Nov. 20, 2008
From where Frank Diventi sat last Saturday, peeking out of the home radio booth through his wire-rimmed specs, as a sheet of rain emptied seats and flooded aisles, M&T Bank was a stadium half full.
Producing Navy broadcasts for more than a quarter century, Frank had seen enough days when more than the stadium was half empty to know better. He'd lugged equipment cases into press boxes from Honolulu to Dublin, patched together wires during winless autumns and turned up the volume on bowl-game celebrations.
Just two weeks earlier, he'd witnessed what the rest of us had, even if we still couldn't quite believe the way the Midshipmen rallied from 20 down in the fourth quarter to defeat Temple in overtime.
It's why he spoke up in commercial break, during a fourth-quarter timeout, with Notre Dame leading the Midshipmen, 27-7.
"This score look familiar?" Father Diventi, as he's been lovingly referred to by the clowns he babysits for four hours or so most fall Saturdays, said in a somewhat scolding voice. "We're one turnover from this being a brand new game."
Much to my own embarrassment, like most things said from the Navy radio booth, his words were met with cynical looks - from the ex-fullback, the best-selling sportswriter and yours truly.
Sure, we knew our recent history. But, these were the Golden Domers, not the Owls of Coach Al Golden. Temple gave us Bill Cosby, David Brenner and Norman Fell, a.k.a. Mr. Roper on "Three's Company," while Notre Dame immortalized Knute Rockne, The Gipper and The Four Horsemen.
Of course, we, I should have known better. The lore of the Fighting Irish is one thing. The fighting spirit of the Midshipmen is entirely another.
After all, the most famous line feeding the marriage of legend and myth that is Notre Dame's mystique is Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper," delivered during the intermission of the 1928 Army game at Yankee Stadium.
At Navy, the Midshipmen are expected to take their cue from words that have echoed since 1779; spoken not at halftime, but in the heat of battle aboard the Bonhomme Richard.
They were 20 points in arrears. But the Mids had not yet begun to fight. John Paul Jones would soon be beaming back in Annapolis.
Most of the time, I detest military metaphors in the context of sports. Games are just that, games. With service academies, though, there is a direct correlation - as Gen. Douglas MacArthur pointed out - between "fields of friendly strife" and arenas much less forgiving.
While their opponents generally are judged by recruiting services and NFL scouts, the Mids are evaluated, ultimately, by far different standards. Officers to be, they simply don't give up. They compete until the competition is over. End of game, then end of story.
So, Saturday with the Irish sitting on 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line with six minutes left, defeat for Navy a forgone conclusion, the Mids still swarmed to the football. A two-yard loss led to a one-yard loss, which led to a fumble forced by Rashawn King and recovered by Nate Frazier.
Not that ole Father Diventi was entirely correct. It took more than a turnover.
After a failed series for each team, with Navy regaining position at the 2:30 mark, it eventually took a touchdown, an on-sides kick, another touchdown and another on-sides recovery. Inside an amazingly frenetic 18 seconds.
And then it was a brand new game.
But after touchdowns on Shun White's 24-yard run with 1:39 left and Ricky Dobbs' 1-yard carry with 1:21 remaining - each preceding a Matt Harmon kick recovered by Cory Johnson - there would be no third score. Dobbs' fourth-down pass intended for Cory Finnerty landed incomplete with 22 seconds to go, with Notre Dame still in front, 27-21.
Prior to the game, head coach Ken Niumatalolo had written the words "BELIEVE" and 'ACHIEVE" in black marker on a white dry-erase board in the middle of the Navy locker room. No doubt, his team believed - right up to the end, even when others didn't.
That's a testament to the Mids - for whom quitting isn't an option - and the people who teach them, including their coaches.
Anyone who's seen - or painfully felt - Niumatalolo play pickup basketball or watched him as an assistant on the practice field, should appreciate his competitive nature. It's enough to match, if not exceed anyone else's. Whether coaching counterpart or coaching predecessor.
Maybe you don't always hear his intensity in the soft-spoken sentences he delivers at press-conference podiums, but you clearly see it in his eyes. Unmistakably, his players sense it - most importantly - in his actions and in his heart.
No question, Niumatalolo took over a program light years removed from what Paul Johnson inherited prior to 2002 - the facilities, the culture of Navy football and the talent on the field. Still, he's faced challenges unique to his time, his place.
Though succeeding a mentor, following Johnson is hardly an enviable opportunity. After all, he left Annapolis a legend in the making. Leading the Mids to 11 straight wins over Army and Air Force, five consecutive bowl berths and that triple-overtime victory last year in South Bend is a tough act to follow.
And consider who Niumatalolo's had to do it against, starting with his first game on the job last December, opposite very much the same Utah team now on the verge of breaking through the BCS threshold.
Six of Navy's FBS opponents this season are bowl eligible, with Rutgers - winner of four in a row - knocking on the door to the postseason. Three of those teams have been nationally ranked.
All while trying to overcome the graduation of the next-to-most prolific player in school history (Reggie Campbell and his 4,737 all-purpose yards), the Academy's all-time seventh-leading rusher (Adam Ballard) and a back who scored nine touchdowns in his last five games (Zerbin Singleton). Gone as well is four-fifths of the '07 starting offensive line, including a three-year anchor, Antron Harper.
And to make matters more difficult, there's been a season-long conundrum, created by the August injury to quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, widely considered the best orchestrator of the Mids' offense during the triple-option era.
Through it all, Niumatalolo's projected a sense of calm and injected a dose of confidence - making no excuses, never panicking, always believing in his players. As the last two football Saturdays show, these Mids bear his reflection.
Despite earlier flaws, they put themselves in position to take what Temple gave, before stripping the Notre Dame leprechaun right down to his last lucky charm. In the process, they never lost composure in doing what professionals routinely can't.
Seriously, how many NFL teams do you see try to execute the on-sides kick and either touch the ball before it goes 10 yards or fail to get a bounce that gives them a chance to recover? And don't you think the San Francisco 49ers would benefit by watching how quickly Navy lined up to spike the ball and stop the clock?
Throughout his first season, Niumatalolo's refrained from impulsive decisions that might jeopardize field position or hand momentum to the opposition, trusting a vastly-improved defense that's repeatedly validated his faith.
When successful, he's gone out of his way to praise the Mids and his assistants. Some coaches - no need to mention names after last weekend - swear there's no "I" in team, yet can't help but include an "I" or two in explaining their team's success.
Not Niumatalolo. When the Mids run and block well, "our kids" ran and blocked well. He and his staff may have made decisions. But he understands fully, the Mids made plays.
When they haven't run or blocked well, as in the six straight scoreless series vs. Temple and the nine possessions ending with punts vs. Notre Dame, he's done his best to protect his players.
Niumatalolo demonstrated as much this week in his handling of Navy's quarterback dilemma. In naming Dobbs the starter for Tuesday's visit to Northern Illinois, he went to great pains to point out two things.
First, the offense's recent difficulties weren't Jarod Bryant's fault. Secondly, his decision to change quarterbacks is due more to what Dobbs seems to be giving than what Bryant is lacking. Some might think it simply a matter of semantics, in his search for a spark.
But Niumatalolo is where no coach wants to be, forced to unseat a rightfully-popular and respected team captain from the most scrutinized position in football - and, perhaps, all of sports - as starting quarterback.
Let's be clear. Dobbs has a lot to learn and Bryant's contributions can't be overstated and shouldn't be overlooked. He was - and always will be - the quarterback at the crossroads when the '07 Mids avoided a 1-3 start with the fourth-quarter comeback Jarod engineered against Duke.
If circumstances should call upon him in relief, Bryant is more than capable. If not, he'll continue to contribute in ways tangible - such as his save of a short-hop snap on an extra-point last Saturday - and intangible.
Yet, despite the youthful errors of his ways in practice, Dobbs earned his upcoming opportunity with his performance the last three games. Even when he's run the wrong way, he's shown the strength to break tackles or the presence of mind to beat the whistle with a last-second pitch for a touchdown against Temple.
And no Navy quarterback in the option era has displayed an arm so strong and a touch as deft. In the rally over the Owls, he hung in against the rush to feather a pass to Eric Kettani, immediately before firing a frozen rope down the seam to T.J. Thiel for a touchdown.
In last week's box score, Dobbs completed just 2-of-8 passes. Still, set the stat sheet aside and examine those six incomplete throws.
The first was floated just over the defensive back onto the numbers of the intended receiver, who had the ball jarred free when he fell to the turf. The next was with a wet ball, through the hands of his target over the middle.
On the final drive, there were three incompletions. One, delivered deep downfield, toward the far sideline, was certainly catchable. Then, facing a heated rush, Dobbs was unable to step into a throw for Tyree Barnes that was barely broken up by cornerback Robert Blanton.
And on his final pass, Dobbs turned to the right receiver and threw to the right spot. With Finnerty seemingly held on his route, it appeared a penalty on Notre Dame would have been the right call.
Of course, Niumatalolo can't dwell on the what-ifs. He must deal in absolutes. As someone who's forgotten more about the Mids' triple option than we'll ever know, he's spotted the missed reads, breaking down tapes from games and practices.
But, in reaching the most important decision of his very young head-coaching career, Niumatalolo is searching for exactly the kind of spark that Dobbs has provided of late.
"The bottom line is that we're not moving the ball," he said this past Tuesday. "Our execution has got to improve drastically.
"One thing I thought about is that Ricky exudes confidence. Sometimes, there are guys who make other guys believe. They get into the game and have the intangibles to make other people play harder or rise to the occasion."
For the most part, the last two games, Dobbs has been that guy. And considering the next two opponents, he'll need to be again and again.
Tuesday night on national television the Huskies (6-5) will be playing for their own postseason lives. NIU has even built a marketing campaign around what it's billing as a "Battle for a Bowl."
And then Navy will meet MacArthur's alma mater from West Point, the one team always sure to match the Mids' effort - from start to finish.
Here on out, this much I know, Father Diventi won't be betting against Navy. And neither will I.