Navy sails into 2nd half buoyed by confidence

1st 3-game streak since '97 is within sight for Mids

College Football

October 18, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Navy spent the first half of its season proving it could win again. As they begin their stretch run today at Rice, the Midshipmen are intent on behaving like winners over the long haul.

At the midpoint of the 2003 season, second-year coach Paul Johnson is playing the youngest team in academy history. It has a solid grasp of his spread-option offense and runs the ball with consistency. It plays bend-but-don't-break defense, takes advantage of turnovers, has battled through numerous injuries and has taken advantage of a pared-down schedule.

Navy (4-2) has eclipsed its past three teams combined in victories and is off to its best start since 1996. The Midshipmen opened by winning their first home game in four years and last week won their first road game of the year by erasing a halftime deficit at Vanderbilt. Navy also beat Air Force for the first time since 1996 and is pursuing its first three-game winning streak since 1997.

The biggest challenges for the Midshipmen include dates at Notre Dame and with visiting Delaware and Tulane. They also include Navy's ability to screen out the talk and excitement surrounding its progress, starting with the possibility that the Midshipmen could secure their first bowl game invitation since they won the Aloha Bowl in 1996 by winning four more games.

"Everybody wants to project out the record at the end of the year. I'm worried about the record at the end of the week. The biggest thing is we've learned how to practice better, and you don't have to spend all your time harping on playing with effort and enthusiasm," said Johnson, who endured a 2-10 rookie year in Annapolis.

"The two things that have turned the thing around are the schedule and our attitude," he added. "There is a better understanding of what we're doing. The confidence level is way better than last year. It has to be. We've won."

And the Midshipmen are doing it their way.

Their offense, led by quarterback Craig Candeto and fullback Kyle Eckel, continues to set the tone by holding the ball with the nation's top ground game at 314 yards per game - despite injuries such as the loss of center August Roitsch for the season to a foot injury.

Despite being ranked 113th in the NCAA in passing, Navy is throwing the ball with enough success to keep opposing defenses honest. Witness Candeto's 160-yard, two-touchdown show at Vanderbilt.

The defense, while rarely overpowering, has forced 16 turnovers, has limited the big play and has made repeated stands in the red zone. The kicking game, led by punter John Skaggs and place-kickers Eric Rolfs and Geoff Blumenfeld, has been solid. Navy has avoided turnovers in the return game.

Even luck has entered into the picture. "We've seemed to get the breaks for the last two games," Candeto said. "I think that has a lot to do with our preparation. You can make your breaks, and I think we're doing that this year."

"It's a team that plays hard all of the time," said Rice coach Ken Hatfield, "and you have got to be ready to play four full quarters [against them]. If not, you'll be in for a rude awakening."

Rice (1-4) is coming off an open date, following its first victory. The Owls play Navy's game, as one of the handful of schools still running the option, and they rank sixth in the nation at 240 yards a game. For the second time this year, the Midshipmen are favored on the road.

Johnson just wants them to maintain their identity.

"We've been a team that runs the ball, eats the clock and we've stayed away from a lot of penalties and turnovers. Hopefully, [the players] understand how we won," Johnson said.

Today's game

Navy (4-2) at Rice (1-4)

Site: Rice Stadium, Houston

Time: 3 p.m.

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

Line: Navy by 3 1/2

Series: Rice leads 6-2

Last game: Navy beat Vanderbilt for its first road victory, 37-27. Rice was idle a week after winning its first game by beating San Jose State, 28-24.

Navy offense vs. Rice defense: The Midshipmen are playing with tremendous confidence behind quarterback Craig Candeto and fullback Kyle Eckel, who are the sparks to the nation's top rushing attack. Candeto also is coming off his best passing day of the year, and has steady big-play threats in slot backs Eric Roberts and Tony Lane. Rice, which held Navy to 10 points a year ago in Annapolis, is led by linebacker Jeff Vanover (44 tackles) and end John Spytak, who has six tackles for losses, including three sacks.

Navy defense vs. Rice offense: The Midshipmen have played through injuries to linebackers Eddie Carthan, Ben Mathews and Evan Beard and free safety Josh Smith and are forcing nearly three turnovers per game. Today, they will contend with an offense like themselves. Rice runs the option and leans heavily on quarterback Greg Henderson (team-high 386 rushing yards). The Mids would like to force him to the air. Henderson has thrown six interceptions in 62 attempts. His favorite target is Marcus Battle (13 catches, 249 yards, one touchdown).

Special teams: Navy punter John Skaggs (43.3-yard average) and kicker Eric Rolfs (three field goals last week) give the Midshipmen a steady kicking game, but they are still looking for more big plays in the return game. Rice punter Jared Scruggs is averaging 45 yards per punt, 10th in the country. Kicker Brandon Skeen has made only one of four field-goal attempts.

- Gary Lambrecht

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