Navy offense can't get out of neutral close to finish line

By John Feinstein
Tuesday, October 5, 2010; 12:41 AM

Every once in a while, the tone of a football season - good or bad - can be set very early. That appears to be the case for Navy this season.

In the Midshipmen's opening game against Maryland on Labor Day, they drove up and down the field at M&T Bank Stadium all day long - and lost, 17-14, because five drives inside the Terrapins 20-yard line failed to produce any points.

The Midshipmen managed to win their next two games against mediocre opposition, but it wasn't easy: They failed to score a point in the second half and had to hold on to beat division I-AA Georgia Southern, 13-7. Then, they had to come back to beat Louisiana Tech.

Still, a win over Air Force would have cured a lot of ills. Navy had beaten its most despised rival - the Midshipmen can't stand losing to Army but respect the Cadets; they aren't quite so touchy-feely about Air Force - seven straight years and won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy all seven times. The Falcons had become as obsessed with the Mids as the Mids had been with the Falcons when Air Force dominated between 1982 and 2002.

This is Air Force's best team in a long time, and another loss to the Midshipmen would have been crushing. Some Falcons talked bitterly about how unlucky they had been or how they had failed to make plays - as opposed to giving Navy credit for the streak. The question for the Falcons last week was simple: If not now, when?

Navy forced an early turnover. Then the Mids moved right down the field to a first down at the Air Force 3. You could almost hear Air Force Coach Troy Calhoun thinking, "This is going to happen again?"

It didn't. The Navy offense turned predictable - consecutive carries by quarterback Ricky Dobbs for no gain led to a short field goal attempt by Joe Buckley. It was little more than an extra point: 21 yards, straight on. But the ball got tipped, it hooked and hit the left upright, and the Mids didn't score. Air Force needed two big plays to go 80 yards and take the lead.

Even so, the game was Navy's to win. In the second quarter, another drive bogged down at the 12; this time, Buckley made the field goal. The third quarter was the same story: another Air Force turnover, another drive that stalled deep, another field goal by Buckley. On that series, Gee Gee Greene was so wide open that he could have walked into the end zone backward if Dobbs's throw had been on target. Instead, Greene had to dive to catch the ball, and a sure touchdown became just another first down.

Even after a blocked punt gave Air Force a 14-6 lead, the Mids had chances, but Dobbs kept missing open receivers. His play all season has mirrored the offense: consistently inconsistent. At times, the unit looks as efficient as in years past. At others it looks like a group that, well, can't put the ball in the end zone when it must.

Dobbs said something after the game about blockers being "confused" inside the red zone. That may be the case: All the slotbacks are seeing extended playing time for the first time and the offensive line has had to deal with three starters lost to graduation; a key injury to Matt Molloy and the preseason decision to give up football by David Hong, the only inside lineman with starting experience.

The defense has been very good - even with the graduation of all the starting linebackers - except for one half against Louisiana Tech. The special teams, so good a year ago, have been a problem: Buckley has missed key kicks, and Kyle Delahooke, who was probably the team's unsung hero last year, hasn't punted well. Those problems wouldn't be so noticeable if the offense had scored more touchdowns.

The season can still be saved: A trip to a bowl game and a win over Army for a ninth straight year would do that. But the next five weeks look like this: at Wake Forest; SMU at home; Notre Dame at the New Meadowlands; Duke at home; at East Carolina. If the offense continues to sputter, every one of those games - yes, even Duke - is losable. The Mids have won at least eight games for seven consecutive seasons.

"Usually we show up in big games," defensive captain Wyatt Middleton said after the Air Force game.

Navy's players don't point fingers at one another. They're taught as Midshipmen that doing that in war is not a good idea. But Middleton's unit has shown up this season. It is the offense that has failed.

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