For 3 1/2 hours yesterday, Navy and Northwestern dared each other to play defense as the teams combined for 89 points, 1,223 yards of offense and just seven punts at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
But only one statistic really mattered: Navy committed five turnovers, and that was the difference, as Northwestern held on for a 49-40 victory, handing the Midshipmen their 11th consecutive home loss.
"We're not talented enough to beat anybody when we do that," Navy coach Paul Johnson said. "You need to care enough to hold on to the ball. ... I don't know what else to say. I'm not used to losing. I'm all out of speeches."
Johnson was visibly frustrated after the game, and it was easy to understand why. Navy moved the ball with considerable ease against Northwestern (2-2), racking up 678 yards of offense, the third-highest single-game total in the history of the program. The Mids (1-2) punted only once, and that happened in the first quarter.
But fumbles by Craig Candeto, Tony Lane and Kyle Eckel led to 21 Northwestern points, and the Mids once again spent most of the game trying to claw back from those mistakes. Eckel's fumble occurred as he was fighting for extra yardage at Northwestern's 21-yard line with 5:27 left in the game, and Navy trailing 42-38.
"I thought he was down," Johnson said. "But that happens in football. You hold on to the ball, you don't cry about it."
Two other times, Navy turned the ball over inside Northwestern's 10 - once on a Candeto fumble, another on a Candeto interception - when they seemed poised to score.
"Personally, I'm really disappointed because of my fumbles and the interception," Candeto said. "I have to work at getting better. We had some opportunities, and we let them slip away. You can't win a ballgame like that."
Northwestern had plenty of success on offense, even when it didn't get Navy's help. Wildcats running back Jason Wright rushed for 186 yards and three touchdowns, and Noah Herron added 95 yards and three scores on the ground.
"The game wasn't a work of art," Northwestern coach Randy Walker said. "But there is something to be said for heart and courage, because that's what we played with today."
Both defenses spent the entire day on their heels, but Northwestern managed to claw, rip and pull the ball out of Navy's hands enough times that it didn't matter. In the first quarter, Navy grabbed a 7-0 lead on a 54-yard touchdown run by Eric Roberts, but on the Mids' next possession, Dominique Price ripped the ball out of Lane's hands on Navy's 31, and two plays later Wright tied the game at 7-7 with a 7-yard touchdown run.
Northwestern jumped ahead 14-7 on a touchdown pass from Brett Basanez to Ronnie Foster, but Navy answered five plays later with a 3-yard touchdown from Candeto.
When Northwestern scored again four minutes before halftime on a 9-yard run by Herron to go up 21-14, it looked like the Wildcats might finally get some room to breathe. But Navy answered right back with a trick play, as receiver J.P. Blecksmith took a pitch in the backfield and tossed a 79-yard pass to Roberts, who was tackled at the 1. Candeto punched it in on the next play.
"The play was designed to go to [Roberts]," said Blecksmith, who came to Navy as a quarterback. "It's been open in practice and it was open today. I just had to sell the run and get behind my blockers. It felt great."
The excitement would be short-lived. Navy got the ball back at 1:48 before halftime, but Candeto fumbled on the Mids' 19. Northwestern scored on a 1-yard run eight plays later by Herron to take a 28-21 lead.
"When you get the ball like that and the game is tied, what are you going to do, take a knee three times?" Johnson said. "You have to try to play, otherwise you're saying to your kids, 'I'm scared, I'm glad we're tied, let's go into halftime.' I don't regret it. We should have held onto the ball."
The second half essentially mirrored the first. Every time Navy made a big play, Northwestern had an answer. The Mids actually regained the lead at 38-35 on Candeto's third touchdown of the day with 10:42 left in the fourth quarter, but once again Northwestern drove down the field with little resistance from Navy and scored on a 3-yard run by Wright to go back up 42-38.
"We got physically pushed around all day long," said Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green. "We're not getting it done right now."
Turning it over
After no turnovers against Southern Methodist in its season opener, Navy has six in its past two games, resulting in 35 points for the opposition:
Navy 38, Southern Methodist 7
Navy: 0 turnovers
SMU: 5 turnovers, 21 pointsN.C. State 65, Navy 19
Navy: 3 turnovers, 14 points
N.C. State: 0 turnovers
Northwestern 49, Navy 40
Navy: 3 turnovers, 21 points
Northwestern: 0 turnovers
Next for Navy
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Saturday, noon
Yesterday: Lost to No. 5 Florida State, 48-17.