Rejuvenated Duke humbles Navy, 26-17 Mids' bowl aspirations dealt a serious blow

September 28, 1997|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,SUN STAFF

DURHAM, N.C. -- The 1997 college football season is only a month old, but the Naval Academy's bowl aspirations are in serious trouble after yesterday's humbling 26-17 loss to the rejuvenated Duke Blue Devils.

The Midshipmen (2-2) face the daunting task of having to win four of their remaining five games against Division I-A rivals, including Air Force and Notre Dame, to entertain any hope of a postseason bid.

In the past two encounters, Navy had outscored Duke, 94-36, and was a 10 1/2 -point favorite to continue its domination. That is why this defeat was so galling to Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie.

"We've got to be a better team than we showed today," he said. "They were much hungrier. We weren't intense or focused, and for that, I have to take the blame.

"We didn't make the big plays on either side of the ball. We blew opportunities when we had the ball in their territory. Defensively, we didn't stop them when we had to."

Quite simply, the Mids were outplayed and outhustled by the Blue Devils (2-2). Duke rallied around redshirt freshman quarterback Spencer Romine, who threw a pair of touchdown passes and consistently scrambled out of trouble, and sophomore place-kicker Sims Lenhardt, who converted field goals of 50, 29, 43 and 38 yards. The last one came with 1: 17 left and dashed any hope of a dramatic Navy comeback.

Last week, the Duke supporters tore down the goal posts at Wallace Wade Stadium in celebration of a last-minute, 20-17 upset of Army that ended a nation-high 15-game losing streak. But yesterday's crowd of 17,370 was almost blase as the Blue Devils completed a sweep of two of the service academies.

Navy, which had averaged 37.7 points in its first three games, managed only one sustained touchdown drive against Duke -- an 11-play, 82-yard march in the second quarter that senior quarterback Chris McCoy capped with a 1-yard plunge to tie the score, 7-7.

But for most of the afternoon, the Navy offense suffered through missed opportunities. The Mids out-rushed the Blue Devils, 166-34, in the first half, but still trailed, 17-7, as Romine found Richmond Flowers and Corey Thomas with touchdown passes and Lenhardt closed the half with a career-long 50-yard kick.

Navy repeatedly failed to capitalize on excellent field position.

Specifically, place-kicker Tom Vanderhorst missed field-goal attempts from 46 and 48 yards in the second quarter.

Vanderhorst, who has missed all four of his attempts from beyond the 40, was not the only Navy kicker having problems. A 29-yard punt by Jason Covarrubias led to Duke's first touchdown, a 20-yard toss to Flowers.

Offensively, Navy was a one-dimensional team. McCoy failed to complete a pass in the first three quarters and finished 3-for-10 for 67 yards.

Almost all of his passing yardage came on a 46-yard completion to slotback Pat McGrew midway through the fourth quarter that carried to the Duke 16.

The Mids trailed 23-14 at the time, and a touchdown would have put them in position to win the game. But typically, the big play was missing. Three straight running plays lost a yard, and Vanderhorst converted a field-goal attempt from 28 yards.

Failing to produce on third down has been a season-long problem for McCoy and the Mids. They had previously converted 30 percent of their chances. Yesterday, McCoy was just 1-for-9 in third-down situations.

"Obviously, that's something we have to improve on both offensively and defensively," said Weatherbie after watching Romine, who was carrying a clipboard on the sidelines three weeks ago, repeatedly make big third-down plays, including a 20-yard scramble in the third quarter that set up Lenhardt's 29-yard field goal that gave Duke a 20-14 cushion.

"Last year, I think we passed 54 times on third-down situations, compared to only four runs," said Duke coach Fred Goldsmith. "Now we've got the ability to run the ball, too, and it is keeping our rivals guessing."

The Navy defense was repeatedly frustrated in the fourth quarter when Duke halfback Letavious Wilks gained most of his team-high 68 yards, keeping the clock moving and the ball out of Navy's hands.

"We just didn't get the job done," said senior linebacker Travis Cooley, one of Navy's key defenders.

"Coach Weatherbie warned us at halftime that we weren't playing with any emotion. Duke's line did a good job of blocking, but we made a lot of mistakes and didn't put enough pressure on Romine."

Navy's secondary, minus senior cornerback Sean Andrews (leg injury), also played soft, allowing Romine to complete 11 of 19 passes for 151 yards and letting Thomas and Flowers get behind their coverage.

Despite all the negatives, Weatherbie was not ready to give up on Navy's bowl hopes.

"Losing anytime is like a death in the family," he said. "But we can't soak in our misery. We have two weeks to prepare for Air Force and we can bounce back. Believe me, we'll learn from this experience."

Next for Navy

Opponent: Air Force

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

When: Oct. 11, noon

Record: 5-0

Yesterday: Beat San Diego State, 24-18, in OT

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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