ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Same story, different ending.
The football team plays well. So well that everyone is ready to anoint the expected win as “the biggest in program history” or “the Owls’ coming out party” during the midst of the game.
But then, things suddenly take a turn for the worse.
Whether it’s because of dropped passes and the inability to stop the running game, a Hail Mary completion, a missing quarterback or a fumble with less than a minute to go, the Owls always seem to come up with a different kind of painful loss every week.
This is now a team that’s lost three times on the final play of the game, and excluding the Penn State defeat, has been beaten by an average of just five points per game this year.
And perhaps, last Saturday’s blown 20-point fourth-quarter lead, “Kneel down gate” combination was the worst of them all.
“We dropped a touchdown, fumbled a football, missed an extra [and] fumbled on the 10-yard line in the second quarter,” coach Al Golden said. “That’s the difference in the game.”
The key difference, though, was Golden’s decision to hand the ball off to freshman running back Kee-ayre Griffin, one that has since been questioned by just about everybody.
Yet, the Owls’ third-year coach didn’t second-guess his decision.
“That’s what running backs do, running backs carry the ball,” he said. “I don’t question that. I think you’ve got to give it to your running backs.”
Griffin, a converted cornerback who started practicing in the backfield less than a month ago, did stand up and take blame for the loss.
“Absolutely, I fumbled,” he said. “I know football is not an odd thing, but you’ve got to have some accountability for something. And I take that fumble very hard.”
Griffin’s fumble, which was scooped up by Navy junior linebacker Clint Sovie and returned for a 42-yard touchdown with 37 seconds left on the clock, was the latest in a long line of crushing Owl defeats.
And redshirt senior quarterback Adam DiMichele said it all boils down to his team’s inability to close out games.
“It’s really frustrating that we really didn’t play a complete game,” he said. “And that hurts inside because that’s what we’ve been trying to do, and that’s what coach Golden and his staff have been trying to instill in us, [to] play a complete game in all three phases of the ball.”
Not putting it all together has undoubtedly cost the Owls, as they sit at 3-6 overall and 2-3 in Mid-American Conference play. But in reality, they should only have one or two losses this season.
Those close calls continue to stun Golden, whose squad dropped yet another tight contest. This time around, his team found a way to lose a game where it was leading 27-7 with 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter.
“In 21 years of college football, I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in losing four games like that,” he said. “It’s heartbreaking, but we’ll get them back.”
The Owls’ opportunities to get these losses back are running slim, as there are just three games remaining in the season.
Still, they enter this week in the race for the top spot in MAC East play and with the knowledge they can hang with any team in the conference.
“I’m excited about the way [the players] are competing,” Golden said. “I think they’re starting to enjoy the fight. I think they’re starting to enjoy the give-and-take. And when you start from where we started at such a depressed state…I’m pleased.”
“We’re a fighting team, and we’re going to keep fighting,” Griffin added.
That fight will be the final one for seniors like DiMichele and wide receivers Bruce Francis and Travis Shelton, who return to action Nov. 12 against Kent State.
So there’s nothing they can do, but enjoy these final games in Cherry and White and move on to next week.
“I think our countdown for seniors is 24 days,” DiMichele said. “We’re just going to keep plugging. There’s really nothing else to say.”
Todd Orodenker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.