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.