ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Momentum plays a key role in every football game. Whichever team best utilizes momentum swings almost always wins.
Against a squad like Navy, such shifts become even more important. The Midshipmen pound the ball on the ground with their confusing triple-option offense. The attack eats away the clock, leaving few opportunities for opponents to maintain rhythm. Unfortunately, the Blue Devils (0-1) lost ground on what proved to be the two biggest momentum swings in their 27-12 loss to Navy (1-0).
With a minute remaining in the first half, Duke had to be content, though not ecstatic, with its performance. Despite untimely penalties and red zone difficulties, the Blue Devils held the most productive rushing offense in the country in 2003 to just 90 yards and led Navy 6-0.
As the Midshipmen lined up on their own 42, the Blue Devils hoped to keep Navy out of field goal range. But the Midshipmen quickly put six points on the scoreboard when quarterback Aaron Polanco found Jason Tomlinson streaking down the field for a wide-open, 58-yard touchdown with 57 seconds remaining. After preparing for the Midshipmen’s triple-option running game and accounting for Polanco’s weak arm, it appeared as if Duke cornerback John Talley guessed that Tomlinson would not receive the ball more than 15 yards down the field and stopped following the 6-foot-2 Tomlinson.
Although Navy missed the extra-point attempt, the Blue Devils were frustrated when three forced turnovers only resulted in a halftime tie. During the first half, Duke also thwarted a fake punt attempt that Navy head coach Paul Johnson considered an additional turnover.
“We outplayed them and we’re tied at 6-6,” running back Cedric Dargan said. “If you get three turnovers in a half, you should go into halftime ahead by a couple of touchdowns.”
The Blue Devils very easily could have built off the confidence of a first-half shutout, but the momentum shifted to the Midshipmen when Tomlinson crossed the goal line at the end of the second quarter.
The Midshipmen broke the stalemate when Polanco faked a handoff to preseason All-American fullback Kyle Eckel and raced to the endzone for a 28-yard touchdown run that, after a successful extra point, gave Navy a 13-6 lead.
Showing resilience rarely seen in the Carl Franks era, second-string quarterback and co-captain Chris Dapolito led the Blue Devils down the field to score the only Duke touchdown of the game. Dapolito had 55 of the team’s 80 yards on the series, including 44 rushing yards that culminated with a five-yard dash into the endzone. But just as the come-from-behind optimism returned for Duke, Matt Brooks missed the extra-point attempt. Instead of tying the game, the efficient Midshipmen still held the lead.
“We put together a nice drive, and to there credit they answered,” Johnson said. “I thought it was a huge momentum swing when they missed the extra point.”
After Dapolito’s touchdown, the Blue Devils did not muster another first down while Navy’s game on the ground seemed to strengthen by the possession. The Midshipmen ran for 211 second-half yards with Polanco (130) and Eckel (100) finishing over the century mark for yards on the ground.
Navy often finds most of its success on the ground early in games, as the triple option confuses many defenses. Duke, however, came prepared for the perplexing patterns and neutralized much of the Midshipmen’s early effectiveness. Duke head coach Ted Roof explained that the Blue Devils simply wore down against the experienced and disciplined attack.
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“I think [Navy] guys ran through a lot of tackles. And I think as you saw the defense on the field more in the second half you saw the tackling decline,” Roof said.
In addition, Duke could not fully respond to the Midshipmen’s running exploits because Dargan, who rumbled for a career-high 114 yards, only rushed for 13 yards in the final two quarters. Duke’s starting tailback suffered three minor leg injuries, limiting his second-half effectiveness.
After the Blue Devils’ initial 53-yard drive that led to a field goal in the first quarter, the passing game could also not find its rhythm. Quarterbacks Mike Schneider and Dapolito made little use of Duke’s much hyped tight end corps, and the coaches called few long passing plays to complement the completions to the flats in the first quarter.
“We didn’t get the ball thrown over our heads,” Johnson said.
The Blue Devils had two opportunities to put significant pressure on Navy to win the game. First, Duke failed to complete its first-half shut out by, all of things, unsuccessfully stopping the Midshipmen’s long passing ability. Second, after a come-from-behind touchdown, the Blue Devils missed an extra point attempt that would have tied the game. After the emotional touchdown, Duke lost much of its energy and was unable to marshal another first down. Navy, on the other hand, capitalized on the Blue Devils’ mistakes. The Midshipmen best utilized momentum and won the game.