Mids wary of I-AA Northeastern

Loss to Delaware in '03 still on team's mind as Navy looks for 2-0 start

College Football

September 11, 2004|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Beware of the Division I-AA trap.

That is the mission for the Navy football team today when a quality Northeastern foe comes to Annapolis for a 1:30 p.m. game that the Midshipmen hope does not bring a rerun of last season's brush with the Atlantic 10 Conference.

If there is any doubt that Navy faces a test, consider these two facts:

When Delaware came to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in 2003 for homecoming, turnovers cost the home team, which suffered a 21-17 loss that ranked with the heartbreaker at Notre Dame as Navy's most distressing losses of the fall.

Northeastern was the only school to defeat Delaware last season before the Blue Hens proceeded to the Division I-AA national championship.

"The talent level in the A-10 compares relatively favorably with the middle third of I-A," said Northeastern coach Rocky Hager, who is in his first season at the Boston school after six years as an assistant at Temple, where he witnessed plenty of elite players in the Big East Conference. "It's very good football, very even. A team in the lower echelon beat us."

Navy coach Paul Johnson is acutely aware of the skill in Division I-AA from his successful tenure at Georgia Southern, where he won two national titles and finished as the runner-up once over a five-year period.

As he cited Northeastern's 71-0 victory over Cheyney (Pa.) State in the opener last week, Johnson quipped: "I don't know if we could score 71 points against air."

Johnson said he is certain the Huskies will be excited to come to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium because "last week they played in front of 1,500 people and they have a tremendous record against I-A schools."

From experience, he said the I-AA coach sells "your guys on the fact this is your chance to show people you're a Division I player" and added that Northeastern has a number of players who could be on his Navy squad.

"They have a linebacker, number 51 [Liam Ezekial] who could play a lot of places."

So, Navy, which unwound its spread option offense with regularity against Duke in the second half after sputtering early, faces another stern challenge as it seeks its first 2-0 start since 1996.

So do the Huskies, who had 563 offensive yards and the second-biggest margin of victory in school history against Division II Cheyney.

"There are a couple of triple-option teams in the A-10," Hager said. "But it's not quite the same as facing I-A talent. We have to find a way to keep the fullback [Navy's Kyle Eckel] from getting started. If you don't do that, you're dead in the water. We've got to be assignment oriented and play with a great deal of discipline and hustle."

Northeastern, ranked 18th in the Division I-AA poll, has a well-rounded offense that includes Odenton native Anthony Riley, a junior running back who was a prep standout for a powerful DeMatha team.

"He shared time last year with two others and has been patient about being the No. 1 guy," said Hager. "He's very quick and explosive, but he only had six tries against Cheyney. There was no need to keep him in there. We were looking toward the long term."

And keep an eye on Ezekial, a senior who has drawn attention from the NFL.

Johnson said Navy "made a lot of mistakes" against Duke and he wants his team to increase the tempo. Quarterback Aaron Polanco made only one with a bad decision on a fumbled pitch attempt, but otherwise has a good debut as the starter.

Wide receiver Jason Tomlinson (91 yards receiving and one touchdown) was the coaches' offensive player of the game and 282-pound Babatunde Akingbemi (six tackles and a sack) the defensive choice.

Otherwise, Johnson sees a lot of room for improvement.

Navy learned from Delaware last season that underestimating a I-AA team is a big mistake.

"I honestly don't think we looked past the Delaware game," said Johnson. "But we came out and jumped on them 14-0 and we had won a couple of games and we thought we were pretty good. We couldn't handle it. Then they got some momentum and we couldn't get it stopped."

Today's game

Northeastern (1-0) at Navy (1-0)

Site: Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium

Time: 1:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: CN8/WJFK (1300 AM), WNAV (1430 AM)

Series: First meeting

Last week: Navy defeated Duke, 27-12; Northeastern defeated Cheyney State, 71-0.

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