As a commenter pointed out this morning, at this time last week I was less than convinced of Navy's ability to beat Notre Dame. In my defense, Navy's defense had shown very few signs of life this season, and the fact was that it didn't take a Gallup poll organizer to figure out that the vast majority of well informed Navy fans had their serious doubts going into the game. In fact, on the surface it would not appear as though Navy played a very good defensive game, giving up 375 yards and 44 points to an offense which had been previously ranked dead last in the country. But for those who watched this game and who have followed Navy's defensive struggles all year it was more than apparent that the very much embattled Navy defense made major strides against the Irish, and in the end came up big and helped deliver arguably the biggest win in Navy football history.
So often in big games we here that same cliche of "guys made plays" just thrown around. It's a cliche I've come to hate, but one which I can't help but find myself embracing when discussing Navy's timely defensive performance on Saturday. Let's face it, Navy didn't play a perfect defensive game by any means, but when the going got tough these guys never quit, and when the team needed stops the most the defense came up with them. On a day of big plays here are the three biggest from the defense:
Ram Vela Goes Superman
Only two days after the game the image of Ram Vela hurling himself over the head of Armando Allen has already reached iconic status, and rightfully so. Not only has his picture been in the sports section of every major newspaper in America, but the sophomore from San Antonio has already reached cult-hero status at EDSBS.com. Contrary to the captions in those papers, Ram didn't actually register a sack on the play (it was credited to Kahur-Pitters) but the disruption caused was enough, as the play itself gave the Midshipmen a much needed shot of momentum after he has previously whiffed on an easy sack minutes earlier that let the Irish back into the game. Oh yea, and it stopped what everyone thought was a sure fire, game-winning scoring drive for the Irish. To his credit, Ram never quit after the 4th and 14 conversion, and neither did Navy's defense.
Kahur-Pitters Take It In
In my mind, this was really the critical turning point in the game. Navy, trailing by one, had survived a missed Notre Dame field goal late in the third quarter, and as Kaipo-Noa and the offense took the field it looked as though the Midshipmen were going to be able to pull ahead. But Navy's drive stalled at the Notre Dame 29, and Joey Bullen was unable to connect on a 47 yard kick, giving the ball back to the Irish and swinging momentum back in favor of Notre Dame. I don't know about you, but I sure had a sinking feeling at that point, knowing that the offense may have just missed their one opportunity to take the lead. But to their credit, the defense never quit, and Michael Walsh and Nate Frazier crashed down on Evan Sharpley, in the process knocking the ball free deep in Notre Dame territory. Kahur-Pitters, who seemingly came out of nowhere this week to have a huge game, did a good job picking up the fumble and running it in to give Navy their first lead of the game.
Navy's final defensive stop will forever be remembered as "the stand." In his post game comments, Coach Johnson told the media that he "sent the house" on the play, indicating that he blitzed all eleven defensive players. It was a gutsy yet calculated move, as Johnson guessed correctly that after failing to throw for the conversion on the previously called back play Wies would not risk throwing it again. The play was made possible by a great push by Nate Frazier up front and a fine job by Blake Carter crashing from the outside, forcing Travis Thomas to cut right back into a slicing Irv Spencer. Great call, great execution, and above all, the greatest defneisve play I have ever witnessed.
Putting It All Together
Last week, I echoed the words of Paul Johnson in saying that Navy's defensive struggles were not all physical, and that if the Midshipmen could just find a way to play with confidence then Navy would be successful against the Irish. This week we saw exactly that, as the Midshipmen defense fed off of the entire team's momentum and played with more tenacity and more speed than we have seen in week's past. Also critical to our understanding of Navy's defensive success are the negative plays forced. Navy had had just five sacks all year until Saturday, when the Midshipmen defense sacked Evan Sharpley a whopping four times for 35 yards. I thought the defensive line did an outstanding job the entire game, in particular Nate Frazier, who overcome weeks of criticism by stepping up and getting penetration in the backfield when it counted. Michael Walsh played a good game to, as did Kahur-Pitters. Wyatt Middleton, who left the game in the fourth quarter with a still undisclosed injury, was having an awesome game in run support, as was Blake Carter, who despite being out of position of a Notre Dame touchdown pass made some greta tackles to prevent long gains. And then there's Irv Spencer, who once again showed that when it comes to playing with fire and intensity, he's on par with the best linebackers of the Paul Johnson era. I could go down the entire list, but at one point another almost every member of Navy's defense made a play which, in it's own small way, helped build up the unit's confidence and contribute to the win. These efforts were no limited to just starters though. Darius Terry, who came in for an injured Kevin Edwards for several plays, made an excellent play to seal of Robby Parris from catching a touchdown pass, while Ross Pospisil and Emmett Merchent came in late in the game and were in on several big stops in overtime. After the Delaware loss, I questioned if Navy's defense was going to get any better this season. I know we need to keep it in perspective (especially against a struggling Notre Dame offense) but after Saturday evening I'm excited to see what the future holds for this young Navy defense.