The story of the 2016 Armed Forces Bowl is a story which begins for Navy on Saturday, September 3.
You remember that day — it was the day when, not even one-half into this football season, Tago Smith was knocked out for the year.
Go back to that moment. Recall what you were thinking and feeling.
Chances are you weren’t thinking, “Well, this is going to be an AAC West championship season with a 46-point performance against Houston.”
That’s the point which Navy players must absorb in the locker room, just before they take the field in Fort Worth against Louisiana Tech.
The story of Navy football this year has been a story of trial and misfortune.
It’s bad enough that a team loses one starting quarterback in a season. Navy lost two.
It’s bad enough that Navy — finally playing in a conference after so many years of being independent — wins a division title and then gets pounded by injuries in its first-ever conference championship game.
It’s far worse that Navy’s conference championship game against Temple — with all the misfortune and attrition it carried — affected the Army game. The turnaround was short enough that Zach Abey (who did eventually play well in the third quarter and portions of the fourth) wasn’t quite able to overcome the steep learning curve in front of him.
A good team — an overachieving team, to be more precise — couldn’t have done more. It couldn’t have made its coaches or fans prouder. It couldn’t have left anything less on the table with its effort, its consistency, its response to the Tago Smith injury.
Yet, forces beyond the Midshipmen’s control cast a pall over two of the three biggest moments of the season: the AAC title game, and the Army-Navy Game.
It’s rotten luck. It’s a rotten set of circumstances.
Before the season ends, the set of circumstances flows into the Armed Forces Bowl, also played on a short turnaround because of the Army game and the pre-Christmas bowl slot.
This is where Navy has to turn back the clock on 2016.
Just as it seemed very hard to imagine the Midshipmen winning the AAC West once Smith went down, and just as the Houston game seemed like a very tall mountain to climb (even more so in light of the fact that the Cougar offense did post 40 points that day in Annapolis), it seems hard to think that Navy — scarred and sad in a way no Navy bowl team has been since the 1996 squad which also lost to Army — will be able to outscore Louisiana Tech’s passing attack in Fort Worth.
That 1996 Navy team — which prepared for the Aloha Bowl against California — didn’t have the injuries this group has endured. That 1996 Navy team had two and a half weeks between games, not the 13-day sequence the 2016 team faces.
Yes, in some ways, this Armed Forces Bowl — played after a loss to Army — is not entirely unprecedented.
However, it IS unprecedented in one simple way: This is the first time Navy has played a bowl after losing to Army under Ken Niumatalolo.
No, it’s no verdict on Niumatalolo if Navy gets blown out; the Midshipmen are playing with house money in this game. Extremely difficult circumstances have reduced the team’s expectations for Friday afternoon. The point, though, is that if Navy’s coach can elicit a shining performance from his players under these conditions, the Midshipmen — in addition to a tenth win this year — will acquire one of their finest hours…
… and not just in the 21st century, but of all time.
You gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win
That’s when the grin should start
Call it hokey. Call it cliched. Yet, is it wrong in any way or to any degree?
The Armed Forces Bowl — not with Tago Smith or Will Worth, but with Zach Abey — is a Plan C scenario for Navy.
It’s unprecedented in the Niumatalolo era. It’s not what Navy would have wanted… but it’s what Navy has in front of it.
Plenty of people will doubt the Midshipmen on Friday.
The only response to outside doubt is to say, “We’ll show ’em!”
Correction: The only response is to say that… and then prove it on the field.
The Army loss was a sad and rare moment for this program in this century, but counterintuitively, that’s when a grin should start for the Men of Ken.
If they can show us all, they’ll leave a special memory which won’t soon be forgotten for generations.