ANNAPOLIS -- The Brigade of Midshipmen arrived on the field promptly at 1:20 p.m., much to the delight of the enthusiastic homecoming day crowd. Welcome to the color and pageantry of college football.
Then the assemblage and old grads, including the class of '42, whose senior year consisted of on-the-job training trying to reclaim the Pacific in World War II, waited for the team to arrive. . . and waited. . . and waited.
Finally, at about 3 o'clock, the guys in the gold helmets were in place. Too late. "We gave them way too much of a lead to start," said a distraught Navy coach George Chaump of the 23-0 advantage the Blue Hens of Delaware amassed.
"There were too many guys running around wide open," continued the coach, who obviously couldn't figure out why his team came out so flat after a week off and with prospects so good for its first victory of the season.
"I'll take the blame for that one completely," said Jason Van Matre, who thought his quarterbacking days were over until the Mids seemingly lost a signal-caller each and every day of September. "It's like I never took a snap in my life before," added the former high school wishbone quarterback from Florida.
Granted, as Van Matre said, he "couldn't do anything right in the first half," but he had an inordinate amount of help from all the team's departments in that regard.
On the second play of the game, Delaware picked up a huge 41 yards from scrimmage when Lanue Johnson simply outfought the defender for possession of Bill Vergantino's pass. Just three plays later, Johnson was standing in the Navy end zone after --ing unmolested 31 yards to complete a pretty-as-a-picture inside reverse play.
You'll note Johnson has already taken on a very prominent role in this synopsis of the Blue Hens' sixth victory in seven tries. Those two big plays in the first couple of minutes of Delaware's 37-21 triumph were only a teaser.
For the day, the 5-foot-10, 193-pound junior from Wilmington handled the ball only eight times, but the result was an average gain of 20 yards. He should have handled it more, it's not heavy. Johnson entered with an 8-yard rushing average, but he hadn't had many passes thrown his way through the first half-dozen games. "I think I came here considered strictly as a running back," he said. That has changed.
In addition to the big catch he made at the outset, Johnson made the play of the game for the winners late in the third period.
Perhaps injected with Krypton at halftime, Navy came out
resembling a team that featured guys named Roger Staubach or Joe Bellino with the resumption of play. Mike Jefferson returned the kickoff 38 yards and the Mids crashed 60 yards to score in nine plays, all on the ground.
A few minutes later, they had the ball back and this time went 80 yards in 12 plays, again all on the ground.
"I thought if we could have held them after getting to 14 points," said Chaump, "I was confident we could have gone past them. But although we had some big moments on defense, we gave up too many big plays."
Ah, the big play, Lanue Johnson's specialty.
The situation was third-and-long for Delaware when Vergantino dropped back to pass. He scrambled this way and that, avoiding each of the Navy defensive linemen and linebackers. Finally, Johnson materialized about 15 yards downfield with not a soul around him. Lanue high-tailed it to the 2-yard line, Vergantino punched it in and Navy's sixth straight loss was etched in stone.
Early in the final quarter, the Mids got the ball and moved 83 yards to close the gap to 30-21. The drive included 17 plays and took about an hour and a half, which is hardly conducive to a team in need of making up a lot of points in a hurry.
"We were expecting to do the same thing to them they did to us last year, and it looked good for a while," said Navy offensive tackle Blair Sokol. "But that pass play [to Johnson] and us going 1-2-3 and out afterward destroyed the rhythm we had built."
"We just didn't execute," added Van Matre, recalling the first half, painfully. "That's not coaching, that's us. I have no explanation. We got our composure in the second half, but you have to come out and play all four quarters. And, as a quarterback, you have to be mature enough to lead your team."
Some would argue the kid did his part, rushing for 154 yards (net 128) on 26 carries while taking some hits that would drydock a destroyer. But Delaware could virtually ignore the threat of pass by Navy and, as demon Navy linebacker Javier Zuluaga (nine tackles, five assists) put it, "We made it a lot easier for their offense than it should have been. We had a 17-play drive, then they come back and score in four or five plays."
To celebrate Halloween, the Mids take on Notre Dame at the Meadowlands Saturday. At least someone at the Academy still has a sense of humor.