When Duke has the ball:
The Duke offense will have a totally new look in 2004. Offensive coordinator Marty Galbreath has installed more of a west-coast spread the field system, but will need to play to the strengths of this year's roster to find success. Quarterback Mike Schneider will start under center. Schneider has a very strong arm and, when relaxed, can shred a defense. At some point in the game, however, Backups Chris Dapolito and Curt Dukes will also take snaps. Each brings different attributes to the position and makes the Devils more difficult to prepare for. On the other hand, establishing an offensive rhythm with this scheme is more difficult.
Duke will also try to run right at the undersized Navy defense with Cedric Dargan. Having played significant time last year, Dargan is well-seasoned and should provide Duke with a reliable ground option. The wide receiver position will receive an injection of youth and talent. Three true freshmen (Corey Thompson, Jomar Wright and Chancellor Young) are expected to play. Tight ends Ben Patrick and Andy Roland will be matchup headaches for Navy. In 2003, the Navy defense had a solid year, giving up more than 27 points only once to offensive powerhouse Texas Tech.
With many of the starters returning, expect the defense to once again make life difficult for their opponents, including Duke. The defensive front is undersized, but they are tough and well-disciplined. Overall team speed is not up to ACC standards, but they are faster than usually given credit for. Free safety Josh Smith has led Navy in tackles the past two season and is being mentioned as a possible All-American candidate.
When Navy has the ball:
Duke will have its hands full preparing for the option-based Navy attack. Senior fullback Kyle Eckel is one of the best at his position in the country, and is Navy leading returning rusher. Senior Slotback Eric Roberts is very dangerous as a rusher and receiver. In 2003, Roberts averaged 9.1 yards per carry and 24.7 yards per reception. Duke will need to account for him on every play. The Middies will be breaking in a new QB, however, as multi-year starter Craig Candeto has graduated. Replacing Candeto will be Senior co-captain Aaron Polanco.
Defensively, Duke will need to play assignment football. Defensive tackle Orrin Thompson will play a key role in this game. The tougher he is to block, the better Duke will stop the Navy option. The Duke defensive backs will also need to play smart, as Navy can suck them up with the running game and then throw the ball deep.
Duke keys to the game:
Stop Eckel – Navy Fullback Kyle Eckel is the key to the offense. He's a very proficient dive back on the option and is tough to bring down. When he's running well, the Navy offense can wear down a defense quickly. If Duke can limit Eckel's effectiveness, Navy will take the plays to the outside. Despite having good slotbacks, forcing Navy wide will favor Duke.
Make Navy grind it out – The Midshipmen can score quickly. In 2003, Navy scored over 30% of their touchdowns in 5 plays or less, many as a result of long pass plays or long runs by the slotbacks. If these plays are eliminated, Navy will be forced to rely on sustaining drives with 5 and 6 yard running plays. The more field they have to cover, the harder it is for them to score. Of course this is true when facing any offense, but it holds extra weight when facing a ground attack like Navy's.
Offensive Line Play – Duke's revamped offensive line must control the line of scrimmage against the Navy front. The Middies are undersized, but they always bring intensity and effort to the field every week. The Devils must use their superior size and ability to wear the defensive line down during the game. Controlling the line will wear the starters out and force Navy to play more reserves, which will heavily favor Duke.
Despite Navy's fine record last year and their returning roster, this is a game Duke should win. After a complete off-season with the new staff, the Duke players should be finely tuned for this contest. Of course, if Duke doesn't execute, Navy can wipe the field with them. The game is going to come down to, which offensive line can block the opposing defensive line. Duke's inexperienced OL has talent, but it is largely unproven.
On the other side, preseason practice reports indicate that the Navy OL is really struggling. Unfortunately for the Middies, the Duke defense is more athletic than in the past, and will probably end up being the best defense residing in Durham since 1994. The Duke line is big and strong enough to occupy the blockers and let the linebackers flow to the ball.
Navy will be able to run the ball against Duke, but Duke will be successful at making them work for scores by limiting big gains. The Duke offense will start slowly, but as the game goes on, one of the new offensive skill players will make a big play for the Devils. My money is on QB/RB/WR Curt Dukes. The Devils will start the 2003 season in grand fashion with an upset on the road.
Predicted Final Score:
Duke – 27, Navy - 24