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Navy Midshipmen Look To Rebound Against Air Force

The Midshipmen haven't met expectations so far this season, but after back-to-back losses they can get back on track in Colorado with a big win over Air Force and take a lead for the CIC Trophy.

Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sport

Prior to the start of the season, I laid out my expectations for the Naval Academy's football team:

Finish with at least a 9-3 record

Capture the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy

Win a bowl game

But currently, the Navy Midshipmen are in a slump. They're 2-3, and after disappointing home losses to Rutgers and Western Kentucky they will head west on Saturday to face a very good Air Force Academy team (3-1) in the first of three games that will decide which service academy takes home the Commander-In-Chief's trophy.

With three losses, and with No. 9 Notre Dame still on the schedule, it's unlikely that the Midshipmen will finish with a 9-3 record, but they can still meet the other two pre-season expectations, and they can start by rebounding this week with a road win over Air Force.

But why have the Mids lost three games so far? Ohio State was a long shot even with Braxton Miller out, but should the Mids really have lost to Rutgers and WKU? No, they shouldn't have.

WHAT WENT WRONG AGAINST RUTGERS/WKU?

One big issue for the Mids' offense this season has been ball security. Last season, Navy was one of the most disciplined teams in the country when it came to turnovers and coughed the ball up just 10 times in 13 games; tied for the least in the FBS.

This season? The Mids have given up the rock eight times in just five games; two interceptions and six fumbles.

Those eight turnovers have led to 34 points for opposing teams and five of those turnovers, including four fumbles and an interception, left the hands of Keenan Reynolds before being scooped up by the opposition.

The Mids coughed the ball up just once against Rutgers, but against WKU Reynolds gave up a pick-six to Wonderful Terry (yes, that's his real name) when he was driving the offense up the field and needed just a field goal to take the lead. On top of that,  Reynolds fumbled at his own 24-yard line and  just three plays later the Hilltoppers were in the endzone.

Which leads to Navy's other problem, finishing the game. The Mids have been outscored 49-23 in the fourth quarter and 82-54 in total in the second half of their first five games.

Against WKU and even Ohio State, Navy held a lead at halftime and against Rutgers they cut the lead to seven points twice, but couldn't get that game-tying score that they desperately needed.

Even in wins this season Navy hasn't played great in the fourth quarter. In their 14-point win over Texas State, the Navy defense gave up two touchdowns in the final period of play.

It also appears that Reynolds, and the rest of the offense, has committed their most costly mistakes in the second half of games. An option exchange that resulted in a fumble in the first few minutes of the third quarter against Ohio State resulted in a defensive return for a touchdown that gave the Buckeyes the lead. And then there was the pick six against WKU.

Of course, the offense isn't all to blame. The defense needs to step up as well; the Mids have allowed 29.2 points-per-game this season, good enough for 86th in all of the FBS.

Special teams has been an area of concern too. Placekicker Nick Sloan was once Mr. Reliable, but has missed four field goals this season, all of which have come from 43 yards or closer. Against WKU, the Midshipmen could have taken a lead if Sloan hadn't missed a chip-shot 28 yarder after the offense drove 79 yards, and against Ohio State he missed a field goal that would have extended Navy's lead to four points heading into halftime.

SO, HOW DO THEY BEAT AIR FORCE?

Fixing all of these problems would be a good start. To get a leg up in the race for the CIC, the Mids can't turn the ball over, the have to finish strong and the defense and special teams have to step up. Easy enough, right?

Not so fast. Through four games this season, the Falcons have performed better statistically than Navy. For starters, they're 3-1, with their only loss coming against a tough Wyoming team. Their offense and defense has been better than Navy's too, scoring nearly seven more points-per-game and allowing eight points less than the Mids.

The Falcons also know how to take advantage of turnovers and put that skill on display last Saturday when they upset Boise State. Air Force forced seven turnovers to help guide them towards a 28-14 victory over the Broncos, three of which came via interception from sophomore defensive back Weston Steelhammer.

But despite Steelhammer's numbers, one area of weakness the Mids might try to exploit is Air Force's pass defense.

In their past two games, against Boise State and Georgia State, the Falcons have given up 784 yards through the air. The Falcons rushing defense has been much better though, allowing over 100 yards on the ground to a team just once in four contests.

The passing offense hasn't exactly been clicking for Navy this season, scoring by pass just three times in five games and totaling just 453 yards, but the Mids may want to consider attacking by air rather by land if the opportunity for big plays present themselves.

In a nutshell, to beat Air Force, the Mids must step up on every side of the ball, finish the game, pass the ball when the opportunity presents itself, and more than anything, play mistake-free football.