Mids seek better ball control

Beset by fumbling woes, Lane, Roberts won't start today against Rice

October 12, 2002|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Navy coach Paul Johnson admits his team is probably one of the slowest in the country. Even so, he's taking his two fastest ball carriers out of the lineup today against Rice.

Frustrated by the inability of Eric Roberts and Tony Lane to hold on to the ball, Johnson has decided to start Brad Tepper and Sam Mathews at the Mids' slot back positions. Neither Tepper nor Mathews has tremendous speed, but Johnson hopes they'll be less likely to fumble, at least giving Navy (1-4) a chance to run its offense. He's also hoping to get the attention of Roberts and Lane, who have struggled.

"I think Tony and Eric have a lot of ability and they need to play, but they need to earn some playing time," Johnson said. "They need to hold on to the ball out there and show me that they are serious about doing it.

"We practice ball security every day for 10 minutes, and every day we scream and yell about it during practice. If you aren't taking it seriously, then you aren't paying attention. Especially after what's happened the last two or three weeks, I'd think that everybody would be taking it pretty serious."

Roberts has been Navy's biggest enigma. He's unquestionably talented, and he and quarterback Craig Candeto are Navy's biggest threats to score each time they touch the ball.

Lately, however, Roberts has combined big plays with bad ones. Against Air Force, he caught two first-quarter passes for 52 yards, but in the second quarter he dropped a pitch that was returned for a 52-yard touchdown by Falcons safety Wes Crawley.

Lane fumbled after a first-quarter catch, then fumbled again minutes later on a kickoff that Navy managed to recover.

"I'm not saying they're not going to play," Johnson said. "We are going to see if somebody can start and play. Somebody else deserves a chance. We'll see if sitting makes them think about holding on to it a little bit."

To be fair, Navy's problems on offense have masked bigger problems on defense. In four straight losses, Navy has given up 205 points and surrendered 2,042 yards of offense.

Things won't be much easier this week, with starting linebacker Andy Sinitiere (concussion) and defensive tackle John Brindel (neck) likely to miss the game with injuries.

"I don't think it's any secret that we have to play a little better [on defense] to have a chance to win," Johnson said. "At the same time, having said that, we have to play better everywhere if we want to win."

The Owls' 1-4 record might be deceiving. One of their losses came against Michigan State, and the Owls defeated defending Western Athletic Conference champion Louisiana Tech, 37-20, last week. Quarterback Kyle Herm ran for 102 yards and passed for 137 and a touchdown in the win.

The Owls have lost five straight road games, with their last win away from home coming last year against Navy, 21-13.

"Navy has a good, potent offense," Rice coach Ken Hatfield said. "They led Northwestern 38-35 at home. They've scored some points. In the first game against SMU, they totally dominated them on the road.

"Paul Johnson is an excellent coach. You don't win national championships the way he did at Georgia Southern without knowing what's going on. It'll be a tough battle for us."

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