Renfree's first incompletion came with one minute left in the first half. The pass actually hit leading receiver Conner Vernon, a sophomore, in the hands but bounced away for the Blue Devils (2-6).
Undaunted, Renfree completed a 14-yard pass to junior Cooper Helfet on the next play, then scrambled for a 19-yard touchdown that gave Duke a 24-0 halftime lead.
The Midshipmen (5-3) had no such success in the first half. On their opening possession, Navy trailed 3-0 but moved to the Duke 24. On first and 10, Navy used its "heavy" formation -- with two tackles on the same side of the formation and a wide receiver (usually junior Doug Furman) lined up on the other side as a tackle.
Navy used the formation to great effect in its 35-17 victory over Notre Dame on Oct. 23. When Navy lined up in "heavy" on Saturday, the Duke assistants in the coach's box screamed that the defense was not lined up correctly.
It didn't matter. Dobbs collided with fullback Alexander Teich and fumbled. Duke senior Wesley Oglesby recovered.
Dobbs fumbled two more times in the half. And though Navy recovered both, the sloppy play was encapsulated by Dobbs and Teich working on the "mesh" -- the moment when the quarterback and fullback meet on an option play -- on the sideline just before halftime.
The early fumble "definitely deflated us," Dobbs said. "It was a poor read, I pulled it but I was moving as I pulled it and it got caught up on Alexander's hip."
Navy made some offensive adjustments at halftime. Most pointedly, it began to send two players -- usually junior center Brady DeMell and one of the guards -- to block sophomore nose guard Charlie Hitcher, who, at 6-3, 300 pounds, had been a major disruptive force in the first half.
The move gave Navy's offense a little breathing room. But the defense did not catch up to Renfree, so even when the teams began trading scores, Navy's main problem became a lack of time with which to pull off a comeback.
Yet it nearly happened. Navy closed to 31-15 following a 7-yard touchdown pass from Dobbs to senior Greg Jones and 34-23 following a one-yard scoring run by sophomore Gee Gee Greene.
It became 34-31 following a 12-yard touchdown pass from Dobbs to junior Aaron Santiago with 2 minutes 34 seconds to play. Following a Duke punt, the Midshipmen took over at their 20 with 57 seconds to play.
They had the wind -- measured at game time at 13 mph -- at their backs. They drove near midfield when the game was decided.
In particular, Navy's fate was sealed on a third-and-two from its 44 with around 35 seconds to play. To that point, Navy senior Greg Jones had caught nine passes for 136 yards; he is the first Navy player to eclipse 125 yards receiving in eight years.
But Navy's substitutions before the third down included taking Jones out. He had a good view on the sideline of the option run that followed. Dobbs pitched to junior Andre Byrd on the short side of the field.
But junior safety Matt Daniels read the play and executed perfect form to tackle Byrd for a one-yard loss.
Moreover, Daniels kept Byrd inbounds. By the time Jones raced back into the game and a clearly frazzled Navy team snapped the ball, 18 seconds were left and a desperation pass had to follow.
Dobbs's fourth-down pass intended for junior fullback Alexander Teich fell incomplete around the Duke 35 with six seconds to play.
"We had a chance there at the end," Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "We had the wind ... [On third down] we were trying to get a yard but anytime [Daniels] hit us, we went straight down."
If the option play and subsequent incomplete pass sealed Navy's fate, the slow start clearly impeded its chances of a homecoming win.
The loss overshadowed a remarkable game by Jones -- he finished with 9 catches for 134 yards and is the first Navy player to eclipse 125 yards receiving since 2002. Dobbs finished 13 of 27 for 227 yards.
And senior linebacker Tyler Simmons finished with 17 tackles.
Navy's loss ultimately came down to two problems. One, it put little pressure on Renfree (Navy blitzed only a handful of times) and his receivers. Two, it did not force any turnovers even though Duke entered having thrown 16 interceptions and had fumbled 12 times, with five lost.
Middle linebacker Kelby Brown, a freshman, finished with 12 tackles and senior linebacker Abraham Kromah added 11.
"We have to come out and play, and clearly we didn't," Navy senior co-captain Wyatt Middleton said. "We didn't come to play. Duke did. They were trying to prove something, and they did."
Renfree threw downfield less than five times. Two were incomplete and two were completed just over the outstretched arms of Navy linebackers, who had dropped deep into the zone."
"They made some throws we knew they were going to do," Niumatalolo said. We didn't make the plays we normally do. We had missed assignments, eyes in the wrong place, checks on offense that I didn't know where they came from. We were in a daze at the start.
"We played horrible and battled back. But we didn't deserve to win."
Ricky Dobbs scores a 2-point conversion in the third quarter. (GM/Alison Althouse)