Navy went into its homecoming game with much momentum yesterday, then played like the sloppy Midshipmen of recent vintage and may have done significant damage to its season.
After winning three consecutive games and playing mistake-free football in its past two efforts, Navy committed three costly turnovers to help visiting Delaware take a 21-17 victory before 34,982, the ninth-largest crowd ever at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and the largest there in four years.
It was a sour homecoming for Navy (5-3) in many ways.
The Mids, who scored the game's first 14 points, failed to achieve their first four-game winning streak in six years by going down against the unbeaten Blue Hens (8-0), the No. 3 team in Division I-AA.
Although Navy can still become bowl-eligible with two more victories, it probably needs to win three of its last four to solidify a bowl bid, meaning the Mids need to upset visiting Tulane on Saturday or Notre Dame on the road a week later.
Junior slotback Eric Roberts, the prime big-play threat in Navy's offense, went down with a sprained right ankle not long after his 66-yard reception gave the Mids their two-touchdown lead midway through the first quarter. Roberts did not return and is questionable for next week.
Senior quarterback Craig Candeto, who has led Navy's spread option attack with near-flawless execution lately, broke down yesterday. Candeto had a hand in all three miscues. He threw an interception deep in Delaware territory to ruin a second-quarter drive, then lost two fumbles, one of which the Blue Hens turned into a touchdown.
"This is a big hurt for us," said Candeto, who threw for a season-high 201 yards and rushed for 62. "We've been winning the turnover battle lately. That's how we've been successful. It's never a one-man show, but I'm going to take accountability for that."
Said Navy coach Paul Johnson: "I thought we had a good week of practice. I thought we were ready to play. This was a major setback. [Delaware] has a good football team. They didn't need our help. We can't make mistakes like we made and survive. That's the way we played last year."
At least the Mids, after allowing 21 unanswered points to fall behind 21-14 nearly five minutes into the second half, made it interesting. After Eric Rolfs kicked a 41-yard field goal to cut the lead to 21-17 with 10:49 left in the game, Navy's defense dug in, and the Mids fell one play and 13 yards short of pulling off a come-from-behind victory.
Candeto's attempt to hit freshman wide receiver Jason Tomlinson in the end zone was tipped away by Delaware safety Dave Camburn as time expired.
The Blue Hens, who won against a Division I-A opponent for the first time since beating Navy in 1992, produced their lowest scoring output of the year. It didn't matter, because Delaware's defense proved to be difference.
Led by linebacker John Mulhern (six tackles, one interception, one fumble recovery) and defensive end Shawn Johnson (five tackles, one fumble recovery), Delaware controlled Navy's offensive line and never let the Mids run the ball like the top rushing team in Division I-A should. Navy finished with 180 yards rushing, its second-lowest total of the year.
"How big is it [to be] down 14 points and your kids keep playing hard?" Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. "After we got it back to 14-14, we just tried to slug it out on defense and may the best team win."
Things looked too easy, perhaps, at the outset. Delaware went three-and-out on its first two possessions, while the Mids cashed in on each of theirs.
Navy first drove 63 yards on 10 plays, taking a 7-0 lead after Tony Lane scored on a 1-yard run. On Navy's next possession, Candeto used a beautiful play-action fake on first down to help spring Roberts wide-open over the middle.
Roberts caught the pass and ran untouched to complete the 66-yard scoring play, but he left the game shortly thereafter. And the Mids weren't the same, especially Candeto, who got picked off and lost two fumbles over Navy's next four possessions, including one on a bad exchange with fullback Michael Brimage.
After Delaware used a successful fake punt to keep an 80-yard drive alive, the Blue Hens pulled within 14-7 on a 1-yard run by Jenkins on the first play of the second quarter. Then, after he drove the Mids 83 yards to the Delaware 10, Candeto threw into double coverage on the goal line and was intercepted by Mulhern.
"I'm on the sideline thinking, `What was I thinking?' " Candeto said.
It got worse. Candeto then lost a fumble after getting hit by Johnson, and the Blue Hens drove 27 yards quickly for a game-tying touchdown with 16 seconds left in the half, as Hall scrambled around right end and scored from 5 yards. Delaware then went ahead on a 28-yard touchdown run by Bennett, who bounced outside to his left and sprinted untouched to finish a 51-yard drive with 9:29 left in the third quarter.