ANNAPOLIS — The end of Navy's six-game losing streak last week against Troy meant the Midshipmen's aspiration of playing after Christmas remains alive.
Trying to win three remaining games to become bowl eligible seems a little less daunting on paper than snaring four victories.
In reality? Not exactly.
"It definitely doesn't get easier," safety Kwesi Mitchell said.
Certainly not Saturday, when the Mids (3-6) visit Southern Methodist (6-3) with the same absence of wiggle room they took into last week's home finale.
There's a little more certainty around Navy this week. Quarterback Kriss Proctor returned from a dislocated elbow and played a half in a 42-14 rout, throwing a half-dozen times and looking good while doing so. Slotback Aaron Santiago also is back after missing six games, and he rushed for a team-best 80 yards against Troy.
As much as anything, though, the Mids simply feel better about themselves after a forgettable October left their chances of a ninth straight bowl bid teetering.
"You took a lot of pressure off yourself by getting that win," fullback Alexander Teich said. "It was a huge win to start off because we needed it. Just to get the feeling again. Sometimes, things get stale. Especially when you lose six in a row you kind of forget what winning feels like."
Coach Ken Niumatalolo adopted a few ideas the past two weeks in an attempt lighten things in practice. At the end of sessions, two selected players — more than a few times guys who wouldn't be described as terribly swift — would have a short sprint to the delight of teammates.
Those changes were welcomed a week ago. After a win, players seemed even more into the races.
"That win gave us some hope for this week that this means a lot," Niumatalolo said.
Indeed it does. The next three games all carry meaning, at least for the moment. Beat the Mustangs, San Jose State (3-6) and Army (3-6), and a late December trip to RFK Stadium to face an ACC opponent will be clinched.
In reality, the Dec. 10 date against Army will be of value no matter the circumstances, as it always is. Playing an extra time after the annual date with the Black Knights, though, remains important.
To get there, though, means knocking off a Southern Methodist bunch that nearly knocked off Navy the past two years. It looked like a tricky test a week ago. It probably still will be. But even if it won't be easy, the Mids are invigorated entering the final quarter of their schedule and well-aware of the stakes.
"We understand that if we lose this game, the rest of them don't matter," Teich said. "Every game is going to be a one-game Super Bowl for us."
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Patrick Stevens has covered Maryland and other Mid-Atlantic college sports for more than a decade. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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