Facing 1-5 Vanderbilt, Navy still has guard up

Mids seeking road victory after upset of Air Force

College Football

October 11, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Navy coach Paul Johnson wanted to get something straight about Navy's next challenge. Just because they are coming off a huge upset over Air Force, have a winning record and are traveling to face a Vanderbilt team headed for another bad season are not legitimate reasons to assume today will end nicely for the Midshipmen.

On the contrary, Navy should expect to receive all it can handle and then some at Dudley Field in Nashville.

Johnson waved off Vanderbilt's 1-5 record as irrelevant. He has a point. The Commodores play in the brutal Southeastern Conference. And Vanderbilt is not exactly embarrassing itself these days.

The Commodores lost to Mississippi by a field goal in the opener - the same Ole Miss team that just beat Florida. Vanderbilt also hung tough well into the fourth quarter at Mississippi State last week before falling, 30-21.

Vanderbilt also has moved the ball well enough to gain more first downs (121-108) than its opponents, has significant size and speed advantages, has a talented quarterback in sophomore Jay Cutler and is holding opponents to 3.8 yards per rush.

Navy (3-2), which has yet to win on the road and has an injury-depleted defense, is confronting a victory-starved bunch.

"Their record is deceiving. Their quarterback is a really good player. He might be the best one we've played against all year. They've lost a few games, but with their schedule, most anyone would," Johnson said.

"I'm sure they see this game as a game they should win. They follow our game with South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky. Who do you think they feel they have the best chance to beat? If you're trying to rebuild your program, you schedule Navy to win."

The Midshipmen, coming off perhaps their most inspired effort since they won the Aloha Bowl in 1996, said there would be no problems focusing, which Johnson said characterized their late-week preparation before a 21-point loss at Rutgers two weeks ago.

"[Vanderbilt] looks like a team that can do pretty much anything. Their offense can adjust to whatever you're doing on defense," Navy senior linebacker Eddie Carthan said. "They can stop the run, they can pass the ball real well, they can pound it on you."

The Commodores run a multiple offense. Some option, some power-I, lots of pro style. Cutler, ranked fifth in the SEC in passing yardage (214.2) and passing efficiency (128.5), has big-play targets in wide-outs Brandon Smith and Erik Davis, who have combined for six touchdowns and an average of 17.7 yards per catch.

Navy's defense is more resilient than dominant, and the Midshipmen, undersized on their best day, are without senior linebacker Ben Mathews and junior free safety Josh Smith, their leading tackler for two straight years. Freshman Kevin Newsome will replace Smith.

Offensively, the Midshipmen are doing what they do best with their spread option attack. They lead the nation in rushing (308.2 yards). Junior fullback Kyle Eckel is coming off a career-high, 176-yard game against Air Force.

Navy's offensive line, depleted by the season-ending foot injury to center August Roitsch, could be forced to drop back more than occasionally to protect quarterback Craig Candeto.

"[Vanderbilt] has strength up front and quickness at linebacker and in the secondary. They play in one of the toughest conferences in the nation," Candeto said.

"This is one of our biggest games because we're coming off a big win. We had a great game last week, but this week we're not playing a slouch. I think it's a defining point for us."

Today's game

Navy (3-2) at Vanderbilt (1-5)

Site: Dudley Field, Nashville, Tenn.

Time: 2 p.m.

Radio: WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Line: Vanderbilt by 5 1/2

Series: Vanderbilt leads 2-1-2

Last week: Navy defeated Air Force, 28-25. Vanderbilt lost at Mississippi State, 30-21.

Navy offense vs. Vanderbilt defense: The Midshipmen continue to excel at running the ball out of their spread option. Junior FB Kyle Eckel rushed for a career-high 176 yards last week, but slot backs Eric Roberts and Tony Lanes must play big roles today, and QB Craig Candeto has to throw successfully to give the Midshipmen a chance. Navy is ranked 115th in passing. Led by linebackers Moses Osemwegie and Otis Washington and safeties Andrew Pace and Kelechi Ohanaja, the Commodores are averaging nearly two sacks and six tackles for losses a game.

Navy defense vs. Vanderbilt offense: The Midshipmen are ranked 10th in pass defense and they will be hard-pressed to stop QB Jay Cutler, especially in the absence of veteran free safety Josh Smith. Tailbacks Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster are each averaging more than four yards a carry. Navy's 3-4 unit might be able to contain them, but doing the same to wide receivers Brandon Smith and Erik Davis could be another story.

Special teams: Navy will need punter John Skaggs (43.3 yards a punt) to be on top of his game to help maintain good field position, and the Midshipmen have yet to get their return games going. The Midshipmen also have had two of six field-goal attempts blocked. Vanderbilt hasn't been much better at scoring points, although punt returner Ronald Hatcher (9.7 yard average) has come close to breaking a few.

- Gary Lambrecht

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