Duke Review: The Blue Devils' Workshop

It's very, very rare to say this, but for the first time in quite a while, it is justifiable to be disappointed with a Navy football team. A band of gridiron brothers needs to look in the mirror after a disastrous dud of a defeat at the hands of the Duke Blue Devils.

The saying goes that an idle mind is the devil's workshop. For the Midshipmen who strap on the pads for the United States Naval Academy, you can amend that statement after Saturday's ugly 34-31 loss to Duke at Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. A collection of idle minds constitutes the Blue Devils' workshop. Or, if you have a different phrasing in mind, you could try "Pride goeth before a fall." At any rate – for the only time in the Ken Niumatalolo era – a Navy team has inspired a certain degree of disbelief from a fan base that's become so accustomed not only to success, but to maximum effort on a weekly basis.

Indeed, it's not so much the loss that must gnaw at a Navy fan on this stomach-punched occasion. Navy flatly didn't deserve to win this game after getting smoked to the tune of 24-0 in the first half and 31-7 through three quarters. The problem is that one week after maxing out against Notre Dame in a crisp and conviction-rich performance that appeared to have the program back on track, this team just as quickly rested on its laurels. It rolled the proverbial ball out onto the field, just expecting to win without putting in the hard yards. Navy took Duke for granted instead of rolling up its sleeves and getting to work. The 24-point fourth-quarter explosion that almost stole this game only underscored the extent to which Navy was physically and (more importantly) mentally absent for the first three quarters. Niumatalolo himself didn't duck the issue after the game. He said his team was "in a daze at the start," a searing indictment of a team that should not have to be told how to carry itself on the gridiron. Niumatalolo surely deserves some criticism as the man in charge, but Navy's head coach has done a more than adequate job of getting his team motivated to play over the years. At some point, the players – and there are plenty of upperclassmen in that locker room – should be able to set the right tone and establish the right example. The fact that such leadership was lacking over the past week is distressing beyond anything related to football.

It's one thing for UCLA and Clemson to lose games because they don't show up week to week. It's quite another thing when any service-academy football team loses for reasons unconnected to the Xs and Os. Academy teams will lose games because of a size or heft differential in the trenches, and they'll lose games because they lack the quality depth of blue-chip, brand-name programs, but a service academy should never ever lose a game because of laziness, disinterest, and a generally casual approach to the endeavor. The loss to Duke isn't the problem; it's the reason why the loss occurred that should rightly rankle a Navy fan.

When the Midshipmen rolled over, around, under and through Notre Dame in a nationally-televised game, you could see the peak focus, the razor-sharp execution, and the intense concentration written on the faces of every single member of the Men of Ken. For the first time all year, Navy found the perfect combination of hunger and precision, of passion and polish, that had eluded this team over the first half of the 2010 campaign. This ballclub worked hard and prepared hard in the week leading up to the knockout of Notre Dame. The reward for that intensive labor should have reaffirmed a strong work ethic in the minds and hearts of every Midshipmen player. Plainly put, that work ethic was nowhere to be found against Duke, a team that lost handily at home to Army and a team whose quarterback – Sean Renfree – entered Saturday's play with 10 touchdown passes and 15 interceptions, only to hit 28-of-30 passes against the Mids' sleepwalking defense.

Give credit to Duke for showing up and putting in the effort it needed to turn around a sinking season. The Blue Devils, who were 1-6 when the game began, didn't quit despite having ample reason to do so. Coach David Cutcliffe's club has sorely disappointed its own fan base in 2010, but not because of a lack of care; Renfree suffered through three games in which he threw at least three interceptions, a product of his inability to read defenses more than anything else. Duke's problem has not been effort level, and on a day when Renfree figured things out as a decision maker, the Blue Devils' outlook changed considerably. Tip the cap to the team that dusted off Navy, precisely because Duke treated this game with respect.

As for the lazy Men of Ken? They didn't bother to show up until the fourth quarter.

As you can surely see, it's not the scoreboard result which really matters – not in the larger scheme of things. What was and is (and will continue to be) unsettling about this game is that Navy displayed a casual attitude and did not work hard. Losses can and should always be forgiven; they don't mean much in a bigger and more profound context, especially at a school where leaders are being trained to serve the United States of America for decades and generations to come. What matters, of course, is the lack of leadership and commitment in that Navy locker room. Losing games is fine, but laziness is never acceptable in Annapolis, just as it's never acceptable in West Point or Colorado Springs.

Navy's football players need to look in the mirror. They need to be permanently, and not just temporarily, disgusted by the way they failed to respect the sport of football – and the admirable Duke Blue Devils – on a stomach-churning Saturday in the state of Maryland. The losses to Maryland and Air Force this season were the products of untimely mistakes wrapped inside legitimately vigorous efforts that simply came up short. This loss to Duke was something else altogether; it was reminiscent of the 2003 Navy team's home-field loss to Delaware, and it's a loss that must never happen again under the reign of Ken Niumatalolo.

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