Its offense staggered early but rolled impressively after that. Its defense pounced from the outset and never stopped punching. And when Navy had finished its 39-7 drubbing of Eastern Michigan yesterday before 27,627 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, the Midshipmen finally could smile about a streak.
For the first time since 1997, its last winning season, Navy is off to a 2-1 start. For the first time since 1997, the Midshipmen have won two straight at home. In the eyes of players such as senior quarterback Craig Candeto, who suffered through a 3-30 record in his previous three seasons, this is no mirage.
"The tone of the program has changed," said Candeto, who ran Navy's triple option with precision after a shaky first quarter. "In practice, the attitude has changed. I think guys want to win, and they know what it takes to win. We're going to get after it."
The Midshipmen went after hapless Eastern Michigan (1-3) early and often. Navy's defense, a laughingstock a year ago, continued its resurgence by forcing five of the Eagles' six turnovers, allowing just 32 rushing yards, and nearly pulling off its first shutout in nine seasons. The Eagles committed four turnovers alone in the first quarter, when they blew a chance to position themselves for an upset.
Navy's offense showed some bye-week rust in the first quarter, then warmed up and pounded Eastern Michigan en route to a 464-yard day in which it scored the game's first 39 points. The Midshipmen had 421 yards after the first quarter.
Eastern Michigan took away Navy's potent running game early but left too many passing lanes open down the middle. After Candeto made the Eagles pay through the air and pushed the Midshipmen to an 11-0 halftime lead, Navy went to the ground with bruising results and blew the game open by scoring touchdowns on their first four possessions of the second half.
Senior slotback Tony Lane finished with a game-high 83 rushing yards and one touchdown. Candeto rushed for 72 yards and one touchdown and passed for 92 yards and another score. Junior fullback Kyle Eckel and backup quarterback Aaron Polanco rushed for 56 yards apiece. Junior slotback Eric Roberts added 83 yards of total offense and made two superb catches for his 47 passing yards.
His one-handed grab completed a 15-yard touchdown play that accounted for Navy's opening score with 1:12 left in the first quarter. His twisting, off-balance, 32-yard sideline catch kept alive a 15-play, 75-yard drive in the second quarter that resulted in a 29-yard field goal by Geoff Blumenfeld, giving the Midshipmen a halftime lead of 11-0.
It was enough to satisfy second-year coach Paul Johnson - almost. He frowned on Navy's one turnover and 10 penalties at a cost of 89 yards. Two scores were nullified by infractions, although Johnson maintained that the officiating crew mistakenly flagged the Midshipmen for an illegal formation in one instance.
"You've got to be harder on yourself when you win," Johnson said. "We made a ton of mistakes today. Once we got settled down, we played well. You win because you play hard. I challenged them a little bit at halftime. I told them we're the ones who look tired, and that can't be. That was a good, complete game for our football team, especially in the second half."
Eastern Michigan lost any chance to take down the Midshipmen in the first half. Quarterback Chinedu Okoro threw four interceptions in the opening half, although two of them resulted from the failing hands of his receivers. Still, Okoro was under persistent pressure. Navy stayed in an effective zone coverage despite applying a four-man rush.
The Midshipmen have shut out three straight opponents in the first half for the first time since 1955.
"We're causing turnovers. We're not waiting for them to happen. We're going out of our way to make them happen," said Navy linebacker Lane Jackson, who recorded his first career interception on Eastern Michigan's opening drive.
The Eagles wasted their best opportunity to take an early lead on their next possession, in which they drove 55 yards to the Navy 5, only to commit a holding penalty. On the next play, Okoro was run out of the pocket by linebacker Jeremy Chase - who lines up at tackle in passing situations - before getting picked off by safety Josh Smith.
Eastern Michigan then fumbled away a punt return, and on its next drive, committed its fourth miscue of the first quarter. Okoro's pass caromed off of tight end Jacob Topp and into the hands of Midshipmen cornerback Eli Sanders at the Navy 13.
"Five turnovers in the first half hurt," Eastern Michigan coach Jeff Woodruff said. "You can't beat anybody, you can't beat a high school team with giving up five turnovers. Mathematically, you are out of the game with that."
E. Michigan 0 0 0 7 - 7
Navy 8 3 14 14 - 39