Oct. 5, 2010
By Bob Socci
We stood on the tarmac, alongside the plane that gave us a lift back to Baltimore. It was late Saturday night, sometime shortly after 11 o'clock.
Four buses from the Naval Academy had driven away, and should have been heading south by now, on their way back home. Instead, there they were, still on the grounds of BWI Airport - driving in one direction, then another - looking for a way out.
Their passengers included the Navy football team, which still had another 25 of the more than 1,500 miles to go from Colorado Springs to Annapolis. Aircraft cabin-to-Academy curbside service would complete this last leg of a chartered journey back from uncharted territory.
Hours earlier, for the first time in the career of any one of those Midshipmen, Navy lost to Air Force, 14-6. As if the trip weren't long enough already, a power failure prevented the security gate through which those buses were supposed to exit from opening.
Because radio partner Omar Nelson, producer Frank Diventi and I meet the Mids at BWI for each trip, we were waiting for our own ride off airport property. We stood next to an airline official, who turned to Frank and me.
"Boy," he said, shaking his head. "When it rains, it pours."
Not exactly the most original choice of words. Nonetheless, it was the perfect cliché for a long night following a frustrating afternoon, with something out of the ordinary again keeping Navy from finishing a drive.
To think, the day started with so much promise, two times zones away, in brilliant sunshine.
Winners of seven straight over the Falcons and 15 in a row overall in the Commander-In-Chief's series, the Mids' first four plays netted 33 yards and positioned them at Air Force's 47-yard line. But the next four plays included a loss of one, incompletion, gain of eight and punt on 4th-and-3.
The next series looked even better. Trying to capitalize on the hustle and ingenuity of Kevin Edwards who forced and recovered a fumble, Navy covered 54 yards off five snaps. It was 1st-and-goal from the Falcons' 3-yard-line.
From there, in recent seasons past, points would have been automatic; touchdowns a near cinch. Operating their triple-option offense, the Mids averaged 30.7 points per game from 2003-2009.
The last six years, they scored 81 percent of the time (259-of-319) they penetrated the opponents' 20-yard line. Sixty-four percent of those `red zone' possessions (205) resulted in touchdowns. The percentages in 2009 - when quarterback Ricky Dobbs rushed for a record 27 TD - were slightly better, with a scoring rate of .825 and a touchdown clip of .701.
But through three games, this year's Navy offense was just 9-for-16 (.563) overall, while reaching the end zone only seven times (.438) - five of those touchdowns at Louisiana Tech.
Saturday's opportunity to strike first - as well as two subsequent drives to the Air Force 8- and 15-yard lines - eerily resembled too many others against Maryland and Georgia Southern. In fact, on this one, the Mids were left empty-handed when a 21-yard field-goal attempt careened off the left upright.
Some substitute synonyms for that space between the opponents' 20 and the goal line. New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin refers to it as the "green zone." In Navy's opener, after early struggles vs. Maryland, radio analyst John Feinstein inserted his daughter's favorite color in hopes of better results for the Mids inside what he called the "pink zone."
After Saturday, I'm beginning to wonder if it's not "The Twilight Zone."
Three excursions deep into Falcon territory led to two field goals and left the Mids without a touchdown against a rival service academy for the first time since 1987. Opposite Air Force, failing to score a TD was a first since 1976.
"We gotta find a way to finish," head coach Ken Niumatalolo said, repeating himself after the season's first two games. "We didn't finish in the first game against Maryland and it came back to haunt us again this week."
Immediately - as in three plays, 80 yards and 65 seconds - after missing its golden opportunity to jump ahead of the Falcons, Navy was behind. Quarterback Tim Jefferson broke several tackles; then broke to the outside on a 50-yard scoring run.
Asked about short-circuiting in short-yardage situations, Dobbs invoked the word "confusion," indicating that Navy's slot backs and others "up front" were "confused on who they're blocking."
What's clearly understood is that the margin for such error in a rivalry like Navy-Air Force is small from the outset. With every missed assignment, penalty or errant throw in a 6-for-18 passing performance like Saturday's, it shrinks to miniscule.
Compounding matters were two plays on special teams. One was kicker Joe Buckley's initial attempt, which was deflected by the Falcons' Jamil Cooks and redirected off the goalpost. The other was Cooks sensational effort to block a Kyle Delahooke punt and set up a 15-yard touchdown `drive' early in the 4th quarter.
Considering that the main difference in Navy's last two wins in the series were a pair of punt blocks for scores and a missed overtime field goal, the football gods showed a strange sense of humor. But what's truly funny is that all the Falcons gladly took those points and wildly celebrated their one-possession margin of victory.
In the build-up to this year's encounter, at least one seemed to dismiss the Mids' recent success.
"It's always something we do wrong as opposed to what they do right," Air Force junior Jon Davis was quoted in The Capital prior to his first win over Navy.
Granted, human nature leads one to first look inward after a frustrating loss - more so, when defeat is at the hands of an arch rival. And, no question, most of us associated with the Mids are inclined to do the same.
But, thankfully, when it came time Saturday for Navy's captains to speak about their first career disappointment in an academy game, they left the `they didn't beat us, we lost' talk to somebody else, in some other program.
"Can't take it from them, they played really well," said safety Wyatt Middleton. "They executed, they took advantage of their opportunities...You just gotta move on from this one."
"They made more plays than we did today," Dobbs said. "They were the better team today. My hat goes off to their team."
Dobbs was even more gracious, when asked if he would root for Army to beat Air Force in November, thus preventing the Falcons from winning the CIC Trophy.
"Tim Jefferson is one of my good friends," Dobbs replied. "I wish him the best in everything he (does). Like I told him, `You just carry your team and make sure you do what you have to do.'"
Addressing media outside their locker room, Middleton and Dobbs took cues from Niumatalolo, who - despite wearing his distaste for defeat, as a fierce competitor, on his face - chose to credit Air Force. Again, and again.
"First of all, give Air Force credit," he started his statement.
On the subject of Cooks' spectacular block, Niumatalolo opted to praise the opposing player instead of publicly criticizing one of his own.
"Kid made a heckuva of a football play," he said of Cooks, rather than agreeing with a reporter's intimation that Delahooke was slow in delivering the punt. "Give him credit, heckuva football play by him."
In case it wasn't already understood, Niumatalolo concluded, "To their credit, they made more plays than we did."
That's the Navy way. Play hard and, win or lose, confront your fate with class.
And, regardless of the depth of disappointment, be resilient enough not to let a single defeat beat you again the following week. Like Middleton said, you just gotta move on.
Almost always, since 2003, that's exactly what the Mids have done. They've won 23 of their last 29, when coming off a loss.
Making it 24-6 this Saturday won't be easy. Not with a third straight date on the road, facing a well-coached Wake Forest team seeing virtually the same offense for the second consecutive week.
Under ex-Air Force assistant Jim Grobe, the Demon Deacons spent most of Saturday night leading Georgia Tech and former Navy coach Paul Johnson.
Despite allowing an average of 40 points and 467 yards its first four games, Wake led Tech, 17-6, after three quarters. Only two scores in the final 6:50 - including the game-winner to make it, 24-20, with 15 seconds left - saved the Jackets from becoming a rambling wreck.
They were held to 209 yards rushing and an average of 4.4 yards per attempt. Their leading individual, quarterback Josh Nesbitt, carried 26 times for 72 net yards (2.8). Excluding a 50-yard run, he averaged 0.8 yards a rush.
For 2-2 Navy, its own offensive showing at Air Force - let alone Wake Forest's defensive effort against Tech - dictates that there's plenty of work to do.
With two-thirds of the schedule remaining, there's a long journey ahead.
But after a slow start out of the gate, the time is now for the Mids to finish the drive.