Sept. 17, 2012
By Bob Socci
Long after the outcome was assured, and shortly before the Penn State band filled the lull of a timeout by “Rolling in the Deep” with the sounds of Adele, Navy’s Shawn Lynch stood in the shadows of Beaver Stadium at his own 35-yard line.
Looking skyward, Lynch saw that Alex Butterworth’s second punt of the day wasn’t particularly high, and certainly wasn’t traveling very far. Lynch didn’t wait for the ball to come to him; he went and got it.
Although the Nittany Lions’ Michael Zordich, likewise running at full speed, reached Lynch after only four yards of a return, it was exactly the kind of play the Midshipmen need much more of, moving forward in 2012.
More important than those four yards or the incalculable others Lynch saved by not allowing the ball to land and bounce further into Navy territory are the reasons behind his actions. Lynch was decisive, aware enough of the situation, and confident enough in his ability to do something positive.
Racing up, instead of moving back, he showed no fear of failure. A lot of other returners, including some paid specifically to catch punts in the pros, would have simply stayed clear of the consequences. Why, they might reason, risk a muff? Why, they might think to themselves, take the hit that’s sure to follow?
Not Lynch. Not even with the Mids down by 27, having already pulled several offensive starters, midway through the fourth quarter.
Earlier, when there was still hope of erasing a 20-point halftime deficit, Lynch showed similar moxie. His fellow wide receiver Casey Bolena took a pitch off the first snap of the third quarter and lofted an option pass as far as he could down the right sideline.
The ball was under thrown, and defender Stephon Morris was all over Lynch. But Lynch adjusted, pulling up, turning back and making a fabulous catch. It was another example of someone self-assured -- the kind of someone who may not stand out as much in victory, when there’s lots of company.
Unfortunately, each effort by Lynch was a rare exception on an afternoon that ended in a 34-7 loss.
Afterwards, in his press conference, head coach Ken Niumatalolo summarized the day by saying, “Way too many errors, too many turnovers, too many penalties.”
And too much uncertainty.
The last nine years, only 22 other teams in Division I won more often than the Mids, who entered last weekend at 75-41 (.647) since the start of 2003. During those seasons, their identity was widely known. On offense, they took care of the ball. On defense, they refused to give up big plays. On either side, they didn’t hurt themselves with penalties.
That’s how Navy beat more talented teams like Missouri, and stayed with vastly superior athletes from Ohio State and South Carolina, whose narrow wins weren’t decided until the final minutes.
Two games into this season, the Mids have been outscored, 84-17, by Notre Dame and Penn State -- opponents, it’s recognized, that were expected to prevail in every corner of the college football world outside of Annapolis.
The 3-0 Fighting Irish -- see their extremely impressive win at Michigan State -- may wind up better than the Buckeyes of ’09 or Gamecocks of ’11. Especially defensively.
And despite a 1-2 start following numerous defections, the Nittany Lions still have a lot of prospects ticketed for Sundays. Beaver Stadium has to be one of the few venues where you can watch a sponsored feature on the video board highlighting the week’s top performances by alumni in the NFL.
None of us should forget that. Nonetheless, as Niumatalolo agreed on Saturday, none of us are accustomed to seeing mistakes so uncharacteristic, in comparison to the Mids’ recent past.
Navy was penalized seven times for 41 yards. From 2009-11, no program in Division I was penalized less. The Mids averaged 2.33 infractions for 20 yards per game those three seasons.
Even at 5-7, last year’s squad ranked 15th nationally in turnover margin, totaling -- totaling -- 15 giveaways all season. Already, in 10 fewer contests, this Navy team has turned it over eight times. Two of those were fumbles returned at least 70 yards for defensive scores.
“We did things that we normally don’t do,” Niumatalolo said.
In ways we normally haven’t seen.
The fifth play of Penn State’s opening drive, resulting in a 7-0 lead, was a 45-yard pass from Matt McGloin to Allen Robinson, who was tackled at the 4-yard line. Robinson is having an outstanding season as the Big Ten’s leading receiver. Nevertheless, safety help for a cornerback who lost his footing was late, on a ball that seemed to linger in the air long before Robinson stopped to pull it in.
Between that grab and the Lions’ next score, the Mids were flagged three times. Once for having too many defenders on the field; later for a false start to put the offense in a 3rd-and-28 hole.
About two minutes later, Penn State scored again on a near replay of Robinson’s first catch. Again McGloin found him 45 yards away along the left sideline, behind the corner and in front of the safety.
And when it appeared poised to respond, with six different players either rushing or receiving 65 yards to the Lions’ 10, Navy stopped itself. A missed assignment one play preceded another false start on the next. Due perhaps to a first-time starter at center, the noise of 98,792 -- particularly near the South end zone -- or both, it wasn’t the first or last time the Mids started on different snap counts.
“Not snapping it, not being able to hear, their crowd, you know what I mean, whew,” said a frustrated Niumatalolo, who ran practices last week to the sounds of crowd noise blaring from nearby speakers. “We knew that coming into the game. I mean, this isn’t Study Hall where people are going to be quiet. We knew there was going to be noise, and you’ve got to deal with it. That killed us down there...”
The play to follow led to no less than at least a 10-point swing. Under intense pressure, quarterback Trey Miller lobbed a pass up for grabs, while in the grasp of defender Sean Stanley. The ball came down in the hands of Penn State’s Gerald Hodges. The Lions then drove 90 yards in 14 plays for a 20-0 lead.
“It was just a bad decision,” said a forthright Miller, “a throw I shouldn’t make.”
Looking ahead, Niumatalolo says the Midshipmen will do exactly what we always expect of them.
“We’ll just keep working,” he promises. “We’ll just keep working as a staff, keep working as a team to try to clean those things up. We don’t want anybody to feel sorry for us. We’re going to go back to work.
“We’ve got to look at everything, including me coaching, what we’re doing to get ready. That’s two (games) in a row we’ve played two good teams. I just wish we’d have played better against two really good programs. I don’t know if we’d have won, but I just really wish we’d played better. That’s most disappointing.”
Four days before Niumatalolo addressed his team’s struggles at Penn State, Lynch spoke of his misgivings a year ago, when he was moved from wide receiver to defensive back.
“I was a little hesitant in the passing game,” he said of his brief stint as starting safety. “I wasn’t breaking on passes, so it kind of got to me a little bit. But you got fight through it, do what you’ve got to do.”
Lynch persevered to find his comfort zone, returning to offense over the offseason. A revelation in August workouts, he emerged in the opener vs. Notre Dame. Thwarting the attempts of Irish cornerbacks to jam him at the line, Lynch separated himself with four receptions for 87 yards, including a touchdown.
He fought through last season, did what he had to do, and is now playing with great confidence. As he showed at Penn State.
This weekend, as they entertain VMI in their home opener, the Mids as a group will try to start a similar transformation. The visitor won’t seem nearly as ‘sexy’ as the two teams they’ve faced thus far -- put it this way, no one’s going to be highlighting ex-Keydets now starring in the NFL. But this game and this opponent are more important than the first two.
It’s time, with a solid performance, for all the Midshipmen to start taking their steps with the same certitude as Lynch, even when his feet cover just four yards on a late punt return.
Don't wait for opportunity. Go and get it.