Despite Cold Feet, Navy's Dobbs Cools Off NIU

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 26, 2008

DEKALB, Ill., Nov. 25 -- Navy sophomore quarterback Ricky Dobbs said that he felt pretty calm making his first collegiate start, against Northern Illinois on a bitterly cold Tuesday night. He directed an offense that moved the ball, and his defense came up with several momentum-changing plays. There was just one problem during the Midshipmen's 16-0 win in front of 17,932 at Huskie Stadium.

"I couldn't feel my feet," the Georgia native said with a smile. "Other than that, it was everything we've been working on in practice."

Dobbs rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, becoming the sixth Navy quarterback to rush for 100 yards or more in his first start. The Midshipmen recorded their first shutout since Sept. 18, 2004, when they blanked Tulsa, 29-0. They improved to 7-4, making Ken Niumatalolo the program's winningest first-year coach since World War II.

The Midshipmen turned to Dobbs, who began the season as the clear-cut third-string quarterback, because they needed a spark offensively and he had dazzled in three relief performances. But he did not draw an easy assignment.

Niumatalolo said last week that the Midshipmen were heading into a "hornets' nest." It was the Huskies' regular season finale, and at 6-5 entering the game, they knew a win would enhance their chances of an at-large bowl berth out of the Mid-American Conference. Northern Illinois also ranked among the division I-A leaders in scoring defense (18.3 points) and rushing defense (130.2 yards).

"As a sophomore, his first start, he took care of the football," Niumatalolo said. "We knew they were going to run the ball, and we were going to run the ball. Very limited possessions, [so] we wanted to make sure he took care of the ball and didn't try to play outside of himself, just play within the system. I thought he did that. I thought he did a nice job."

And he was helped by a terrific performance from the Navy defense, particularly the secondary, which came up with two timely interceptions.

The Huskies began the game by grinding out yards behind sophomore tailback Ricky Crider, but senior cornerback Rashawn King intercepted Chandler Harnish's pass at the Navy 9-yard line to end Northern Illinois's first possession. In the third quarter, the Huskies faced fourth and four at the Navy 37, but sophomore Emmett Merchant made a great read and jump on a pass and returned it 29 yards to help set up Eric Kettani's one-yard touchdown run, which gave Navy a 16-0 lead. In the fourth quarter, the Midshipmen stopped Northern Illinois on fourth down from the Navy 3-yard line.

"It definitely encouraged us to see how hard [the defense] was playing and to get those turnovers," Dobbs said. "They were stopping them on third down, and they were going for it and they'd stop them on fourth. They just gave us the same audacity to come out there and keep fighting, too. . . . We fed off their momentum."

Navy's opening drive illustrated the appeal of Dobbs, who is both undeniably talented and prone to make, in the words of offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, "the kind of little mistakes that can beat you." He converted three third downs with his legs, including an impressive 19-yard gain on third and eight deep in his own end. On a 14-yard pickup, the 6-foot-1, 194-pound Dobbs ran over Northern Illinois strong safety Mike Sobol (6-0, 195).

But Dobbs also fumbled twice. He mishandled the very first snap, and later had the ball jarred loose at the Huskies 11-yard line (slotback Shun White recovered it eight yards downfield). Dobbs also was slow to get to the line of scrimmage at times, and had to burn two timeouts as a result. After the second one, Dobbs was immediately met on the sideline by an animated Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada, Navy's most experienced quarterback (out with a hamstring injury).

Yet Dobbs was able to move the offense: Navy held the ball for 11 minutes on its first scoring drive, and used 19 plays to cover 81 yards. Senior Matt Harmon kicked a 27-yard field goal to give the Midshipmen a 3-0 lead with 14 minutes 55 seconds left in the second quarter.

On Navy's next possession, Dobbs dropped a well-placed pass over the shoulder of safety David Bryant and into the arms of slotback Greg Shinego. The 32-yard play -- the only pass Dobbs threw -- led to his one-yard touchdown run, his team-high eighth of the season.

"I thought [Dobbs] was getting a little too comfortable," Niumatalolo said. "He was trying to be like Tom Brady at one time, look around at the crowd, look at the clock. . . . I think he was trying to play poised and relaxed, but it kind of got a little overboard there. Hey, you got to get out of the huddle and snap the ball before the 40-second clock runs out. But after he kind of got in a groove I thought he did much better."

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