Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year -- What a great ending to 2009 for Navy, Air Force

If 2010 turns out to be as enjoyable as the last day of 2009, I am really looking forward to the New Year.

I got all my work done yesterday by noon, built a fire in my office fireplace (best thing about this house) and sat down to watch Air Force-Houston followed by Navy-Missouri.

You may ask why I wasn’t in Houston with Navy doing the game on radio. Believe me, there’s part of me that would have loved being there. But, as I’ve said before, I really despise the entire flying experience and that ratchets up during a holiday week. I could have flown down with Navy but they left last Saturday and I really didn’t want to spend six days in Houston during the holidays—especially when I had a family trip planned—and then fly back home on New Year’s Eve, landing sometime after midnight.

So, I stayed here and watched on TV.

Let me explain first how I feel about Air Force. I root against the Falcons twice a year: when they play Navy and when they play Army. In every other game I’m an Air Force fan. Obviously I’m closer to the programs at Army and Navy because of “A Civil War,” and my years now doing Navy on radio (13) and my close association with Army. This past September I was honored when I was asked to MC Army’s Hall of Fame banquet when Mike Krzyzewski was inducted. Plus, I have all those boyhood memories of going to games at West Point.

That said, I have great respect for Air Force and like the people I know there very much. Even though the Army and Navy people insist that life at Air Force isn’t as tough as at their schools—they call it, “the country club academy,”--I know that being a cadet at Air Force is about 100 times harder than going to any civilian school. I always respected Fisher DeBerry and I feel the same way about Troy Calhoun, who has done a remarkable job reviving the program the last three years. What’s more, his No. 1 lieutenant, Tim DeRuyter—also an Air Force grad—was at Navy for four years and became a friend so there’s an extra bit of personal connection for me.

So it was that I watched with both surprise and happiness as Air Force absolutely crushed Houston. The Falcons were up 14-0 in the blink of an eye and, although Houston threatened for a while, eventually pulled away to win 47-20. Wow. This was a Houston team that won at Oklahoma State and was 10-2 going into the Conference-USA championship game. Case Keenum was considered a Heisman candidate at one point during the season. Not yesterday: he threw six interceptions—the most in a bowl game since a guy named Bruce Lee threw six for Arizona in the 1968 Sun Bowl.

Keenum had written, “Jesus Saves,” on his eye black for the game. For some reason as the Falcons picked off one pass after another I thought about a famous billboard in Boston years ago when Phil Esposito was setting goal-scoring records for the Bruins. It said: “Jesus Saves….But Espo puts in the rebound!”

There was one disappointment at the end of the game: Instead of staying in Fort Worth for an extra 90 seconds to watch the Air Force players stand at attention for their alma mater, ESPN just HAD to throw it back to the studio so we could hear Lou Holtz and Mark May blather for a few extra minutes. It scares me a little that I actually agree with Holtz on something: he said the Mountain West should get an automatic BCS bid. Of course it should. My God, is there anyone out there who thinks the ACC is as good a league as The Mountain West right now? Or, for that matter, The Big Ten? How did Oregon State, which almost won the Pac-10, look against Brigham Young in the Las Vegas Bowl? Anyway, May, who is always scripted to disagree with Holtz tried to say the bottom of the league was weak. Really? How about the bottom of the ACC Mark? The Big Ten? Or, for that matter the Pac-10 and The Big 12? If TCU beats Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl the Mountain West will be 5-0 in bowl games this season. That’s a pretty deep league if you ask me.

Anyway, I digress.

Just as Navy-Missouri was kicking off, the plumber who had come to the house to fix a broken toilet came in to announce he was finished and—surprise—would like to be paid. I walked into the kitchen, wrote him a check, wished him a Happy New Year and came back in to find Navy trailing 7-0. Whoo boy, this might be a long afternoon. I later saw the replay of Danario Alexander’s 58 yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Then Ricky Dobbs fumbled on Missouri’s 20-yard line on Navy’s first series. I can think negative thoughts faster than almost anyone alive: Missouri was going to score again, make it 14-0 and it was going to get bad. I cursed the bowl system which sent Missouri to the Texas Bowl even though it had finished ahead of both Iowa State and Texas A+M in The Big 12. This was a big-time team, with a future pro quarterback…

I forgot two things: I forgot that the kids playing for Navy are a lot tougher than I am and NEVER think negative thoughts and I forgot about Buddy Green.

ESPN—more on them later—focused about 99 percent of its attention during the telecast on Dobbs. That’s fine. He’s a terrific player and a wonderful kid. Bob Davie did manage to give some credit to the slotbacks and at the very end of the telecast mentioned Green. With all due respect to everyone else at Navy, I’m not sure the MVP of this team wasn’t Green.

Two years ago, his defense, torn up by injuries and wracked by inexperience, got hammered week after week. It gave up 62 points in a WIN against North Texas State. Joe Flacco and Delaware sliced it and diced it for 59 points. There were freshmen all over the field and Paul Johnson even started spending time on the defensive practice field which you know didn’t make Green happy at all.

He never complained, never whined about the injuries or the inexperience. He just kept saying, “Hey, it’s our job to keep coaching them every week and hope they get better.”

They did. Last year the defense was solid. It made plays when it had to—a late interception to seal a game against Rutgers; an amazing fumble recovery in the final minute to steal a game from Temple. It finished the regular season with back-to-back shutouts.

This year though would be harder. Two weeks before the season began, Nate Frazier, by far the team’s best defensive player, a guy who had to be double-teamed on every play at nose tackle, was separated from the academy on an academic honors charge. There’s no messing around at the academies with stuff like that. There was no stalling until after the season; no one game suspension—he was gone.

The schedule was brutal: at Ohio State; at Pittsburgh; Wake Forest; Temple (which won 9 games); at SMU; at Notre Dame; Air Force; at Hawaii. Plus there was the matter of playing 11 weeks in a row without a bye with a team that is always smaller than every civilian opponent it plays.

Every week the defense made key plays. It gave up yardage—Green knows he can’t attack on every play so he sets the opposition up to make mistakes. Notre Dame never punted—but Navy kept stopping it inside the red zone and won the game. In a driving rainstorm with Dobbs hurt, Navy didn’t throw a single pass against Wake Forest—and won the game because the defense made plays. Did you see Air Force roll up more than 500 yards in offense against Houston? That same offense didn’t score a touchdown against Navy’s defense.

Yesterday, facing a team that he knew wanted to throw on every down, Green came out with two down linemen on most plays. Davie was literally open-mouthed. (He also kept referring to Navy’s legal cut blocks as chop blocks, which are illegal. Was that a little bit of the old Notre Damer coming out?) And Missouri kept falling into Green’s trap. It moved up and down the field almost at will but couldn’t score inside the red zone. In fact, Alexander’s touchdown—30 seconds in—was the only touchdown the Tigers scored all day. Final: Navy-35, Missouri-13.

“We’re like 11 hyenas out there,” Niamatalolo said. “Sooner or later we’re going to bring an elephant down.”

Naturally, ESPN didn’t stick around for the playing of the alma mater. It had to show its bowl week promo for the thousandth time. It was also ill-prepared for the broadcast: both Mark Jones and Davie kept mis-pronouncing names and confusing players—without every getting corrected by the truck apparently. It was annoying but didn’t matter.

A word about Niamatalolo: He’s an amazing guy. He’s as genuine as he appears on TV and he stepped into a brutally difficult situation following Johnson, who had become a legend in Annapolis. He’s now 18-10—playing tougher schedules than Johnson did—in two seasons, with a 4-0 record against Air Force and Army, a win over Notre Dame and a bowl win. He’s had to use five different quarterbacks during the two seasons because of injuries.

And he never complains about anything. You see, that’s not the way they do it the academies. I may complain but the players and coaches don’t. You want to talk about the best and the brightest, go talk to some of those young men (they’re not kids) and the men who coach them.

Like I said, it was a great day. Happy New Year to all.


Anonymous said...

Great column to start the year! Did you ever in you wildest imagination think you could use "Navy wins" "35-13" "Bowl Game" and "not as close as the score" in the same sentence? What you apparently missed when ESPN cut away from the end of the game was the Mizzou Band playing over the Navy Band during Blue and Gold. Even Rutgers didn't do that. Does this get Schiano out of your doghouse?

JJ said...

Great column!...But, I thought the cheapshot regarding the "Jesus saves" eyeblack was not necessary, six interceptions speak for themselves.

Anonymous said...

John - I'd never heard of the Esposito billboard before....what a great nugget you threw in today! Congrats Air Force and Navy; they both did us ALL proud yesterday.

Michael said...

I had the Navy game on DVR, but did not know the score ahead of time. The ESPN crew was so awful I muted it midway through the first quarter.

Anonymous said...

What does the "Jesus Saves" eyeblack have to do with six interceptions? Pointing that out (albeit in a somewhat humorous manner) in this context seems to indicate a link of some kind, as if the interceptions show how wrong Keenum is to believe in Jesus and advertise it to the world. Would it have been OK if Keenum wore "Darwin" eyeblack?

BS said...

John...Great column. But why didn't you turn down ESPN and turn up the Navy Radio Network?

Whistle Pig said...

I confess. I'm gung-ho service academies, and particularly Navy. So JF's piece struck some happy nerves, and like him, my household is basking joyfully as this bowl season winds down, thankfully! (But my "thankfully" is redundant, obvious, and boring in its substance, so let's not belabor that word-point.)Joyfully because everyone of our favored teams thus far has been victorious including Penn State, Pitt, Florida, the Buckeyes, and of course our #1 ...Navy! Beat Army!

Several points that were uniquely interesting and insightful.

1. Frazier's separation -he must have REALLY screwed up. Too many athletes (and others) are getting slaps on the hand for dishonorable, dishonest bad behavior. Unfortunate as it is for Frazier and his family, it's good knowing USNA still has some chutzpah about integrity.

2. The schedule - you're right. It was brutal, and the bowl season exposed that ever more so. Pitt, SMU, Temple, OSU, AF, and others. That really is rugged!

3. The Defense - you've probly spoken of this, but that has been the real money-maker on this team, separating it even from Paul Johnson's successes. Thanks for exposing some background to the obvious.

Now we could concur on many things including blather being May's norm (not Holtz him or otherwise, his comments are nearly always original, insightful, and on the money. And I believe he's a much better man as a commentator than as a coach, i.e. he could not have made it at any of the SAs.),the chop/cut block thing, the obvious failure of Davie and Co. to prepare for pronunciation and more, and the stellar quality of persons at USNA and other SAs.

And we could quibble. Mizzou's QB may get a shot @ NFL, but you're kidding about his making it, I assume? And you're buying the Mountain West argument? It's a momentary phenomenon ...sort of like Haley's Comet.

But in the end, fab piece and nice concluding tribute to an unsung hero ...Ken N. He's done a fabulous job. Don't you wonder if Urban Meyer's successor will have such good fortune?

Now, if our USNA "alum" Paul J. can only take his GT lads to victory, it'll be a great ending to a great season.

Bill '73 said...

Great column, about a great day in Academy football. I agree about the announcers, but they were actually better than the CBS team that did the Army-Navy game, they were even worse with pronunciations (Vela, Pospisil, and of course Niumatololo, they would only call him "Coach Kenny"). At least CBS showed the alma maters, but I think their contract requires that.
Bill '73

Anonymous said...

Great column. My favorite line by Mark Jones was his mention of "Quan-tee-co" (Quantico) when discussing the future Marine Corps officers on the team. Took me a minute to figure out what he was talking about.

Anonymous said...

Great article, I have read your book "civil war" Love it. Both ESPN and it Mark Jones and Bob Davie, Need to do their work harder before the game. They both messed up on the schools records more than once. I am currently in Iraq and had to stay up and watch the game. Thanks again for all your support.

Whistle Pig said...

Agreed. Jones' Quantico pronunciation not only illuminated his apparent laziness or inability to devote time to preparing, but an astonishing ignorance of what I'd simply call general knowledge. Who on the American planet has not heard of Quantico? And for media talking heads like him, has he not watched "Silence of the Lambs" a half-dozen times or so? Agent Clarice Starling never once called it qwon-TEE-ko. Oh my. Trivial as it may be, we get a glimpse into the consummate failure enabling communications majors and ex-jocks into the booth, absent a broadly informed knowledge and inquisitiveness of their world, and/or the understanding of why it's necessary, even for football TV announcers. Next, they'll be analyzing and pondering the Navel Academy.

kdusna84 said...

Great article. Navy's win against Missouri is a great one for the program. My hope is it will further solidify Navy as the service academy of choice by top scholar athletes who want to play competitive Div. 1-A football and have the discipline, quickness and speed to make the triple option work. Thanks for your support.

Anonymous said...

Great article. One additional point about ESPN; I kept tuning in after the game to see the Navy-Missouri highlights, and at best saw 2-3 plays lasting 15-20 seconds. I compare that to the detailed highlights shown of other games (Northwestern-Auburn or Ohio State-Oregon )OR to the endless, repeat, and boring coverage regarding the firing of the Texas Tech coach. ESPN should take note.

ArtieLange said...

I should also point out that Davie refered to the Navy "wishbone" at one point. I suppose a guy like me can make that mistake, but a color comentator and former coach?...shame!