecocks have rushed the ball more than 44 times in a game four times, including Saturday.

Incredibly, Spurrier’s record in all the games mentioned above is 8-0.

I couldn’t find game-by-game stats for Florida in 1996 — odd, since it won the national title under Spurrier that year. But in 1995, Florida’s high number of rushes in a game was 40, against Florida State. Also a win.

On Saturday, Georgia Tech’s option offense ran for more than 600 yards against Kansas; Army used the wishbone in its 21-14 victory over Northwestern (yes, I did notice!); and Navy’s option offense kept it in the game until the final minutes against the then-10th ranked Gamecocks.

It was a good day for teams that run the football.

No more than a teaspoon of the wishbone, please

My grandmother died a couple weeks ago. She was one of my best friends; I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as generous and loving as she, and I don’t think I ever will. In going through some of her papers, I found an old recipe that called for, among other things, a not-insignificant measure of MSG. The siblings and I had a laugh; how times have changed!

Something else has harkened back to bygone times in the past couple weeks: Army’s use of the wishbone formation. Continue reading