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Navy Football and the Maginot Line

After the dreadful stalemate of World War I, the French government was determined to prevent another invasion by Germany over their common border. They proceeded to construct the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications and obstacles that they felt would be impenetrable. So as war became more and more likely in the late 1930s, the French sat by complacently, almost arrogantly, and assumed that the Maginot Line would allow them to rebuff any attack. And they were correct, to an extent. In 1940, the Maginot Line withstood the onslaught of Hitler’s Army for about six hours. Constructed to withstand weaponry from the last war, it was no match for more modern artillery, including, of course, air power, and the Germans went over, around, and through the Maginot Line, a speed bump on their way to Paris.

“An army seldom gets to fight the war it wants to” is a lesson every army has learned (except for Switzerland’s). You have to learn to adapt to the circumstances that you find, which is one reason the defense budget is so massive. If we could fight our enemies on our terms, we would only need one strategy. Instead, we need to be able to fight on any terrain, against any tactic.

Which brings us to the Army-Navy game. Navy has found a good deal of success in recent years with their triple option attack that relies almost exclusively on the ground game. Keenan Reynolds parlayed his accomplishments in the triple option into a shot at the NFL, and this season Navy has averaged over thirty points per game while throwing fewer than a hundred passes over the entire season. They have found something that works for them, and, given their limitations on recruiting, you can’t blame them for sticking with it.

In a snowstorm against Army, nobody expected Navy to suddenly unleash an aerial bombardment. But when Navy got the ball on their own 35 with five minutes to go in the game, down by a point, it might have been time to adapt the game plan to fit the circumstances. Instead, the Midshipmen went the way of the French Army, sticking to the only thing they knew as the game (rather, THE GAME) slipped away from them.

This isn’t just a football game, after all. Chances are, if or when this country is drawn into an international conflict over the next decade or two, some of the men who played in that game yesterday will be making decisions that impact whether we prevail in that conflict. One can only hope that they are being taught how to think creatively and adapt to changing circumstances somewhere else on campus, because their coaches certainly didn’t help in that regard yesterday.

It almost worked for Navy. After all, five minutes is a ton of time, and Navy had two timeouts. Indeed, eight straight running plays led them to a first down on Army’s 25 with 1:32 to go. Even at this point, though, Navy was in no position to be confident. Their kicker, Bennett Moehring, had made eight out of 14 field goal attempts on the year, including one for three beyond 30 yards. Add in the wind and the snow, and a field goal should have been a last resort. If nothing else, Navy knew they needed to get much closer before they could rely on Moehring with any confidence.

At this point, though, Navy sort of self-destructed, with two false start penalties wrapped around two short runs, which also allowed the clock to bleed down to 32 seconds and left them with a 3rd and 16 on the 31. At any point in this sequence a pass play would have stopped the clock; it also would have caught Army by surprise, since Navy had only attempted one pass play all day. Certainly on 3rd and 16, well beyond the comfortable range of their field goal kicker, Navy knew that the situation called for a pass. Nope. Malcolm Perry ran for no gain. On fourth down, Navy let the clock run down to three seconds, and called their last time out. Moehring put a ton of leg into his kick, but it slid off to the left.

Now Perry ran for 250 yards yesterday, despite Army knowing what was coming on every play. And between the recruiting limitations and the offensive philosophy, we can assume that Navy doesn’t have a bevy of receivers it can trust in a clutch situation. So maybe Perry was their best option for getting ten or fifteen yards and bringing the ball into Moehring’s range. But Navy ran their last drive as if Perry was their only option, which shows a disturbing rigidity of thought. Even if they had tried to pass and failed, you would like the future leaders of our nation’s armed forces to see the importance of adapting tactics to fit the situation.

Here’s one more thought about this game. If one of these teams had been undefeated, would the playoff committee still have made their decision about the four playoff teams before this game was played? Probably so, I suppose. Even undefeated, neither of these teams would have had a much stronger case than Central Florida, which never got any traction with the committee. But if Army had gone undefeated this year, one of its wins would have been against Ohio State. Next year, Army plays Oklahoma. If they were able to pull off that upset, and then run the table, would the committee be able to make its decision without waiting for the outcome of Army-Navy? Just sayin’.

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