Nov. 10, 2010
By Bob Socci
As sports fans, we've been hearing it for years. Every time you go to a game, the notion promises, you're liable to witness something you've never seen before.
Surely, as recent experiences confirm, the premise holds true for any given Saturday of the football season. Never so much as the Saturday we were just given this season.
It began with hundreds marauding as pirates outside the stadium; continued with one, then another rainbow stretching across the North Carolina sky; and ended with a marriage proposal.
If that weren't enough, what was a 21-21 tie between postseason contenders spun so quickly out of control that the visitors from Annapolis dialed up 41 points in less than 19 minutes. They wound up with 10 touchdowns, two field goals and, in the spirit of 76, the most points by a Navy team since pre-prohibition November of 1919.
Hours before, privateers raided tailgate parties as they marched on Greenville. Men, women, children; they were responding to "Blackbeard's Challenge," hoping to break the Guinness World Record for "Largest Gathering of Pirates."
With more than 50,000 fans expected next door, at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, chief organizer Whitey Martin wanted to draw enough wannabe buccaneers to outnumber the 6,166 freebooting imposters who converged on Hastings, England in early August.
The local newspaper instructed readers how to look the part of a picaroon. An area costume store promoted the event. And weekend swashbucklers were called upon to be counted at Clark-Leclair Stadium, which happens to be home of East Carolina's baseball team.
That, right there, should have been a sign. As fans in Pittsburgh know all too well, putting pirates on a baseball diamond usually leaves you short. By a lot.
So it was Saturday, despite the all-consuming efforts of the 800 or so who showed up. All of them dressed like Johnny Depp. Come to think of it, perhaps that was another omen. As you may know, Depp's Jack Sparrow, pirate of the Caribbean, was the son of Captain Teague.
As the main event would have it, no one played a more important role than the Mids' Jon Teague
. In his case, though, he was swinging his right leg, rather than a sword.
From the time Teague delivered his first of a school-record 10 extra points, just 3 ½ minutes into the game, he never stopped kicking. A native of western Carolina, from Hickory, Teague accounted for 16 total points. His last, a point after a Kriss Proctor touchdown run, with 3:14 remaining, capped Navy's 76-35 rout of East Carolina.
While the ending was unlike anything anyone could possibly envision - even if your imagination was wild enough to conceive a convention of pirates - the game began exactly as expected.
Both teams were playing for bowl eligibility. Host ECU was doing so as two-time defending champion of Conference USA. Each featured a potentially prolific offense.
The Mids scored 31 points in their last half of football. The Pirates, those wearing helmets instead of eye patches, averaged 36.6 points for, and 37.0 points against, per game.
It figured to be high-scoring. And it figured to be close.
Six of Navy's first eight games were one-possession decisions. ECU booked three of its five wins to date by a total of nine points, including a 33-27, overtime victory over N.C. State. In the schools' lone prior encounter, the Mids won, 28-23, in 2006.
Until Navy's final series in the second quarter, it was even at 21-21. But Ricky Dobbs scored on a five-yard run with 14 seconds to spare before halftime. The touchdown was Dobbs' 45th, another Academy record.
Almost exactly as head coach Ken Niumatalolo was describing the contest to radio sideline reporter Pete Medhurst as a "dogfight," a rainbow appeared across the way. Noting that Niumatalolo was a Rainbow Warrior at the University of Hawaii, I wondered aloud on the air if that was a sign seen above.
Before I knew it, broadcast partner Omar Nelson pointed out a second band of colors outlined against the partly gray November sky. A double rainbow? Wow, we wondered, what does it mean?
Maybe it meant nothing. Then again, maybe we were about to find out.
Second-half possession started with the Pirates. Two plays in, the ball belonged to the Mids. Though Jon Williams' fumble was caused by tackle Jubaree Tuani and recovered by nose guard Chase Burge, Navy's defensive strategy, built around defensive backs, was becoming a factor.
After seeing the Mids shredded by Duke's short passes a week earlier, coordinator Buddy Green, a cagey Carolinean, deployed more speed in hopes of slowing down East Carolina.
But Green didn't use Tra'ves Bush and David Wright as simply "nickel" and "dime" backs in the secondary. He employed them as linebackers, making the defense faster and inviting the Pirates to run more than usual.
Their performance was testament to Green as both tactician and technician. As Nelson observed on air, the versatility in Navy's secondary is extremely rare. Unlike many pro or college defensive backs, most young Mids can shuttle between cornerback and safety. Some, we see, can even stand in at linebacker.
Thirteen minutes after that first fumble, Middleton forced another with a hit that should be used as Exhibit A of how you can be physical, yet tackle within football rules and without leading helmet first. In between, the Pirates fumbled two other times, including one recovered by Bush.
East Carolina ran 12 plays from scrimmage, suffered four turnovers in five series and saw Navy transform a 28-21 affair into a 55-28 blowout.
Green's colleague on the offensive side, Ivin Jasper, likewise, deserves tremendous credit. His play-calling to capitalize on ECU's errors was superb.
For example, Williams' second fumble set up the Mids at the Pirates' 29-yard line. On their previous series, Dobbs and the offense used counter-action on a pair of running plays. In this opportunity, again the quarterback reverse pivoted, as if a counter, only to drop back and pass.
Dobbs found a wide-open Aaron Santiago at the goal line. One play and six seconds led to six points. Soon to be seven, thanks to Teague. Talk about delivering a dagger.
Naturally, there was a single play that summed up this near supernatural chain of events. It occurred on the next snap after Santiago's score.
East Carolina's Dominique Davis intended to throw a screen pass into the left flat. Navy's Billy Yarborough leaped to deflect the ball right back to Davis, who tried to advance his self pass, only to lose possession to the Mids' Tyler Simmons.
A bad-turned-good-turned-bad break for the Pirates, it was a sure sign that the Jolly Roger would wear a frown on this day.
As those rainbows disappeared, a chill rain fell and a once boisterous crowd emptied Dowdy-Ficklen, ECU's offense did its defense no favors. Of the Pirates' final 10 possessions, six lasted less than a minute and four gave the ball to Navy in ECU territory.
The Mids' average starting field position in the 2nd half was the Pirates' 43-yard line. None of Navy's final six touchdown drives was longer than 51 yards.
Even as Niumatalolo and his staff replaced starters with reserves, and reserves with more reserves, the Mids kept scoring. They ran up the point total without running up the score.
You're innocent of any foul play when you reach so far off the depth chart that duplicate numbers start appearing on field.
In Greenville, for instance, both Aaron McCauley and John O'Boyle checked in, wearing No. 29. What an opportunity for O'Boyle, in particular, as a son of North Carolina and a child of a former ECU soccer player.
But the biggest thrill belonged to Greenville native Brian Blick, who along with Darius Staten, doubled as No. 5 for the Mids. With an assist from ECU personnel, Blick, a quarterback-turned-safety delivered the pitch of a lifetime, with a post-game proposal to his girlfriend.
Completing a day on which a Guinness World Record stood, while a number of Navy marks fell, the final points were scored when the video board posed the question: "Kristen, will you marry me?"
Judging from her reaction, the answer was most definitely, "Aye-aye." Based on all of Saturday's signs, if you're into that kind of thing, Mr. and Mrs. Blick-to-be should live happily ever after.