Sept. 17, 2010
By Bob Socci
At this late Friday afternoon hour, the temperature here in Monroe, La. is 96 degrees. According to The Weather Channel, it feels like 101.
No doubt, the heat index would climb further north of the century mark about 30 miles to the west of here, if measured on the unnatural turf of Joe Aillet Stadium in Ruston.
That's where, about this time tomorrow, the Navy Midshipmen will be warming up (honestly, no pun intended) for a 6 p.m. kickoff against Louisiana Tech.
Though the game will be played mostly under artificial lighting instead of the searing sun, the latter has ostensibly burned its way into the pregame thoughts of the Bulldogs' head coach.
He just happens to be known as Sonny. But tomorrow - despite the moniker - Sonny Dykes wants to spend as much time in the shade as possible.
Why else would he choose at the next-to-last minute to have his Bulldogs switch sidelines with their guests from Annapolis?
It's a decision - you might even call it a breach of protocol - that will leave Navy fans in the unusual position of sitting behind the La Tech bench. And keep Navy players roasting in the sun until its very last rays are devoured by the shadows of "The Joe."
Say it ain't so.
Then again, it's not like the Mids haven't already been dealing with the heat.
They handled it while training during the hottest summer on record in Annapolis. And they felt it while narrowly splitting their first two games in a span of six days.
As idyllic as last Saturday might have seemed, it got pretty stuffy when Georgia Southern drew as close as 13-7, only to become even more uncomfortable until Navy was finally able to run out the final seconds of the home opener.
Now, on the verge of their third contest in 13 days, the mercury is rising. So too is the importance of the outcome.
"This is a huge game for us," head coach Ken Niumatalolo said a day before the Mids left for the Academy's first-ever visit to Ruston, followed by an idle Saturday and a trip to Air Force on Oct. 2. "We would love to go into the bye week feeling good about ourselves."
Thus far, emotions are mixed.
Against Maryland, despite a roughly 2-to-1 advantage in most statistical categories, the Mids made five scoreless trips into the "red zone," leaving them with a three-point deficit and a 17-14 loss.
With barely enough time to collect their breath, let alone recover from a physical opener, Navy hosted GSU, took a 13-0 lead and asked its defense for relief, which it provided. Afterwards, Niumatalolo said that the Eagles' defense played harder than the Mids' offense.
Not apt to make excuses, he failed to mention that one Navy unit was far fresher than the other.
Maryland's offense had just 39 plays, including 13 on its first two possessions. Of the final 49 minutes off the game clock, the Mids played defense for a little more than 13 minutes.
By halftime of GSU, Navy's offense had run 113 snaps in less than a week. Forty-five were carries by Ricky Dobbs. Virtually all of those ended with one hit - and likely more - on the Mids' quarterback.
Coincidentally or not - I suggest the latter, even while crediting the Eagles with a great effort on defense - Navy slogged through the second half on offense. Thankfully for the Mids, they got a pick me up from their defense.
A few hours earlier, under similar circumstances, Virginia Tech jumped to a 13-0 lead over James Madison - also, like GSU, a Division I-AA opponent. The Hokies, who also suffered a draining defeat on Monday (33-30 to Boise State), likewise, seemed to run out of steam.
Tech controlled the clock for more than 20 minutes of the first half, but just 11 ½ minutes after the break. Unlike Navy, it couldn't hold on, falling 21-16.
"We're not going to panic," Niumatalolo said of the state of his Midshipmen. "I know we can play better."
He says he wants Navy to "be less tentative" against Louisiana Tech. That goes for everyone, Niumatalolo says, admitting that "sometimes coaches overanalyze too much."
With a late kickoff on Saturday, affording a few extra hours of sleep - perhaps the most precious commodity for any midshipmen - he should also expect a typically more energetic performance.
No matter how high the mercury rises.