Oct. 18, 2011
By Bob Socci
Writing from New England, the last few weeks here have allowed me to gain a true appreciation for what it looks and sounds like when the sky falls on a sports franchise and its fandom.
Daily headlines on the front page of one local paper and the back page of the other, as well as the incessant chat-ah from sports talk radio continue to explore, and deplore, the demise of Boston’s beloved Red Sox.
In less than a month, the team that reintroduced a sports nation to Neil Diamond has gone from two-time champion of the last decade and, ostensibly, the baseball industry standard to one portrayed as club chaos. As sweet as the summer was, it’s been a bitter fall for Caroline, and every other son and daughter of Red Sox Nation.
Meanwhile, a roster replete with somebodies who were mostly nobodies -- Albert Pujols excluded, of course -- in early September will still be playing when the World Series opens tomorrow night. Seriously, three weeks ago, how many avid fans outside of St. Louis had any idea who David Freese is, much less gave his Cardinals any shot of reaching the postseason?
That’s why I’m far from the point of panicking over a 2-4 start for the Navy Midshipmen. And why I won’t possibly pretend to have any inkling about what the season’s second half has in store.
No question, the last four games, resulting in Navy’s first four-game skid since 2002, have been tough to stomach. They were indigestible, actually.
Three of those losses were resolved by five points, total. The other was an ugly outcome whose complexion still could have been altered significantly had the Mids’ first or second -- or both -- series ended in anything but utter frustration.
Most recently, last weekend’s 21-20 heartbreaker at Rutgers featured painfully redundant themes.
Navy was victimized by a crucial blocked kick for the third straight Saturday. Its offense scored on just two of four drives inside the Scarlet Knights “red zone,” both of which netted field goals instead of touchdowns.
And its defense, though much improved, allowed conversions on 7-of-14 third-down attempts. Rutgers overcame 3rd-and-10 on its first scoring series and produced its next two touchdowns off 3rd-and-4 and 3rd-and-9 passes of 10 yards and 20 yards, respectively.
The Scarlet Knights also picked up a 3rd-and-8 from Navy’s 49-yard line with 2:34 to go. The 20 yards gained on a tipped pass to follow ultimately cost the Mids about two minutes before they got the ball back for one final gasp, with 24 seconds remaining.
Compounding all that matters were a few unfortunate bounces.
There was the aforementioned deflection off the fingertips of cornerback David Sperry to Quron Pratt along the right sideline. Earlier, with Navy ahead, 17-7, Brandon Turner’s bobble somehow avoided the turf, as he fell to the ground, and was collected by an RU defender for a game-turning interception near midfield. And later, when the Mids blocked a field goal try in the final half minute, the up-the-field carom didn’t give Tra’ves Bush a chance to return it past his own 23-yard line.
With less than a half minute left, there was simply too little time and too far to go for Navy to avoid defeat by the slimmest of differences.
True, the Midshipmen were on the long side of such narrow margins in the past -- see Wake Forest, SMU and Central Michigan from last season alone. But it’s also fact that during Navy’s run of eight straight postseason appearances, there have been a share of such losses too.
How about Maryland, twice, in 2005 and ’10? Or Notre Dame, thanks to a last-second field goal, tipped at the line by Josh Smith in 2003? Remember Boston College in ’06? Or either Tulsa or Ball State, in overtime in Annapolis, in back-to-back seasons of 2006-07? Need I mention Utah that same autumn of ’07 or Ohio State at the outset of ’09?
So no, this isn’t the case of football gods suddenly turning their backs on the Mids, or karma catching up to anyone in Blue in Gold.
Baseball Hall of Famer and philosopher for all-time Casey Stengel said it best: Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes it rains.
Though lately it’s been pouring on Navy, metaphorically, the reality since a three-point loss at South Carolina in mid-September is that opponents are making more good plays and/or fewer bad plays. That’s how it goes, in baseball, football and every other sport.
In baseball, there’s a cautionary reminder for both those who are hot and those who aren’t: Momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher. Or if you’re talking about the Cardinals, the next inning’s relief pitcher. In football: The most important play is the next one.
Without such mentality, it’s hard not to avoid being consumed by failure. Otherwise, slumps and losing streaks turn into lost seasons.
This season is far from lost for the Midshipmen. At two up, four down, with six to go in the regular campaign, they have a lot of positives to build on.
Offensively, Kriss Proctor is proving a multi-talented operator of the triple option. He has plenty of playmaking teammates like Alexander Teich, John Howell, Gee Gee Greene and a deep receiving corps. The line is experienced and good enough to keep the Mids among the top four nationally (332.0) in rushing. After playing the best defense they’ll likely face all year, in Rutgers, that average is bound to rise.
Defensively, the Rutgers game -- albeit opposite a freshman quarterback behind an inexperienced line -- was a solid step forward. There were gold hats to the football on every play, and three takeaways from an opponent owning the nation’s top-ranked turnover margin. Freshman Chris Ferguson looked uninhibited at safety, marking his starting debut with a “pick six.”
And despite difficulties to date, what ails the kicking unit can be corrected. Jon Teague has proven his leg strong enough to launch the longest field goal in school history (54 yards). Pablo Beltran has dropped a third of his punts inside the opposition’s 20-yard line and belted three for 50 yards or more.
Back in the spring, Teich spoke of the primary team goal for 2011.
“Win the game every day,” he said at the time. “In the weight room, win the day. In practice, have a better day than the previous day.”
Here on out, cliched as it sounds, the thinking must be amended to winning the moment.
The Red Sox lost 20 of 27 games in September, inning-by-inning, pitch-by-pitch, to blow a nine-game lead in the American League Wildcard race. The Redbirds won 20 of their last 28, erasing what was a 10 1/2-game deficit in the National League, the same way; batter-by-batter, day-by-day.
Maybe we see Navy in need of four wins in six games to prolong its string of bowl appearances, but the Mids’ focus has to be much, much sharper.
Current negative momentum is only as good as Navy’s next drive. And whether the Mids’ glass is half full or half empty at this point won’t be known until the next half of the season is complete.
There are at least 360 minutes of game time left to be played.
The Mids are back on the clock this Saturday, just past 3:30 p.m., vs. East Carolina.