Through Navy's first three games, one thing has been obvious: Sophomore running back Eric Roberts can take your breath away every time he touches the ball.
Most of the time that's a good thing. But not all the time.
"Eric Roberts makes a bunch of plays, and he makes a bunch of big yards, but he needs to learn to play for 60 minutes, too," said a visibly irritated coach Paul Johnson after the Mids' 49-40 loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
Roberts' brilliance and his wavering focus can be summed on one play from that game. In the second quarter, Navy pitched the ball to wide receiver J.P. Blecksmith on a end around, and Blecksmith threw the ball to Roberts for a 79-yard completion, the fourth-longest pass play in school history.
But on the play, Roberts tripped and fell at the line of scrimmage, and Blecksmith had to hold the ball an extra second to wait for Roberts to get up and run his pattern.
"I made a few mistakes out there and if I hadn't, we probably would have won the game," Roberts said. "It's just mental mistakes on my part. ... I've got to work on doing little things to help out the team. Hopefully I can get it going."
In only his first year of varsity action, Roberts has clearly established himself as Navy's top playmaker, and he will be asked to do plenty more as the Mids play host to Duke on Saturday in their homecoming game.
Roberts' speed and soft hands have helped him average 18.2 yards every time he touches the ball, and his 182.3 all-purpose yards a game is fifth best in the country. But as often is the case with young players, his explosive plays are tempered somewhat by his miscues.
Against N.C. State, he fumbled on a kickoff and the Wolfpack scooped up the ball and ran it back for a touchdown. It was a similar story against Northwestern.
Roberts ran for a 54-yard touchdown on Navy's opening drive, but later in the first half he bobbled a pitch on an option (and was tackled for a loss), fumbled a kickoff (which he recovered), and missed a backside block that turned a potential big gain into a short one. Then, just as Johnson was about to pull his hair out in frustration, Roberts caught the long pass from Blecksmith, and nearly scored on a long run after the catch.
"He's got a lot of big-play ability and he's one of the better athletes on this team," Johnson said. "But we've got to do a better job of making him play hard. We're working at it. He's made a lot of progress, but he's still got a ways to go."
'Tired of losing'
Johnson may want to forget Navy's loss to the Wildcats for more reasons than one. Aside from the fact that Navy gave up 49 points and turned the ball over five times, it marked the first time in Johnson's career he had dropped two games in a row as a head coach.
"I'm tired of losing," he said. "I'm not used to it. I don't like it. I hope [the players] don't like it either. I hope they're mad."
Duke, like Navy, has occupied the bottom rung of college football in recent years, and began the season with a 23-game losing streak, the longest in the country.
The Blue Devils beat East Carolina, 23-16, in their opener but have lost three straight.
"I think Duke is as good as anybody we've played," Johnson said. "They're athletic. I look at the tape and I look at the people who are playing and they are athletic. They can run and they are big."
Next for Navy
Opponent: Duke (1-3)
Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium
When: Saturday, noon
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Navy by 2 1/2