Mids rest, keep practices short

21 days between games used to fine-tune plays, keep edge

December 05, 2010|By Gene Wang, The Washington Post

The Navy football team concluded a perfect November with a 35-19 victory over Arkansas State the Saturday before Thanksgiving, then enjoyed a rare four days off for the long holiday weekend. The breather provided ample opportunity to reflect on a three-game winning streak that began with a 76-35 drumming of East Carolina and the promise of even greater gratification should the Midshipmen beat Army for a ninth straight time.

Problem is, the Midshipmen (8-3) don't play again until Saturday, meaning they will have been idle for 21 days, the longest break before an Army game in 20 years. It's a maddeningly protracted stretch for a team that has been accumulating points at a dizzying rate and infused with a vim that suggests playing sooner rather than later ought to be the preference.

Yet coach Ken Niumatalolo and his charges aren't exactly pining to play this weekend in Philadelphia, even though Navy is playing its finest football of the season. There's a lot to be said for the other side of the equation, which in this case is valuable rest for some and a time to convalesce for others.

"It was really weird to make the decision to give them four days off for Thanksgiving," Niumatalolo said. "I tried to look and say, 'When have we ever done this before?' We've never had this situation, never had this formula, so I felt it was the best thing for them to get away. I liked the way they looked coming back. They're rejuvenated. I think that definitely helped them, going home and seeing family and enjoying their time off. I like where we're at from a physical standpoint."

Navy's three-week hiatus is its lengthiest during the regular season since 2005, when the Midshipmen also went 21 days without playing. That interlude, however, was courtesy of the weather rather than a scheduling oddity. After the Midshipmen lost to Stanford, 41-38, on Sept. 10, they didn't play again until beating Duke, 28-21, on Oct. 1 because a hurricane postponed a scheduled game against Rice until later in the year.

The last time Navy had this much time off before the Army game, it lost, 30-20, in 1990.

"You have to take your time off, without a doubt," said senior safety Wyatt Middleton, who is in line to make his 47th consecutive start and play in his 48th career game.

"It's definitely a long season. It's coming toward the end of the season. A lot of guys are banged up, so you definitely have to take the time off to make sure everybody's healed and gets ready for the game so they're 100 percent, but at the same time, you have to stay in shape and make sure you're ready to play," Middleton said.

Niumatalolo has been attentive in that regard by continuing to practice at a diligent pace but in shorter increments in an effort to ensure that players don't zone out. After spring practice, training camp in the stifling August heat and nearly three months of in-season workouts, the routine can become pretty mundane, especially for the seniors who have tolerated countless practices, film study and walk-throughs.

Practices last week, for instance, have been a little more than an hour, with the emphasis on fine-tuning and slight adjustments here and there. Given Navy's finishing kick last month, there's just no reason for significant modifications, save for perhaps on defense.

Each of Navy's past three opponents was prone to throwing the ball in profusion, whereas Army employs an option-based attack, so instead of an alignment calling for seven or eight defensive backs, the Midshipmen will revert to more basic formations.

The offense, meantime, averaged nearly 50 points and 510 yards of total offense per game in November, including 521 rushing yards against East Carolina on Nov. 6. Navy has scored on 20 of its past 27 possessions and 33 of its past 34 times from the opponent's 20-yard line or closer. Thirty-one of those chances have resulted in touchdowns.

"You have to try to handle it the best way possible because it's real easy to kind of get burned out, tired of practicing," senior quarterback Ricky Dobbs said of the extended layoff.

"You have so many practices, and you're just like, 'Aw man, when is it going to be over?' I think the coaches are doing a good job in just trying to mix it up with each different practice or each week focus on a different thing to kind of make it seem different. I think they're doing a good job of trying to keep us from being burned out."

Note: San Diego State has accepted a bid to play Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23. It's the first bowl appearance for the Aztecs since 1998.

"We are playing a great opponent in Navy," San Diego State Coach Brady Hoke said in a statement. "They are a well-coached, disciplined team and play a very physical style of football." The Aztecs finished the regular season 8-4 overall and 5-3 in the Mountain West Conference.

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