Navy football has a chance to start a season with four victories for only the second time in the past 28 years, which leads to an intriguing question:
Is it possible to be in a no-win and a no-lose situation at the same time?
Coach Paul Johnson has to be wondering that because despite trouncing Stanford on the road Saturday night, he found himself answering questions about the precision of an offense that rolled up 446 yards and the relative performance of a team that shares the fourth-longest winning streak (six games) in Division I-A.
The Mids turned the ball over four times the previous week against Division I-AA Massachusetts and made what could have been a game-changing mistake near the Stanford goal line at the end of the second half Saturday night, but everything turned out all right and Johnson slightly bristled at questions about the execution of his triple-option attack.
"I don't know what the expectations are for this offense," he said. "Can we play better? Yeah, we gave away a couple of scoring opportunities, but we scored eight of 10 times we had the ball. I think any time you can do that, you have to be satisfied."
Satisfied might be the wrong word, since Johnson is never really satisfied. He runs an offense that depends heavily on precise execution. The goal is to play a perfect game every week, because that's almost what it takes to compete when you're undersized and outmanned in just about every meaningful game, but no one has ever played a perfect football game.
"I don't know if we can get to where I'm looking for," he said. "I think that's a good thing. We keep striving to play the perfect game, and we haven't come close to doing that. We have to keep trying to get better. That's the challenge to me. I'm not going to accept the way we are playing. We could play better this week and I still won't accept it unless it's what I'm looking for."
Which brings us back to his strange no-win/no-lose dichotomy. Johnson has created something at Navy that was in short supply when he took over the program - expectations. The same program that would have settled for beating Army a few years ago now won't be satisfied without a bowl victory at the end of the season.
So Johnson winces at a question about some faulty execution and at the same time knows that's what comes with this new territory.
"I saw [Navy sports information director Scott Strasemeier's] release, and he had in there that this is something like the second time in the last 26 years that Navy has started 3-0 or something like that and both times happened the last three years, but nobody is talking about that," Johnson said. "We're at the point now where everybody expects to win, which is a good problem to have, I guess. I would rather for it to be that way than everybody going to the stadium and going, 'Oh man, here we go again.' "
No-win: The Mids host a pretty good Tulsa team Saturday, and a lot of people are going to show up at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium expecting a performance like the one against Stanford, but keep in mind that Tulsa (2-1) was the preseason favorite to win the Conference USA West and finished just out of the Top 25 in the final ESPN/USA Today coaches poll last year. It's going to be Navy's biggest challenge yet, though winning on the road against a Pacific-10 team was no small thing.
No-lose: Everybody knows the mountain that Johnson has to climb each year to field a competitive team at Navy. Even after an unprecedented three consecutive bowl appearances and two straight bowl wins - even after beating Army every year - nobody is taking Navy football for granted.
Here's a little bonus perspective: The Midshipmen led the nation in rushing last year and rank second at the moment with an average of 346.3 yards. They are coming off bowl victories in consecutive years for the first time in the history of the program and are off to a 3-0 start for the second time in three years despite Johnson's starting each of the past four seasons with a different quarterback.
That isn't easy to do when you run one of the most complicated attacks in college football, and Johnson - despite his impatience with certain questions about the execution of this year's offense compared to his 2004 and 2005 teams - knows that his team cannot afford to make mistakes.
"It [precision] has to be there," he said. "If you had bigger, stronger people, it probably wouldn't have to be there, but it has to be there. We have to be precise, because we probably aren't going to overpower people and we are probably not going to outrun them. ... By nature, whatever you do here, it has to be precise. It's the same way on defense. You aren't going to be able to line up in the wrong gap and run somebody down from behind. Everything has to be more precise here."
Johnson is a complicated guy - a guy who in one breath will seek to temper unrealistic outside expectations and in the next will acknowledge being an unabashed perfectionist.
"When I watch it from a coaching standpoint, every time that a play isn't perfect it drives me crazy," Johnson said. "To me, I feel like we could score on every play and if we don't then I'm trying to fix what went wrong. Even last year when we were firing on all cylinders, we weren't even close to playing perfect. That's what you strive for."
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