This was supposed to be Navy's big chance. This was supposed to be the game where the Midshipmen finally put aside the turnovers, the missed blocks and the blown coverages. This was supposed to be the game where Navy turned the corner and turned around its season.
Instead, the Mids proved there is much work left to do on their rebuilding project.
Navy lost for the 12th consecutive time at home yesterday, falling to Duke, 43-17, at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Duke, a team that had won just once in its previous 27 games, fell behind 10-3 early, but the Blue Devils came back to score 40 unanswered points in the second and third quarters.
Alex Wade led Duke (2-3), rushing for 123 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, and three different Duke receivers caught touchdown passes.
"I think to get better, you have to honest with yourself, and right now, we're not very good," said Navy coach Paul Johnson, whose Mids fell to 1-3. "I know our players want to win, but do they know how? No. I might want to beat Tiger Woods in golf, but no matter how hard I try, it's not going to happen. They're trying hard, but they just can't do some things."
Once again, Navy's struggles were most evident on defense.
In the second quarter, Duke scored on a 69-yard end-around by wide receiver Senterrio Landrum, and just before halftime, quarterback Adam Smith hit wide-out Khary Sharpe for a 45-yard touchdown.
It seemed every time Navy needed a big play by its defense to force a punt, Duke came up with a bigger play to get a first down. Though turnovers have put Navy's defense in some tough spots, in the past three games, the Mids have given up a stomach-churning 157 points.
"It's just little things, mental errors," said Navy cornerback Shalimar Brazier. "We were trying to give them different looks, but just kept making mistakes. I wasn't surprised by their passing, but they were a little faster than I expected."
The Mids' offense didn't have much success, either. Navy looked sharp on its second drive, moving the ball 56 yards on nine plays to take a 7-0 lead on a 3-yard run by quarterback Craig Candeto. But three fumbles, an interception and a litany of penalties stalled Navy's attack the rest of the day.
"The problem I see is that we're starting to sound like a broken record," offensive lineman Grant Moody said. "We're killing ourselves the same way every week offensively with turnovers and missed assignments. We have to get it corrected if we want a chance to win games."
To Duke's credit, it kept Navy guessing. When Wade wasn't pounding the ball up the middle for big chunks of yardage, Duke was using play action to get its speedy receivers wide open.
"Their running hurt us," Johnson said. "We would have six, seven and eight guys in the box, and we still couldn't stop the run. Then, that opened up their boot passes, and it was kind of like pick your poison."
Said Duke coach Carl Franks: "We would have liked to throw the ball more, but when the running game is working so well, you have to go with it."
Just before halftime, Navy appeared to be in good shape despite trailing 15-10. John Skaggs booted a beautiful 51-yard punt with 1:52 left before intermission, and the ball bounced out of bounds at Duke's 1-yard line. With Duke's offense forced to drive into a stiff breeze, it looked as if Navy might get the ball back at midfield with a chance to take the lead.
Instead, Duke converted on third-and-nine from the 1, and didn't stop, scoring on Smith's 45-yard bomb to Sharpe to go into the locker room up 22-10.
"If we can stop them on third down, we get the ball at about the 30," Johnson said. "Instead, they convert and end up scoring. That was a back-breaker."
Sensing he needed to do something to change the momentum, Johnson called for Geoff Blumenfeld to dribble an onside kick in the direction of the Duke sideline to open the second half. The kick was perfect, but several Navy players watched the ball bounce out of bounds instead of falling on it, giving Duke the ball at midfield.
"We saw on films that their tackle on that side bails out before the kick," Johnson said. "So sure enough, he did it again today. But we don't grab the ball ... it's frustrating."
Minutes later, Duke added a score from tight end Reggie Love to make it 29-10, and then Wade scored twice in six minutes finish off Navy. Backup quarterback Aaron Polanco came on to lead the Mids' second-string offense to a fourth-quarter touchdown, but that was the only bright spot in a otherwise dismal second half. Eric Roberts led Navy with 60 yards rushing, but he also fumbled a kickoff, the third straight game he's coughed up the ball.
"One of these days, we're going to get into a tough situation and things will go our way," Johnson said. "But our problems didn't happen overnight, and they're probably not going to get fixed overnight."
Next for Navy
Site:Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colo.
When:Saturday, 3 p.m.
Yesterday:Beat Utah, 30-26