The offense took the field and began to click almost immediately. The defense dug in successfully. The team fought through a third-quarter lull and a 58-minute lightning delay after that. And when the hot and muggy afternoon was over, Navy finally could celebrate a new beginning and the end of a streak that began nearly four years ago.
By blowing out visiting Virginia Military Institute, 37-10, before 30,129 yesterday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Midshipmen opened their season by feeling good at home for a change.
Navy had last won a game in its stadium on Nov. 13, 1999 (45-21 over Tulane). Yesterday's triumph marked the first time a single player on its roster had experienced victory in Annapolis.
"I've only been through a few wins, period, since I've been here," said senior linebacker Eddie Carthan, noting Navy's 3-30 record over his first three seasons. "But to finally win at home really feels good. We've had that monkey on our backs for years."
"It was pretty depressing to read in every press release that we hadn't won a home game since 1999," senior quarterback Craig Candeto said. "That's a pretty bad streak to have. I'm glad we broke it. Hopefully, we'll start a new tradition here in our stadium."
Candeto made sure the Midshipmen would not falter, as he ran Navy's triple option with precision. Candeto rushed for 96 yards and two touchdowns, threw for 161 yards and engineered touchdown drives on four consecutive first-half possessions, pushing the Midshipmen to a 28-0 halftime lead - Navy's largest lead at the break in nearly six years.
Navy fed off of its quarterback. Junior fullback Kyle Eckel rushed for a career-high 129 yards on 17 carries and scored two touchdowns. Senior slotbacks Eric Roberts and Tony Lane produced 107 and 87 yards of offense, respectively. Freshman wide receiver Jason Tomlinson caught three passes for 65 yards. In all, the Midshipmen rolled up 598 total yards.
Not that the Midshipmen didn't give their fans reasons to stir with discomfort. VMI pounced on a fumbled punt return by Lionel Wesley early in the third quarter, then cut the lead to 28-7 with a quick 42-yard drive.
After that, the Navy offense stalled on two straight drives, and the Keydets (0-1) moved inside the Navy 15. But defensive end Jeff Vanak (seven tackles) stripped VMI slotback Gary Price from behind, and safety Josh Smith (team-high 11 tackles) recovered the fumble with 5:32 left in the third quarter.
The weather then interrupted VMI's comeback. After forcing a Navy punt, the Keydets drove 50 yards in six plays to the Midshipmen's 30. But, with 54 seconds left in the period, thunderstorms rolled in and play was suspended for nearly an hour.
The delay seemed to revive Navy and hurt VMI, which cut the lead to 28-10 on a 46-yard field goal by kicker Matt Sharpe, but then was powerless to stop the Midshipmen. Navy put the game away with a seven-play, 70-yard drive. Eckel set up Candeto's 2-yard scoring run with a 42-yard run. The Midshipmen took a 34-10 lead with 12:16 left.
Game over. Streak over.
"I thought we came out and played really well in the first half. I think we got our focus back [during the delay]. We've had a history here of losing focus for a quarter or two quarters and then the game is over," Navy coach Paul Johnson said.
"Thankfully, we went back out there and made some plays after the delay. We still had a lot of breakdowns and made a couple of very poor decisions. But it's easier to correct those mistakes when you win."
While VMI could not sustain a drive in the first half, thanks mainly to penalties - second-year freshman quarterback Jonathan Wilson drew two intentional grounding calls - the Midshipmen were the picture of efficiency. Navy piled up 344 yards, did not draw a flag and went nearly the entire half without committing a turnover.
After going three-and-out in its opening possession, Navy established its ground game behind fullbacks Bronston Carroll and Eckel, got its slotbacks involved in the passing attack and began to move the ball at will. Candeto hurt VMI repeatedly by passing downfield when the Keydets crowded the line of scrimmage to take away the option.
First, the Midshipmen drove 65 yards on eight running plays to take a 7-0 lead. Lane took a pitch around left end after a nice read by Candeto and sprinted untouched for an 18-yard score with 7:05 left in the first quarter.
Navy mixed the run and pass crisply on its next drive of 59 yards. Passes by Candeto to Wesley and Roberts combined to produce 41 yards. Eckel finished the march with a 3-yard burst off left tackle on the first play of the second quarter to make it 14-0.
NOTE: Four Navy players were treated for heat exhaustion. Free safety Josh Smith, kicker Geoff Blumenfeld and Lane finished the game. Center August Roitsch sat out the second half.
Next for Navy
Matchup: Navy (1-0) vs. No. 25 Texas Christian (0-0)
Site: Amon G. Carter Stadium, Fort Worth, Texas
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Tomorrow: Texas Christian opens at Tulane, 8 p.m.