Navy coach Charlie Weatherbie apparently was not blowing smoke when he rated San Diego State as second only to Notre Dame as a formidable opponent on the football schedule this season.
The Aztecs won their home opener on Friday, 45-31, but it was their big-play capability against the Midshipmen's secondary that caused Weatherbie the most concern in preparing for Rutgers in Annapolis on Saturday night.
First-time starter Kevin McKechnie, a fifth-year senior, burned the Mids for 371 yards on only 16 completions for an average of 23 yards a catch. McKechnie teamed with receiver Az-zahir Hakim for touchdown tosses of 40 and 47 yards and broke a 31-31, fourth-quarter tie with a 78-yard scoring pitch to Taj Johnson.
All told, the Aztecs averaged 8.9 yards on 51 offensive plays against what was considered an experienced Navy defense.
"We actually did a good job stopping the run," Weatherbie said. "They averaged less than 4 yards a carry. But we definitely have to do a better job with our pass defense. The secondary has to keep the receivers inside and in front of them."
Weatherbie did not fault the rush, which resulted in one sack.
"Most of those passes were thrown between 2.2 and 2.7 seconds," he said. "That's not enough time to get inside, even if you blitz. And we've played against speedy receivers before. It's really a matter of our our cornerbacks using better technique."
Senior Gerald Wilson, who played in every game last year as a backup to R.B. Green, and junior Enrico Hunter, who played in only two games as a defensive back in 1996, were the most consistent victims of the Aztecs' passing attack, although Wilson intercepted McKechnie's first pass attempt.
Ordinarily, senior Sean Andrews, an All-America pick two years ago, would have started at one of the corners, but he was restricted to a couple of series in the second half due to a groin pull.
"Right now, Sean is still questionable for Saturday," Weatherbie said. "We can't change our personnel. We just have to improve our technique."
Navy's secondary should not feel as much pressure Saturday. Rutgers has been outscored, 107-33, in losing its first two games to No. 22 Virginia Tech and No. 11 Texas.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Jones started both games, but was benched for his erratic play, completing only 16 of 39 passes. Backup Brendan Edmonds has a better completion mark (17-for-30), but has contributed four interceptions to the Scarlet Knights' 11 turnovers.
"It's the turnovers that have killed us," said Rutgers coach Terry Shea. "It cost us 21 points against Virginia Tech and 17 against Texas. Our defense was on the field for a long time in both games because we kept giving the ball away."
Shea, who once served as Bill Walsh's assistant at Stanford, favors Walsh's West Coast offense, which features a short passing game.
Against Texas, 11 different receivers caught passes. But Rutgers' top receiver, senior Reggie Funderburk, who had 109 receptions the past two years, is sidelined indefinitely with a broken hand.
Sophomore tailback Jacki Crooks has been the Knights' most reliable offensive weapon, rushing for 217 yards in the first two games.
Crooks gained 86 yards against the Mids early last season in a defensive struggle that Navy won, 10-6.
NOTES: A near-sellout crowd of 29,000 is expected Saturday. Navy is 3-4 in home openers in the 1990s. The Mids have averaged 35.8 points over the past 11 games. Senior safety Rashad Smith recovered two fumbles against San Diego State. He has come up with a turnover in seven of the past 13 games.
Pub Date: 9/10/97