The wait is over.
After countless weeks of off-season training programs and preseason practices, the Blue Devils finally take the field against Navy for the first game of the season Saturday at 6 p.m.
The game could not come any sooner for the Blue Devils, who are eager to show new head coach Ted Roof what they can do following a long, turbulent off-season.
“We’re excited that it’s finally game week,” Roof said. “All the conversation, all the preparation, all the other stuff, we finally get ready to play a football game against an opponent.”
Last season, the Midshipmen orchestrated an impressive turnaround the Blue Devils would love to emulate. After going 0-10 in 2001 and 2-10 in 2002, Navy went 8-5 last season, including an appearance in the EV1.net Houston Bowl.
Additionally, the Midshipmen have 15 returning starters and 18 senior starters, giving the team a tremendous edge over the Blue Devils in terms of experience.
“They don’t beat themselves. They make you beat them,” Roof said. “They’re committed to what they do and they have answers. The ‘almosts’ won’t get it done against a team like this.”
The Blue Devils’ defensive front will be tested early against Navy’s complicated triple option running attack, spearheaded by preseason All-American fullback Kyle Eckel, slot back Frank Divis and quarterback Aaron Polanco, all seniors.
“They were first in the nation as far as yards per game rushing, so that says enough right there,” said Brian Greene, one of the Blue Devils’ starting safeties. “They make you play assignment football. If you don’t play your assignment on every play, they’ll find a way to pop one on you. You must be precise.”
Additionally, the complicated Navy rushing attack is time-consuming, making clock management important if the Blue Devils hope to walk out of Annapolis with a victory.
“In a normal game, you get about 12 possessions. When you play the Naval Academy, you get seven, maybe eight, because of the time of possession,” Roof said, noting that the Blue Devils will need to stall the Midshipmen early in the down sequence. “It can be a very short game and that’s what frustrates you when you play against teams that play this style: They get it and they don’t give it back.”
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If there is any consolation for the Blue Devils, however, it is that they are more athletically gifted than the Midshipmen. Navy’s biggest offensive starter, left guard Dennis Ray Phillips, weighs 285 pounds. In comparison, Blue Devil defensive tackle Orrin Thompson is 315 pounds, 30 pounds heavier.
“I doubt that we have anybody on our team that Duke recruited,” said Navy head coach Paul Johnson Thursday.
Johnson did not express confidence in his team’s preseason performance.
“I’ve watched us practice for 25 days,” Johnson said, explaining his displeasure. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll see.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the Blue Devils will feature seven new starters, including a new backfield, a revamped offensive line and a depleted receiving corps. In order to run the efficient offense that Roof covets, the Blue Devils will need solid games from quarterback Mike Schneider and sophomore co-captain Ben Patrick, a third-team freshman All-American last season. Patrick, who had 218 receiving yards last season, assumed a starting role when previous starter Andy Roland moved to fullback to replace Alex Wade.
“We expect him to have a good season,” Roof said. “He was elected captain as a redshirt sophomore. I haven’t been around that too much. He comes to work every day, he pushes himself and he pushes his teammates.”
If Patrick and his teammates can deliver a win Saturday, however, it will go a long way to restoring respectability to a program plagued by futility.
“I think it would certainly give us some confidence and confidence is such a powerful thing,” Roof said. “Maybe it will generate some enthusiasm outside the program, maybe dump some fuel on that fire.”