Football is not war, but it does involve battles.
The sport is not life and death, but it requires fearlessness, on its own obviously smaller and less significant scale.
Football demands the ability to win a one-on-one matchup, but it is more intricately structured than other sports because of its episodic quality. The major team sports here in North America all involve called plays, but none involve more interconnected and synchronized movements than football. Plays demand 11 men working in relationship to each other. Just one failure to do a job well can bring the play crashing to a halt, or — on defense — allow a backbreaking touchdown.
Football: It’s only a game, not a mythic struggle for existence and survival… and yet the emotional investment it necessarily extracts from players — and elicits from fans — makes the venture a culturally important and resonant one.
For Navy players — as opposed to Florida State players or USC players — this cultural and personal importance is never more apparent than on one day or during one week:
Army Day. Army Week.
No, it’s not war. It’s not human survival.
During Army Week, however, football remains a very big deal… and it should be.
Country. Tradition. Honor. Memory. History. Legacy. Singing Second. The Streak.
These things matter to Navy, and always will.
This is why — as rough as this past Saturday was — it’s easy for the Midshipmen to forget about their loss in the AAC Championship Game to Temple. This is why Navy can mentally turn the page and not dwell on the recent past.
It’s also why the brotherhood of a football team must mean more to Navy than it’s ever meant before in this special 2016 season.
The Navy brotherhood was there when Tago Smith got injured. The rest of the offense rallied around Will Worth, and instructively, a defense which has been scored upon a ton in the second half of the season was able to make stacks of big plays against Tulane and UConn. (It also played extremely well against Air Force to keep the Mids in that contest.)
The brotherhood rose to the moment before. It must rise again now, only with more urgency and more quickness.
It’s worth acknowledging that Navy’s offense needed time to gel in the first weeks after the Smith injury. It needed the many ups and downs of September before it found its stride in October and Will Worth began to master Ivin Jasper’s offense.
Navy doesn’t have that amount of time heading into its 12th regularly-scheduled game of 2016, but its 13th overall due to the AAC title game appearance.
Worth and Toneo Gulley are definitely out for the Army game. Dishan Romine and Darryl Bonner might be. Even if they somehow manage to play, they won’t be fully healthy.
It would have been enough of a task if Zach Abey had to inherit the offense for Saturday’s clash against West Point on short notice. Under these conditions, he won’t have at least one of the Navy offense’s trusted skill players, and he might possibly lack three.
The players who have been there the whole way, and the players who haven’t; the players who have produced for this team, and those who will get relatively rare snaps against Army, must all find ways to make contributions — that’s obvious.
The better — and bigger — point to emphasize: This is the game in which the Navy defense, on its heels on an almost-perpetual basis over the past several weeks, must become the best thing about the Midshipmen on Saturday.
Gone is the size of the Temple offensive front which controlled the first half of the AAC title game. Gone is the aerial artistry of Memphis, the speed of Houston, and the 1-2 punch of Tulsa with its run-pass balance. Navy now faces an opposing offense with a system it knows, and a level of size it can and should handle. The Midshipmen have, in fact, handled Army’s offense for a very long time.
Army-Navy Game meetings since The Streak began in 2002 have almost always been cruel to Army because the Black Knights haven’t scored much. West Point has eclipsed 17 points only twice, once in a 42-23 loss in 2005. The only time Army scored more than 17 points in a meaningful way was the 2011 game, when the Black Knights almost pulled off a late win but still fell short, 27-21.
The important detail about that year’s game is simply that Navy missed a bowl game in 2011. The only time Army scored in the 20s — and not in garbage time, either — was against Navy’s weakest team of the past 13 seasons.
The plot twist created by Navy’s offensive injuries is this: Giving up 17 points might be too much this Saturday. Navy’s defense might need to hold Army to 13 points maximum to win, very possibly only 10 or even seven.
There’s no point in worrying about the AAC and the Temple game which unraveled rather quickly.
There’s also no point in worrying about the Armed Forces Bowl against Louisiana Tech.
If this shorthanded Navy team — and a Navy defense which has been on the run for much of the season — band together and keep The Streak in the face of massive limitations, such a triumph will instantly attain immortality in Annapolis.
There’s no point in spending too much time dreaming about that possibility.
All that’s left for this band of brothers is to band together with renewed resolve, and fight like junkyard dogs to scratch out one more win over West Point, whatever it takes.