Navy football stunned by Duke, 34-31

By Gene Wang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 31, 2010; 12:33 AM


Facing its most lopsided deficit of the season, the Navy football team mounted a vigorous fourth-quarter comeback on Saturday that turned what had the makings of an unmitigated disaster into a compelling finish. Circumstances, however, never should have reached that point against forlorn Duke, and the Midshipmen's failings in the first half ultimately conspired to doom them, 34-31, before 34,117 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

After trailing by 24 points at halftime and at the start of the fourth quarter to a team that had lost six straight games, Navy reeled off three touchdowns, all followed by two-point conversions, to draw within three with 2 minutes 34 seconds to play. The Midshipmen then got the ball back with 57 seconds to play and faced third and two from their 44. Slotback Andre Byrd took the pitch, but Duke safety Matt Daniels stuffed the play for a loss of one. On fourth down, quarterback Ricky Dobbs's pass fell incomplete.

The loss prevented Navy (5-3) from becoming bowl eligible, for now, and was all the more shocking considering it came on the heels of the Midshipmen's most complete performance of the season in a 35-17 victory over Notre Dame last week. In that game, Navy reeled of 367 rushing yards to win its third straight.

But Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo cautioned all week about a letdown against a statistically inferior opponent, saying it simply was "human nature" following such an emphatic win that left his players feeling somewhat invincible. Duke (2-6) took full advantage of that lackadaisical temperament, scoring on each of its four possession during the first half. The final three were touchdowns, and by halftime, the homecoming crowd that had come to witness a coronation instead sat in stunned silenced.

"We were just in a daze to start off," Niumatalolo said. "Two balls on the ground. Fortunately we got one of them back. Then we fumbled another one, and we got that one back. We battled to come back at the end, but the way we started the game, we didn't deserve to win. We just played horrible."

The decisive fourth-quarter points for Duke came on Will Snyderwine's 40-yard field goal with 8:34 to play, which hit the crossbar but made it over for a 34-15 lead. From there, Navy got a one-yard touchdown run from slotback Gee Gee Greene followed by Dobbs's conversion run and a 12-yard touchdown reception by slotback Aaron Santiago from Dobbs. That duo also combined on the two-point pass that had the Midshipmen poised for a comeback reminiscent of their 28-27 victory over Wake Forest on Oct. 9, when they scored the winning points with 26 seconds to play.

But when Dobbs's fourth-down pass to fullback Alexander Teich bounced into the air and nearly was intercepted, Navy had no choice but to begin dissecting all that went awry.

"One way to explain it is we have to come to play no matter who we're playing," said senior co-captain and safety Wyatt Middleton, part of a defense that yielded 456 yards, including 314 passing to quarterback Sean Renfree. "Clearly we didn't come to play today. Duke did. They were trying to prove something, and they proved that."

The Navy letdown began on Duke's first drive, when the Blue Devils moved the ball with ease. Although the 10-play possession resulted in just a field goal, it foreshadowed a first half in which the Blue Devils would have their way with a defense that entered ranked 15th nationally against the pass and 19th in points allowed. It also didn't take long for Duke to regain possession.

Dobbs made sure of that when he was unable to hand off cleanly on Navy's ensuing drive. The ball came loose at the Duke 24, and defensive end Wesley Oglesby fell on it to stall a possession that included a 26-yard gain on a screen pass to Teich and a nifty 16-yard run by Dobbs, who became the school's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (44) but lost for the first time at home.

Navy's reliable defense then wilted during a 14-play drive during which the Blue Devils converted two third downs and scored on fourth and goal when Renfree leapt over the top of the pile for a one-yard touchdown. The Blue Devils' next two touchdowns came on backup quarterback Brandon Connette's six-yard run and a 12-yard scamper by Renfree, who tied a school record by completing his first 16 passes in a row, and Duke was on its way to a rare win after withstanding a furious rally.

"Obviously I did a bad job of getting us ready to play," Niumatalolo said. "That was a concern for us all week. I did a bad job, but don't take anything away from Duke. Our kids are a bunch of battlers, but it was too big a hole for us to dig out of. We played bad. I coached a bad game."

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