Those Hens Just Keep Pecking Away

It's one of those great coincidences in life: Play Notre Dame one week, Delaware the next. Navy football just notched its eighth win in another very successful season, but not without a fight from some feisty Blue Hens. Salutes are in order for both teams, not just one, after a fascinating four quarters at Navy Memorial Stadium.

Perhaps you think that Navy really underachieved in this game, leading by a scant two points heading into the fourth quarter before turning back an FCS opponent in Annapolis. Perhaps Notre Dame – the victim of the Men of Ken on Nov. 7 – is even worse than previously imagined. Perhaps Saturday's uneven contest suggests that Navy might wobble against Army, and get blown back in the Texas Bowl against a yet-to-be-named ballclub.

Those are reasonable and understandable leanings, but a big-picture analysis suggests that this 35-18 win (which was really a 28-18 victory, dressed up with a last-minute tack-on touchdown) was more an indication of Delaware's Navy-like bona fides.

Go back to the beginning of Navy's upward climb in college football, and you'll recall that the Delaware Blue Hens figure prominently in the narrative of how the Midshipmen became an annual winner in the sport. The year was 2003, and Paul Johnson was just beginning to instill a new mindset into his program. That year's Navy team stood at 5-2 heading into an Oct. 25 home date against Delaware. Visions of a 10-2 season danced through the heads of the Johnson Boys, who evidently reveled in their newfound status… which didn't last very long.

Delaware punched Navy in the mouth that day, earning a 21-17 win that forced the Midshipmen to stop reading adulatory press clippings and focus on their weekly quest for self-improvement and overall excellence. Over the remainder of the 2003 season, Navy never again pulled a porker on the gridiron: The Midshipmen played Notre Dame close (losing 27-24) and walloped three other foes to finish the regular season with an 8-4 mark. Delaware – yes, Delaware – provided the much-needed splash of cold water Navy needed in order to develop a winning subculture in the locker room and on the practice field.

Fast forward to 2007. The Midshipmen, with a boatload of offensive talent, were looking ahead to their game at Notre Dame against a vulnerable bunch of Fighting Irish. But on the road to South Bend, a funny thing happened: A Delaware team that would eventually reach the FCS Championship Game knocked Paul Johnson's pupils off their high horse in Annapolis, by a score of 59-52.

Who was the author of the Blue Hens' thermonuclear explosion on October 27, 2007? He still plays football in the state of Maryland. You might have heard of him: Joe Flacco. Yes, that Joe Flacco. The Baltimore Ravens' starting signal caller went 30-of-41 for 434 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions against Buddy Green's defense. Suddenly, Navy's season stood at 4-4 heading into the home stretch.

Once again sobered by Delaware, Navy rebounded to win at Notre Dame the following week. Renewed by the learning experience the Blue Hens provided, Navy found its focus and rolled through the remainder of its schedule, en route to yet another 8-4 record. Delaware has been a tough opponent for the Midshipmen, as you can plainly see, but the quality of competition offered by this FCS school has been quite beneficial for Navy. Whenever the Johnson Boys, or now the Men of Ken, have risked becoming too big for their britches, the Blue Hens have slapped them into sobriety.

With the past as prelude, one should come back to the present moment and realize that this past Saturday's slugfest witnessed a good, dogged, determined opponent playing above its pay grade… just as Navy did this year against Ohio State and Notre Dame.

Who is Pat Devlin, the Delaware quarterback who kept the ball away from Ricky Dobbs, Navy's all-time single-season rushing touchdown leader? Devlin, for college football aficionados, was the man who filled in for Daryll Clark at Penn State last season, leading the Nittany Lions to a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of a victory at Ohio State. Devlin lacks Clark's overall athleticism, but the lad delivered the goods when Joe Paterno called his name in a high-stakes game. In so doing, Devlin brought a Big Ten title to Happy Valley.

After transferring to Delaware, Devlin's been able to get the reps and experience he needs in order to improve, and on Saturday, Navy's "Buddy System" defense learned how good Devlin can be. An efficient and smart 17-of-26 performance, without an interception, affirmed Devlin's development as a quarterback. Moreover, it enabled the Blue Hens to play keep-away and prevent Dobbs from scoring more than the five touchdowns he accumulated in this contest.

Navy – which deserves a heaping helping of praise after surviving an opponent's best shot - didn't litter the Memorial Stadium field with mistakes. Delaware simply came into town and engaged the Midshipmen on even terms for the first three quarters. In 2003 and perhaps 2007, Navy could have been found guilty of overconfidence, but in this game, the closeness of the competition was primarily due to the good things Delaware did in the first 45 minutes of action. It's a great credit to the Men of Ken that they were able to absorb a lot of body blows and still stand strong in the red zone on defense. The Blue Hens, for all the things they did well under Devlin's guidance, couldn't crack the end zone until the 6:29 mark of the fourth quarter. When the Buddy System turned aside Delaware's two-point try to preserve a two-possession lead, the outcome of this encounter became easier to predict.

That said, it's also a testament to Delaware that Navy couldn't begin to breathe calmly until this game's fifty-fourth minute.

Credit Navy for winning a hard-fought game and being patient enough to prevail with superior defense and potent offense in a 21-point fourth quarter. Just don't forget to tip the cap to the Blue Hens, who have once again reminded Midshipmen fans that they're always a worthy adversary.

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