Nov. 2, 2010
By Bob Socci
His Navy team was sitting on five wins. Their next opponent, Duke, was sliding on yet another long losing streak.
So the head coach issued an advisory.
"You know the talent level when you play those teams. Forget the record, they have some talented kids," he cautioned. "They have some high school All-Americans and some guys that were highly recruited, and our guys understand that we aren't taking a bunch of those guys down there.
"From a game standpoint we know what we are, and we know how we have to play."
By "down there," he meant Durham. He, Paul Johnson, was speaking in the present tense back then in 2006, a few days before the Midshipmen heeded his warning with a 38-13 victory.
Boy did his words ever prove prescient, four years up the road in Annapolis, in 2010.
Since Saturday, gauging the Mids' own reaction to their 34-31 defeat to the Blue Devils, I've thought a fair amount about something else Johnson used to say, fairly often in his six seasons as Navy's head coach.
"There isn't anybody on our schedule that we can't beat" went his refrain, "and there isn't anybody who can't beat us."
It's pretty much the same message his successor Ken Niumatalolo was sending this past August, when asked about the unprecedentedly high outside expectations that enveloped this year's Midshipmen in the preseason.
"We can't forget who we are," Niumatalolo asserted.
What Navy has consistently been the last eight seasons is a team determined never to get outhustled or outworked. Who the Mids have regularly been are young men who, instead of being blue-chip recruits, carry a collective chip on their shoulders.
Almost without fail, they show up weekly, taking the field as if it's their proving ground.
By their own accounts, Saturday, a week after they thoroughly beat Notre Dame for a third straight win, was an exception.
"I don't know who that team is that showed up," Niumatalolo said in his press conference, after watching the Blue Devils exploit uncharacteristic Navy mistakes for a 24-0 halftime lead. "We were just in a daze to start off with."
"Clearly we didn't come to play today," said senior defensive captain Wyatt Middleton. "Duke did. They were trying to prove something, and they proved that."
That's not to discredit the Blue Devils in any way. For the second time in as many meetings, they beat the Mids with a solid plan on both sides of the ball. What they didn't do was beat themselves.
Second-to-last among 120 Division I teams in turnover margin, as a result of 21 giveaways in seven games, the Blue Devils didn't surrender possession once. Meanwhile, guilty of only six turnovers in its first seven contests, Navy lost a fumble on its first drive. Already trailing, 3-0. In Duke territory.
"That fumble definitely deflated us," said Dobbs, who lost his grip on the ball coming off his mesh with fullback Alexander Teich.
As late as two hours before kickoff, during his pregame radio interview, Niumatalolo reiterated the importance of a strong start for his Mids. Instead, the Blue Devils, losers of six straight, were accorded a lifeline.
Quarterback Sean Renfree, alternating occasionally with running threat Brandon Connette, was flawless. Managing a low-risk passing attack, behind an experienced line and with a talented stable of receivers, Renfree was poised and precise.
Navy's defensive scheme tries the patience of opponents. With their two deep safeties, the Mids often pounce on the poor judgment of quarterbacks who tire of throwing underneath. Sooner or later, after so many singles and doubles, they swing for the fences and wind up striking out.
But Renfree, despite 15 interceptions coming in, never succumbed to such temptation. He completed a stunning 28-of-30 passes for 314 yards. His first incompletion, on his 17th attempt, was dropped; likely a touchdown if the receiver held on. The other was caught, but the receiver's feet were out of bounds.
Duke's David Cutcliffe was so good as Peyton Manning's position coach at Tennessee that Archie Manning trusted him to mentor Eli Manning as head coach at Ole Miss. In his first two years as head coach of the Blue Devils, Cutcliffe molded Thaddeus Lewis into a pro prospect. Lewis is now on the St. Louis Rams practice squad.
Cutcliffe knows a thing or two about the position, and understands a whole lot more about offense in general. The 6-foot-5 Renfree showed the makings of his next prized pupil, staying in rhythm and helping Duke hand Navy its largest halftime deficit since 2002.
To Niumatalolo's dismay, it was Renfree and the visitors - in the Colts-like uniforms - sizzling at the outset. They stayed hot until the fourth quarter.
That's when, to tell the truth, the real Mids stood up.
Down, 31-7, they whipped up three touchdowns and, amazingly, capped each with a two-point conversion. Navy went 80 yards in a minute, 13 seconds. The Mids covered 61 yards in 2:18. And they drove 67 yards in 1:54.
Abetted by several Duke penalties, about the only thing Navy couldn't do the first 12 minutes of the final period was recover an on-sides kick. Nonetheless, its defense gained possession back with 57 seconds to go.
The usually scrappy Mids still had a puncher's chance. The last two of Greg Jones' nine catches (totaling 134 yards) gave them a 1st down at their 36-yard line. Dobbs `clocked' the ball, before running eight yards to Navy's 44 on 2nd down.
But a loss of one on the next play, thanks to the effort of Blue Devil Matt Daniels, and an incomplete pass on the play after that denied the Mids another improbable victory. They had been able to rally past Wake Forest and SMU in each game's final breaths. Opposite Duke, their last gasp was futile.
"Last week was a team win," Niumatalolo said afterwards. "This week was a team loss."
Ostensibly, the Mids weren't able to push forward, while forgetting the outcome of Notre Dame. Their challenge hereafter is to move on, while not forgetting the lesson of Duke.
Looking back, and ahead, something else Johnson commonly recited comes to mind.
"It's never as good as it seems," he'd philosophize, usually a couple of days after a game. "And it's never as bad as it seems."
Four games remain on Navy's regular season schedule. The Mids' approach to each will determine if Johnson, once again, proves prophetic.