ANNAPOLIS — The bleachers were empty. The Brigade of Midshipmen was not present.
There wasn’t a perfectly constructed pregame march and there wasn’t an ear-splitting flyover. Young men and women dressed in uniform didn’t pour out of the stands and sprint to the end zone to bang out push-ups after each time their classmates scored. Pageantry — that word a lot of folks use when they talk about the atmosphere at football games played on the campuses of Service Academies — was nowhere to be found. Bill the Goat even took a vacation.
The Midshipmen dashed out of the tunnel before the first whistle — proudly carrying the flags of the Navy, Marine Corps and this country — and a roar of cheers did not follow them. Heck, there wasn’t even benches for the players to sit on, just a smattering of socially-distanced folding chairs. The atmosphere was quiet and straight-up strange. Calling it surreal feels like an understatement.
A lot of people say that sports brings a sense of normalcy to life, but there wasn’t much that was normal about this — other than Navy lining up in the triple-option and running a fullback dive on its first play.
But the night air was crisp. The bright lights hit the field in a way that only happens when the game is played on a Monday night. No one could’ve dreamed of a better Labor Day evening in Maryland; that humidness that typically hangs in the summer air around the Chesapeake Bay, that stops mosquitoes in mid-flight and makes everything feel sticky, was also gone. And good riddance to that.
All that existed were the lights, the field, a few cameras, some dedicated staff members that made it all work, a gaggle of media members spread out and masked in the press box, and the football teams of the United States Naval Academy and Brigham Young University.
After a long dreadful summer, in the midst of this pandemic, we had football.
For 60 minutes, we had some boys from BYU battling it out against the Midshipmen. And for the folks at home, Kirk Herbstreit and Rece Davis talked them through the action. It all felt familiar.
But shortly after kickoff, we had to ask ourselves: Is bad football better than no football? Because it quickly became apparent that holding no-contact practices had not adequately groomed Navy for this fight. The Midshipmen missed simple blocks and whiffed on easy tackles. They got pushed around and embarrassed by BYU. 55-3 — the worst loss of the Ken Niumatalolo era in Annapolis — was the final score.
And after the game, a humbled Niumatalolo took all the blame for the defeat. It would have been easy for another coach to throw his players under the bus, or to point all fingers at the coronavirus for Navy’s woes, but — in his typical classy fashion — Niumatalolo did not do that. He was accountable and admirable, and put all of the responsibility for the lopsided defeat on his shoulders.
“That game was 1,000 percent my fault. We weren’t prepared,” Niumatalolo told reporters after the game, via Zoom. “There’s nobody to blame but myself. I chose to block bags and tackle donuts. It’s all my fault. I didn’t have us prepared. That’s the bottom line.”
During practice, Niumatalolo put the health of his players first and the Mids successfully avoided any COVID-19 outbreaks. But that also meant, going into Monday’s contest, Navy hadn’t tackled or blocked anyone since their Liberty Bowl win over Kansas State on Dec. 31, 2019.
And it showed.
But would the ultimate outcome of the game been different under normal circumstances, had Navy prepared properly and had Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium been filled to the brim with 34,000 hollering fans?
Probably not. But someone would’ve been around to fire the cannon when Bijan Nichols nailed his 48-yard field goal, and that would’ve been cool, at least.
BYU played some damn good football on Monday and will likely continue to do so for the rest of the season. The Cougars ran and ran and ran and ran some more on Navy, totaling 301 yards and five scores on 49 carries, a per-tote average of 6.1 yards. BYU’s offensive line had its way with Navy defenders, stacking up pancakes like they were at Denny’s. And Zach Wilson was pretty good slinging it too, racking up 232 yards and two scores through the air, completing 13-of-18 passes. BYU’s defense put the clamps on Navy as well, holding the Mids to under 150 yards of total offense, and notching eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Navy should probably do something about BYU’s left guard blocking two dudes at once on every play— BUM CHILLUPS, NPR CLASS PUNDIT (@edsbs) September 8, 2020
BYU Offensive Line last night:— PFF College (@PFF_College) September 8, 2020
▪️ Pass-blocking snaps: 21
▪️ QB pressures: 0
▪️ Run-block grade: 82.8 pic.twitter.com/lTcEPyIXqj
The Cougars scored on five of their first six possessions. Navy punted at the same rate.
“I can’t wait to watch this film,” a giddy BYU head coach Kalani Sitake said after the game.
Niumatalolo probably wouldn’t agree with his friend from Laie, Hawaii.
“That wasn’t Navy football,” Niumatalolo said. “That’s the worst Navy game we’ve ever played.”
For Navy and BYU fans, the winner and loser of this game was important, of course. But the crucial takeaway for a lot of folks was this: we had football. And people — from the comfort of their own homes — cheered and got mad, and they made jokes and created memes and tossed out opinions on the internet. We had football and people cared. That was a good thing.
And even after Navy got blown out, all the players gathered and sang the alma mater, “Navy Blue and Gold.” So, there was a touch of pageantry and tradition. And that was a good thing.
It was always unclear if we would get here, to the point where we’re watching live football in this pandemic. The Big Ten, the Pac-12, the Mountain West, the MAC and countless FCS conferences decided not to play. The pandemic did what World War II and several other world events couldn’t — it ended the longest uninterrupted intersectional rivalry in college football, the Navy-Notre Dame game. That cancellation opened the door for Navy playing BYU, but there was never a guarantee any college football was going to happen in 2020.
But the American Athletic Conference, Navy and BYU — along with the ACC, Big 12, SEC, Sun Belt, CUSA and Army — pressed on. They’ve decided to play football. And that’s a good thing.
Even if I had to get my temperature taken, and even if I could only remove my mask to sip on a Diet Mountain Dew and eat a turkey sandwich, and even if I couldn’t leave the press box, I got to safely cover football on Monday. And that felt right.
Even without fans in the stands, without some of the traditions, and even if we have to watch a few more games decided by 52 points, it was good to have football back.
And bad football is better than no football.