HOUSTON - A successful and gratifying season in which Navy football regained its self-respect reaches its climax today when the Midshipmen tackle what is probably their toughest assignment so far against Texas Tech in the Houston Bowl.
Victory in the 4:30 p.m. matchup on ESPN would apply an exclamation point to a resurgence led by coach Paul Johnson that has happened in rapid order after three seasons in which the team won only three of 33 games and underwent the worst two-year stretch (1-20) in the program's 122-year history.
It is the first postseason appearance since 1996 for the 8-4 Midshipmen, but the fourth straight for Texas Tech, which humbled Clemson, 55-15, in last year's Tangerine Bowl.
Texas Tech, 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the powerful Big 12 Conference, is rated nearly a two-touchdown favorite in its second trip to this game. The Red Raiders lost to East Carolina, 40-27, at the inaugural game - then known as the Galleryfurniture Bowl - in 2000 at the Astrodome. This is the second Houston Bowl at Reliant Stadium, home to the 2004 Super Bowl.
"We're excited to play a team the caliber of Texas Tech," said Johnson. "A lot of people are not giving us a chance, but we took a vote and decided to play the game. We respect them, but we don't fear them."
"On the whole, they've played more talented teams and a tougher schedule," added Navy quarterback and co-captain Craig Candeto. "This is a chance to see where we stand on a national level."
The Red Raiders have been exuding confidence since the pairing was announced more than four weeks ago despite finishing the regular season with losses to Big 12 titans Texas, then ranked No. 6, and Oklahoma, at the time No. 1 in the country.
Initially, the reaction from Texas Tech receiver Carlos Francis was, "We plan on killing them. To win quickly will be nice."
Yesterday, that posture hadn't seemed to change. At the game's kickoff luncheon downtown, record-breaking quarterback B.J. Symons began his remarks with: "We're not here just to win, but to hopefully win big."
Such bravado is probably justified based on Tech's steamrolling passing game triggered by Symons, a hometown product from Cypress Creek High who served as an understudy to All-American Kliff Kingsbury until this season. Symons' quick release, accuracy and corps of solid receivers have enabled him to break the NCAA single-season passing record with 5,336 yards and 48 touchdowns and make the Red Raiders the No. 1 passing team in America.
But what makes this contest so intriguing is that the Midshipmen counter with the best rushing attack among all Division I schools (326.1 yards per game), thanks to Johnson's highly effective triple-option scheme.
"I'd hate to be the defensive coordinator on either side," said David Ippoliti, the executive director of the Houston Bowl and former head coach at Northern Illinois and commissioner of the Mid-American Conference.
The exorbitant numbers suggest a high-scoring game dominated by the offenses, but Johnson said it isn't inevitable because the numbers are skewed.
"That's not necessarily the way the game is going to go," he said. "Sometimes, you tend to slight the defenses, which are pretty good on both teams. The numbers tend to get skewed because of the number of possessions."
Symons said he doesn't have "anything to prove" despite his worst performance of the season in the finale, a five-interception loss to Oklahoma, 56-25.
"You don't want to leave on a sour note like that, but it's not necessarily a chance to redeem myself. This is another chance to play and end on a good note."
Navy finished the season strongly with routs of Central Michigan and Army following another potentially demoralizing defeat to Notre Dame.
And the Mids' offense can be a confusing problem for Texas Tech, which plays in a league that heavily accentuates the pass and has a relatively young defensive unit.
"I don't think we've seen an offense quite like this," said Red Raiders coach Mike Leach. "They hold you accountable if you don't stick with your assignment."
"It's hard to prepare for an offense like that if you haven't seen it much and you only have one week," said Texas Tech's Ryan Aycock, who leads the squad with 97 tackles and six interceptions.
Navy has the fourth-ranked pass defense nationally, but hasn't faced an attack as explosive as Texas Tech's. Navy co-captain and linebacker Eddie Carthan has accepted the challenge.
"To be intimidated by any offense is kind of silly," he said. "We didn't come here just to lay down and get beat."
NOTES: Navy Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Football Hall of Famer Roger Staubach delivered the keynote address at the luncheon, stressing the balance between taking care of one's needs and the needs of the team. ... Wayne Graham, coach of Rice's 2003 NCAA baseball champions, was given a bowl achievement award. ... The Houston Texans of the NFL sold some 5,000 bowl tickets. A total crowd of more than 50,000 is expected with nearly 20,000 of them Navy supporters.
Matchup: Navy (8-4) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)
Site: Reliant Stadium, Houston
When: Today, 4:30 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)
Line: Texas Tech by 12 1/2
Inside: A complete preview of today's game. [Page 6c]