Duke eager to pick up where it left off vs. Navy

Long-dismal Devils had solid finish to last season

College Football

September 04, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

A long-downtrodden Duke football program will strive to continue an upswing tonight under coach Ted Roof at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

Perennial doormats in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Blue Devils provided a ray of hope in their final three games last season, winning twice - including a 41-17 pasting of Georgia Tech that broke a 30-game ACC losing streak - and playing competitively against N.C. State and Tennessee.

So, when Duke arrives in Annapolis for its 6 p.m. opener, the idea will be to build upon that promising finish.

"We hope it carries over, but this is an entirely different bunch of guys," Roof said. "We lost a lot of leadership, guys who were very strong in the locker room. Our guys are excited, but the thing that will help us carry that momentum over is to win."

The coach has been happy with the team's preparation, but cautions that the Duke faithful shouldn't get too excited too soon. "It's a process," he said of improvement. "I hope the fans get on board and stay with us for the long haul."

In the short term, at least 14 true freshmen will receive considerable playing time against the Midshipmen. The top two quarterbacks, Mike Schneider and senior co-captain Chris Dapolito, are likely to be alternated, and the defense will have the mammoth chore of containing Navy's triple-option offense.

At least Duke did not have a short week to prepare.

"Coaches do hate preparing for a team like this because of the fact that you have to be so exact," Roof said. "Thank goodness we open with them. We've had to get ready for teams that play this style on short weeks, and it's tough. It's still tough now, but any added preparation time is a bonus."

Navy has questions of its own. Coach Paul Johnson wonders about the injury-riddled offensive line, seniors starting who have rarely played, a missing top wide receiver (Amir Jenkins), and kicker Geoff Blumenfeld, who is being asked to replace Navy's all-time punter, John Skaggs.

Then there is quarterback Aaron Polanco, who has started one game, that a disastrous walloping by Connecticut.

"It's a relief to finally go out there and play," Polanco said. "I wouldn't say there's any extra pressure, just that pressure you get from every game. As for the line, we'll just have to make do with what we have."

Duke will start just six seniors, four on defense. Its most impressive individual, however, is a sophomore, tight end Ben Patrick, who was elected one of the captains.

"I was very surprised, being as young as I am and being viewed by teammates as a captain," said Patrick, who caught 17 passes for 218 yards in his freshman season.

The Blue Devils have not beaten two straight Division I-A opponents (they topped North Carolina in last season's finale) since 1997 and have enjoyed only one winning season in 14 years. Roof is preaching efficiency on offense and precision on defense in this initial test of three straight away from Durham.

"I don't think that bothers that many guys on the team," Dapolito said of the tough early schedule. "It's just the students around campus that are upset that they're not going to be able to tailgate at a home game for a while."

For many seasons, the tailgating has been the highlight of a football Saturday at Duke. No camping overnight - as fans do to see the Duke basketball power - for a program that is still awaiting a serious wakeup call.

NOTES: Duke's roster includes three Baltimore-area players, including one of the leading defenders, linebacker Malcolm Ruff (Gilman). The others are Ruff's former Greyhounds teammate, fullback Mike Dowling, and freshman lineman Cameron Goldberg (McDonogh). ... Navy is anticipating a crowd of 30,000, slightly short of capacity.

Today's game

Duke (0-0) at Navy (0-0)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Time: 6 p.m.

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Series: Navy leads 16-12-5

Outlook: Navy will be striving to break a nine-game losing streak against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, including two defeats to Duke, in its first home night game since the 2000 opener. The last victory by the Midshipmen over an ACC team was a 36-26 win at Georgia Tech in 1996 when head coach Paul Johnson was the team's offensive coordinator. They are coming off a fine comeback season that included an appearance in the Houston Bowl and are looking to build more momentum with 15 returning starters. Aaron Polanco will make his debut as the full-time starter at quarterback behind an offensive line that has been beset by injuries and ineffectiveness during preseason drills. Duke finished 2-3 after coach Ted Roof took over in the middle of 2003, but is young, with 14 freshmen expected to play. The Blue Devils are picked to finish at or near the bottom of the ACC. This is the first of three straight road games to launch their season.

- Kent Baker

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