Houston Bowl salutes 7-4 Navy

Excited Mids to play in first bowl since 1996, but focus first on Army

November 29, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

The resurgent Naval Academy football team has accepted an invitation to play in the EVI.net Houston Bowl on Dec. 30.

Athletic director Chet Gladchuk made the official announcement yesterday after informing the players Thursday at their Thanksgiving Day meal.

"Everybody's real excited and upbeat," Gladchuk said. "Obviously, we're very focused on playing Army, but there's a little swagger in them now."

The game at Reliant Stadium in Houston will pit Navy against an opponent from the Big 12 Conference that won't be determined until all regular-season games and that league's championship game are completed.

Gladchuk said the possibilities include Nebraska, Texas Tech, Kansas State and Missouri.

Navy hasn't appeared in a bowl since 1996, when its fourth-quarter rally overcame California, 42-38, in the Aloha Bowl in Honolulu. Overall, it will be the academy's 10th postseason game (4-4-1 record).

This is the fourth year for a bowl game previously known as the galleryfurniture.com bowl and simply the Houston Bowl. The game is at the site of the 2004 Super Bowl, which serves as the home of the NFL's Houston Texans.

"This is exciting news for our football program. I couldn't be happier for our players and coaching staff in getting this opportunity," said coach Paul Johnson, who signed a contract extension through 2009 earlier this week.

"These young men have earned this through their dedication in the weight room and on the practice field starting last winter and their unwavering faith that we would turn this program around."

Navy is 7-4, a record that includes a memorable victory over Air Force that has set up the possibility of bringing the Commander in Chief's Trophy to Annapolis for the first time since 1981. The trophy is presented annually to the winner of football competition among the three major service academies and is named in honor of the president of the United States.

The team's appeal to bowls was enhanced by a rushing average of 323 yards per game that leads the nation. Johnson's potent triple-option attack, directed by quarterback Craig Candeto, has shattered seven school records.

Candeto said the players were preparing for the worst news (no bid), but received the best.

"We were concerned because there were some pretty good teams out there," Candeto said. "We knew we had a good shot, but we didn't know about a few of our losses. Then, rumors circulated that we were going."

Gladchuk asked the team if they wanted to go. Candeto called that "a no-brainer for us. We're happy to be there. I know we're going to play a pretty tough team, but it really doesn't matter who."

David Ippoliti, executive director of the Houston Bowl, said, "We are pleased and excited to have one of our national military academies accept a bid" and cited the powerful rushing game, Johnson's candidacy for national Coach of the Year honors and the probability of winning the Commander in Chief's Trophy as factors.

Gladchuk's former presence in the area as the AD at the University of Houston also played a part. "I've got a lot of friendships there," he said. "But the team earned this."

It didn't hurt either that there is a distinct naval presence nearby or that Navy was well-supported by fans when it made a previous trip to Houston this season to rout Rice, 38-6.

Navy has undergone a remarkable turnaround under Johnson, who returned to the academy for his second stint after the 2001 season. He was previously the offensive coordinator on coach Charlie Weatherbie's staff.

Johnson took over a team that had been 1-20 the previous two seasons, the worst two-year stretch in Navy history. His first team was 2-10, but closed the season strongly, routing Army, 58-12, in the finale.

With a renewed commitment from the holdovers and a notable influx of plebes, the Midshipmen are in a position for their highest victory total since 1996, when the bowl win gave them a 9-3 record.

Candeto said the players enjoyed the moment Thursday, then were struck by the realization that their biggest game of the year comes before the bowl.

"It's something we have to put in the back of our minds until the Army game is over," he said.

Navy postseason

Event: Houston Bowl

Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston

Opponent: Big 12 team TBA

When: Dec. 30, 4:30 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Last bowl result: 1996 Aloha Bowl; Navy beat Cal, 42-38

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