The third game of the season didn’t go as planned for the Navy Midshipmen. Actually, it wasn’t even close.
The Air Force Falcons dominated the Midshipmen, 40-7, in the biggest margin of victory within the rivalry since 2002. Many felt Navy had the advantage heading into the game considering they had two games under their belt and a “full team” (or in other words, hadn’t lost players to “turnbacks”). Even Las Vegas had the Midshipmen winning by a touchdown or so.
So, why were we so, so wrong?
First, the way in which Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun prepares his team — releasing almost no information to the public regarding the status of players, or even who is on the team — gives them a small leg up on the competition. Until the first offensive play of the game, nobody had any clue who was going to start at quarterback for the Falcons. Conversely, the Midshipmen played two games prior to their meeting with Air Force, allowing the Falcons to study and identify weaknesses in the Navy squad.
Although Navy’s starting quarterback, Dalen Morris, was unable to play due to injury, that in itself was not the reason the Midshipmen only scored seven points. The Navy offensive line this season is simply subpar. Tyger Goslin, who started under-center for the Midshipmen, had almost the same exact experience as Air Force quarterback Haaziq Daniels. And yet, Daniels has no issue finding open holes and leading his offense to a 40-point outing.
I could go on-and-on about the theoretical unfairness of Air Force not having the “same season” as Navy and that they had two games worth of film on Navy. But, let’s be honest, the Falcons were the better team and they deserved the win.
Naturally, many Navy fans are extremely frustrated with the seemingly random levels of performance by the team over the last few years. Since the Keenan Reynolds era, the Navy Midshipmen have been incredibly inconsistent. After an amazing year in 2019 that resulted in an 11-2 record and a win over Kansas State in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Navy is 1-2 so far with two ugly, blowout losses.
So... what is going on?
The Navy football program is being used as a stepping-stool. A stop on the road trip. A place where talent can gain some experience and move on to bigger and better things. For many years, Navy had very little turnover in their coaching and support staff. But since 2015, Navy has lost a handful of coaches to the NFL or Power 5 schools. Additionally, more and more talented players are leaving Navy, some in hopes of finding their way to the NFL.
It started with Alohi Gilman, who left Navy for Notre Dame, and is now with the Los Angeles Chargers. This past off-season, Jacob Springer, a star on last year’s defensive squad, transferred and landed at Ole Miss. Chalen Garnes, another defensive player who was likely to start, left Navy and found his way to Wake Forest. Even support staff, like those focused on improving the social media presence of the team, left during this past off-season. These losses were recoverable. But, when Perry Olsen, who many believed was a better fit at quarterback then Dalen Morris, announced his transfer after not being named starter following the BYU game, it made things look quite grim for this year’s team.
The problem with the Navy football program is the same with the American Athletic Conference (and other Group of 5 conferences) — they are seen as a temporary solution. And once one is proven at the intermediate level, they gain the confidence to continue to climb the ladder.
Ken Niumatalolo has built a phenomenal program. But sometimes, players, coaches and support staff shine, unlock their potentials and then jump at the chance to go to the Power 5. Occasionally, his own program finds itself in a talent drought. That might be what we’re seeing this season, and it’s being amplified by the pandemic. If this season turns out to be anything like 2018, the Navy football team and its fans are in for a bumpy ride.